Dancing across the grass, leaping from flame to flame, pausing momentarily before bounding onward… These visuals do not describe the way most firefighting machines operate. The 1967 Ford Bronco pictured here, however, is not your standard piece of fire apparatus.
The first owner, Pataskala Volunteer Fire Co., bought the sport utility from Dave Smith Ford in Pataskala, Ohio, for $2,604.55 on June 6, 1967. The Bronco—also labeled a pickup model and one of 2,602 built that year—was converted to travel off road and battle grass fires. Working in that capacity is how it first came to the attention of the current owner, Jack Selvey of Alexandria, Ohio.
At the time Selvey was a firefighter himself, attached to the neighboring Mifflin Township Volunteer Fire Dept. in Franklin County. Whenever both departments answered mutual aid calls to a large grass fire, the little Bronco’s agility never failed to impress Selvey.
“We had commercially built grass fire units, and typically we would bury the truck in the field,” Selvey said. “While the driver was trying to get ‘unbogged,’ we would go out with brooms and Indian tanks” to fight the fire on foot.
“When Pataskala arrived with the Bronco, it would pass us by. Lightweight and maneuverable, the truck rarely got stuck. It bailed us out a bunch of times.
“Because of the way it could respond to fires in the field—here one minute and there the next—it was affectionately nicknamed and referred to as the ‘grasshopper.’”
In fact, in the late 1960s or early 1970s, the Pataskala Fire Co. asked Paul Grady, a friend of Selvey and a Mifflin Fire Dept. firefighter, to paint a grasshopper on each side of the cab. Sporting boots, a coat, and a fire hat and holding a hose spewing a stream of water, the grasshopper in the emblem reflected the fondness the firefighters had for their vehicle.
When the volunteer Pataskala Fire Co. consolidated into the West Licking Joint Fire District on Jan. 6, 1982, the Bronco officially changed hands. The grass fire unit registered 13,295 miles on the odometer at that time. On June 8, 2002, the Bronco retired and left public service with a total of 33,370 miles traveled. A private collector bought it at public auction, and the owner restored and repainted the Bronco in 2004.
Selvey eventually managed to broker a deal for the truck he had long admired and wanted for his personal collection. The Bronco came home with him on Oct. 29, 2014, with 35,137 miles in its history.
Make It Shine
The title for the half-ton, 4-wheel-drive Bronco carries a U142N model number, which translates into a sports utility (U14) with a 289ci V-8 engine (N). Body design elements include a bolted-on, but removable, cab roof made of steel, a windshield that folds down when the roof is off, and all flat glass.
Pataskala Fire Co. equipped the Bronco with grass-fire brooms, axes, shovels, extra fuel, a custom-made water tank, two garden hoses with forestry nozzles, miscellaneous fire extinguishers, and Indian (backpack) tanks. By the time Selvey took ownership, the Bronco had been stripped of all firefighting equipment. He replaced the fire brooms, axes, and Indian tanks, which are strapped to the Bronco’s bed, just as they were from 1967 to 2002, when the Bronco hopped around Licking and surrounding county fields, turning raging grass fires into blackened patches of vegetation.
Not completely worn out and not falling apart, this Bronco was one of Selvey’s first pieces that did not require work beyond some minor mechanical repair.
One feature of the original firefighting regalia remains in storage with Selvey. During the Bronco’s working years, its 100-gallon tank not only provided water for the Indian tanks, but also allowed the operators to directly spray the flames. Equipped with a portable pump and two short garden hoses, the water tank transformed the Bronco into a mobile extinguishing unit. “You could put a couple guys on the back and drive around the perimeter” to douse the ground fire, said Selvey. As usual, the advantage of the truck’s lightweight construction allowed it to go where heavy commercial vehicles often could not.
Currently, the portable pump is missing, but Selvey hopes someday to replace it and re-install the complete tank system in the truck’s bed.
The 2004 restoration and new paint had eradicated the hand-painted grasshoppers from the cab sides, and Selvey definitely wanted to recreate them on his Bronco. Unfortunately, only one extremely fuzzy picture showed the original artwork. Relying primarily on Selvey’s recollections, his sister LinDee Wilson, who is an artist, recently reinstated the grasshopper images to their rightful place on the Bronco.
“A Neat Piece”
“I bought the Bronco because of the history it had and because it’s a neat piece,” said Selvey. “The thing that has totally blown me away is the reaction I get at car shows. Everybody ‘oohs’ and ‘aahs’ because it’s a ’67 Bronco.”
His research indicates that Ford made this particular model style for only two years, which makes it an interesting vehicle regardless of the firefighting application.
Actually, Selvey has many reasons for adding the Bronco to his collection. Familiarity with the vehicle from its earliest days of firefighting and its rarity increase its value to him. He also hopes that the Bronco’s small size and easy operation will make his wife Karen and their children more comfortable driving it in parades. From the cab forward, the vehicle is a full-size pickup truck; the rear has a short bed that sits on a diminutive 92-inch wheelbase, which makes turning a breeze.
According to Selvey, the family’s initial reaction was: “Oh, it’s cute, it ought to be a Tonka toy.” He’s “OK” with their reaction, he said, even though the Bronco was a serious firefighting machine in its day. Any and all interest that they have in his collection is welcome.
At a recent auto show, several on-duty West Licking firefighters from the Bronco’s old unit were momentarily reunited with the Grasshopper. Although they seemed happy to see their former grass fire truck and were glad to find it in good shape again, Selvey realized that they were in one sense disappointed. “We never should have let it go,” was how one man voiced the sentiment that they all were thinking.
“I reassured them that I was giving it a good, new home,” Selvey said.
A Place In History
Selvey’s initiation into firefighting began through the medical component of the service 36 years ago. Drawn to the idea of helping people in his community in times of need, he volunteered to administer first aid at Ohio’s Franklin County, Mifflin Township Volunteer Fire Dept. in Gahanna. First aid evolved into EMT training, and eventually the department required all of its personnel to learn how to fight fires. So Selvey took that training and ultimately became a career firefighter.
Time did nothing to dampen his enthusiasm for the field, and long before he retired, he became “deeply involved in the history of fire service.” Of particular interest to him is how the techniques and equipment connected with and the attitudes about firefighting changed throughout the years. Combining those observations with the accumulation of incredible stories that emerge from helping people in times of extreme need creates a rich history, according to Selvey.
Along the way he began collecting examples of the historical changes in firefighting. Soon his collection spilled “beyond a wall in the den,” he said. Ranging from the smallest of memorabilia—playing cards, hats, fire buckets—to several larger fire apparatus, he describes his extensive inventory as a “poor boy’s” collection, even though he owns some very desirable items, such as a four-wheel, hand-drawn, hose carriage and an 1892 horse-drawn, steam fire engine. Without the “deep pockets that some collector’s have,” Selvey said he sometimes must forgo a 100-percent-correct restoration to return an interesting part of history to the public eye.
Subscribing to the popular belief that “we are only the caretakers” of historical items that will eventually pass on to others, Selvey said he tries to keep the elements of his collection “close to looking original.”
For instance, his 1892 steam engine had been cannibalized and left to rust in a field when he discovered it. Now it’s in great shape.
“Some pieces are basket cases. I can’t do everything myself and don’t have an unlimited amount of money, but I know the right people with the right skills. I gave the fire engine a good home and restored it the best that I can.”
Sharing The Wealth
“I love sharing what I’ve learned about the proud history of firefighting,” Selvey said. “Beyond my dedication to my family, sharing with others is a great part of my life. If I didn’t do that, I’d just keep [the collection] in the barn, but I need more of a purpose than just my self-satisfaction.”
For that reason, he frequently attends fire musters, fire prevention activities, and parades, and he loans pieces to various fire departments for station dedications and anniversaries.
A 1924 American LaFrance fire engine has been his “go-to” vehicle for parades, proms, weddings, and ice cream runs for the past nine years. Whenever he parks the fire engine loaded with people outside an ice cream parlor for refreshments, it’s sure to be a fun time.
The Bronco Grasshopper may soon become the favorite runabout instead of the American LaFrance, which has no enclosed cab, no windshield, and no turn signals.
“When I drive the 1924 in cool weather, I’m frozen when I get somewhere,” Selvey said. “And I have to tell my passengers to keep their mouths shut or they’ll end up with a mouthful of bugs.” With the Bronco, Selvey is “spoiled with turn signals, a heater, and windows that go up and down.”
The Bronco grass fire truck will attend several events in 2016. Anyone wanting to inspect it in person will find it displayed at the local chapter of the Central Ohio Antique Fire Apparatus Assoc. June Muster held in connection with the State Fire Marshal, the fourth weekend of June in Columbus, Ohio.