By Candace Brown, Photos by Jack Harrison
History matters in Kings Mountain, North Carolina, and for good reason. In 1896, its founders named their new town after a famous American Revolution battle site nearby, just across the state line, in South Carolina. This small city of 10,000 residents even chose “The Historical City” for a motto.
Respect for local history naturally includes that of the Kings Mountain Fire Dept., officially established May 21, 1931. For all the decades since, the list of fire chiefs is only five names long, and it includes the man currently in charge, Chief Frank Burns. He has held the title since 1989—27 of his 42 years on the department.
As impressive as his longevity as chief may be, Burns’ time in that position beats the working life span of our featured fire truck by only six years. An American LaFrance pumper, believed to have been built using a 1938 Ford Model 81Y cab and chassis, served Kings Mountain Fire Dept. for 36 years. The odometer shows only 7,351 original miles.
“When I got on the fire department in 1974, that truck was still in service,” Burns said. “I got an opportunity to operate it and drive it around. It had a few dings and scratches on it, but it was in pretty good shape. It’s just part of the fire department’s history, and we are so blessed to have it.”
No one remembers exactly how the department got the truck. According to Burns, the city bought it for the KMFD in the spring of 1939 for $2,100. However, he does not know if it had been specially ordered or was possibly a demo Kings Mountain had the chance to buy. He and others scoured old city records, meeting minutes, and news accounts from the late 1930s but never could find anything about its origins in town.
Two other oddities mark the 1938 truck’s history. Neither the fire department nor anyone else ever held its title, and it never carried any identifying numbers from American LaFrance. A metal plate secured to the inside edge of the door by the North Carolina Dept. of Motor Vehicles carries the number NCS-81585, but Burns explained that happened later.
“North Carolina finally came in and did an inspection on it and assigned that number to the truck,” Burns said. “For title and tag purposes, that is the Vehicle Identification Number.”
Although Burns did get to see this apparatus being used—and he even drove it—the department retired the old truck in his first year on the job. By then, however, it had long since earned its place of honor in the hearts of the citizens. Their concerns about preserving it inspired the idea for and construction of the Kings Mountain Fire Museum. The museum was built between late 1975 and early 1976 and is one of only three such museums in the state.
Early firefighting efforts in Kings Mountain centered on an infamously unreliable 1924 Ford Model T truck. Not exactly real fire apparatus, it simply carried some hose in the bed. Whenever an alarm sounded, whoever was available rushed to the building where it was stored, never knowing what would happen next. Sometimes those volunteers would push it to the fire. With the organization of an official fire department, the city upgraded to a brand new American LaFrance, built in 1930 for the 1931 model year. The company paid $750 for it at a time when its annual budget was $7,710, including pay for volunteers.
According to Burns, that 1931 ALF fire engine served for a long time, retiring only after the department upgraded again in 1960. Incredibly, our cover vehicle, the 1938 Ford, stayed in service as the newer truck’s working companion for another 14 years. In fact, if not for the lack of a functional water tank, it could be used today and perform perfectly. It even looks as handsome as it did in 1938, thanks to an outstanding restoration job by members of the Kings Mountain Fire Dept.
“We completely restored it, and we finished it in about 2003,” Burns said. “It took us six years.”
They stripped it down, rebuilt the 85hp, 221ci Ford flathead V-8 engine; the 500gpm rotary-gear Waterous pump; the 5-speed transmission; the single two-barrel downdraft carburetor; and more. Two local businesses contributed to its beautiful exterior—Weaver’s Paint & Body Shop did the painting, and Thunder Valley Sign Shop did the gold leaf lettering and ornamentation. The hours of donated fire department labor totaled 3,500, or about 600 per person. Burns emphasized the outstanding group effort involved and the level of enthusiasm, cooperation, and dedication shown.
“Basically all the firemen worked on it, including our volunteers,” Burns said. “We’re a combination department. All the firemen played a role in tearing it apart, sanding it down, repainting it, and putting it all back together. We worked on it during bad and rainy days.”
Beneath the 1,000 feet of hose in the back sits the nonfunctional replica water tank built during the restoration to replace the original, which held 250 gallons. The truck carries two hard rubber suction hoses on the driver’s side and ladders on the opposite. The ladders are made of aluminum.
“As far as we know, those are the original ladders on that truck,” Burns said. “We did a little research on it, and American LaFrance actually started putting aluminum ladders on fire trucks in 1931.”
The quantity of solid brass hose nozzles (they appear to be original to the Ford) sets this truck apart from others. Burns says he has never personally seen a selection of this kind survive on any other fire engine of that vintage. He pointed out several stock examples—2-1/2-inch nozzles for use on large fires, a cellar nozzle, and an attic nozzle with a 90-degree turn on it.
“A lot of them back then were chrome plated, but those are all of the originals,” he said. “We feel fortunate that all of those nozzles remain with that truck.”
The truck features a distinctive, oval-shaped grille with a top that is slightly more arched and wider than the bottom and with horizontal bars. Known as the “barrel grille” or “barrel nose,” this style appeared only in 1938 and 1939. The 1938 model Ford trucks also introduced a split windshield, to compete with Chevrolet, along with a higher crown on the cab. The crown, of course, disappeared when American LaFrance converted it to this open cab design. No production numbers for the 1938 Ford Model 81Y exist. The factory price for the cab and chassis version amounted to $670.
Burns said the old Ford “drives extremely well,” although it starts to shake a little when the speed gets up to about 55 miles per hour. He believes that might be because the tires get “flat-spotted when the truck isn’t driven a whole lot.” Unlike some old trucks with push-button starters on the floor, this one has its starter button located on the dash. Once the engine turns over, shifting the unsynchronized 5-speed transmission takes some practice.
“What we try to teach all these young guys when they drive it is to ‘double-clutch’ it,” he said. “What that means is you put it out of gear and let the clutch pedal out, then push it back in. A lot of times when you double clutch it like that, you won’t grind the gears when you put it back in gear.”
When Burns talks about the old fire engine, the listener can tell he is one of many who feel a deep fondness for it. This American LaFrance, as the second engine the department owned, is beloved in Kings Mountain.
“We’ve actually had a couple of our firemen use it during their weddings, to ride away in when leaving the church,” he said. “Everybody recognizes it.”
Burns added with a chuckle, “I’m an old truck lover, and Ford is my brand of truck. That truck is special to me.”