By Richard Truesdell
Forest fires have plagued California since the time of the state’s earliest settlers. Because these fires often happen in remote locations, fighting the blazes requires specialized equipment, such as what you see on these pages.
Many fire agencies needed to update their equipment following the materials shortages of World War II—agencies such as the California Dept. of Natural Resources Division of Forestry (CDNRDF), which later became California Division of Forestry (CDF), and now is Cal Fire.
The CDNRDF turned to Dodge, which in 1948 introduced its line of “Pilot-House” cab trucks. Also advertised as “Job-Rated,” the B-Series was available in a wide variety of configurations, from light-duty half-ton through heavy-duty four-ton capacities; a variety of wheelbases (108, 116, and 126 inches); 6.5-, 7.5-, and 9-foot cargo boxes; and even a schoolbus chassis. The same chassis was used for a light-duty, four-door woody station wagon.
Nineteen forty-eight was a big year for all the domestic truck manufacturers; Ford and GM also introduced their first postwar designs. While the first F-Series was certainly a landmark truck, in reality, its cab design took a back seat to the Dodge, which had taller seats, combined with a larger glass area, hence the Pilot-House designation. With beefier axles, better weight distribution (the engineers set the front axle back eight inches and the engine slightly forward, thus shifting the distribution of the cargo forward), and deeper cargo boxes on the pickup versions, the B-Series was a workhorse that made it well-suited for a wide variety of applications, including firefighting.
The half- and 3/4-ton versions of the B-Series were powered by a standard 218ci flathead 6-cylinder engine that produced 95 horsepower. The one-ton and heavier trucks were powered by a slightly larger 230ci 6, producing 102 horsepower. A 3-speed manual transmission was standard on all models, with a 4-speed manual optional. An optional 2-speed rear axle was available on 1½-ton models and up.
One of the unique attributes of the B-Series was the innovative cross-steering front suspension. This provided a 37-degree turn angle, either right or left, giving the truck exceptional maneuverability. This was certainly a benefit on tight trails.
That brings us to Joe Palmer’s 1948 Dodge B-1 Crew Fire Truck. Palmer, who retired in 2010 after 31 years of service, ending up with the rank of Fire Captain with Cal Fire. His first car in high school was an old 1942 Willys Jeep, and to this day, he says that when he smells 90-weight oil, he thinks of that Jeep.
This Dodge was one of several built for the California Dept. of Natural Resources Division of Forestry. It started its career in 1948 at one of the Forestry Fire Stations and responded to wildland fires throughout the state. Around 1963, after serving the state for more than 15 years, the Dodge fleet of 1948 crew trucks was assembled at the shop in Davis, California, to be retired and sold off. One of those Dodge trucks was our featured “Little Red,” which was purchased by the North San Juan Volunteer Fire Dept. near Grass Valley, California. In 1984, the department retired Little Red from the fire service, and a local resident purchased the truck and stored it between 1984 and 2014.
Like so many restoration stories these days, this one involves eBay.
“I heard about an old forestry fire truck for sale on eBay in April 2014,” said Palmer. “I looked on eBay and noticed what it was and called the owner in Rough and Ready, California, to get more details. He had purchased the truck a few months earlier from a gentleman who acquired it from the original owner who had passed away earlier that year. The truck looked great, but was in need of a lot of repairs after sitting for 30 to 40 years. Luckily, the truck was painted before being stored, but needed work to bring the red back. The fuel tank had old rotten gasoline in it, and the brake cylinders were bad. The mileage was 64,982.”
Palmer purchased the truck in May 2014 and had it moved to his home in Murrieta, California. Once home, he started work on the truck’s to-do list. The flathead 6 would start and run with a small cap of gasoline poured into the carburetor. He started rebuilding the single-barrel carburetor and then looked for someone who could do the brakes and fuel system and go through the running gear to get the truck roadworthy again. Joe found John Riti with Automotive Specialties, in nearby Temecula, who was willing to take on the challenge, while Joe would do all the wiring and other work and find all the parts needed.
Joe found the web-based Atlas Obsolete in his hometown of Murrieta. They had in stock many parts and were able to source others needed to bring Little Red up to full functionality. For other parts, Joe turned to eBay and other places on the Internet. The next challenge would be finding parts for the pump engine.
“The fire body was manufactured by Coast. It has a skid-mounted, single-stage centrifugal pump driven by a flathead 4-cylinder Hercules gasoline engine,” said Palmer. “The water tank holds 280 gallons of water, and the crew configuration was eight. This included one foreman, the driver, and up to six firefighters that rode on the rear bench seats. John Ryti and I were able to get the truck ready for the Murrieta Rod Run in mid-October 2014 [which was where Vintage Fire Truck & Equipment spotted it]. That was the first outing for the Dodge in more than 30 years.”
Stepping into the cab, one cannot help but notice how spartan is the trim: painted metal surfaces for the dash, legible gauges, a huge steering wheel, and durable vinyl trim for the seats. As this is a Pilot-House cab, forward visibility is excellent.
What has to impress is the effort Palmer put into tracking down period tools and equipment that adds to the truck’s presentation. This includes the water tank, fire hose, hand tools, back pumps, and other firefighting tools. Most notable is the brass Smith Indian Fire Pump mounted just aft of the driver-side rear tire.
A funny exchange during our photo shoot came when we asked Palmer if we could take the truck out on the nearby Interstate 15 that runs directly behind the firehouse to get some action shots. Palmer gave us one of those “you’ve got to be kidding” looks. Even with a 4-speed transmission and 2-speed rear end, there is no way this truck was going to reach legal freeway speeds. Forty-five is probably the best this B-1, in full fire trim, would be able to attain.
Palmer belongs to the Cal Fire Museum, where there are many other vintage fire truck and apparatus enthusiasts.
“I always wanted an older vehicle to work on and take to shows,” explained Palmer. “But, if you would have asked me a year ago if I would have a fire truck in my backyard, I would have said, ‘no way.’ I’m glad I was able to find and save this old truck and restore it to its 1948 look. She is living history of our state fire service. Who knows where it would have ended up? Talk was, the last owner was going to make it into a barbeque.”