by Larry Suttman
From its start in 1910, Cincinnati, Ohio’s, Ahrens-Fox Fire Engine Co. was known for its exceptional engineering—a status that, today, keeps asking prices high for its surviving apparatus.
John Ahrens, who co-founded the company with Charles Fox, grew the Ahrens-Fox reputation for power and reliability with stunts and demonstrations. On July 1, 1917, dozens of fire officials assembled in New York City to witness a stock Ahrens-Fox pumper attempt to throw a stream of water over the top of the Woolworth Building. Most observers were skeptical, and many considered the task to be impossible, considering Frank Woolworth’s 792-foot neo-Gothic skyscraper was officially the tallest building in the world.
The big Ahrens-Fox M-K-2, no. 35, had been serving as a first-out truck for just more than a year. It was powered by a 6-cylinder, 90hp engine and carried a 4-cylinder, double-acting piston pump rated at 750 gallons per minute. No. 35 was one of the first Ahrens-Fox piston pumpers purchased by the New York Fire Dept.
The fire crew connected the M-K-2 to the hydrant. Two 3-inch hose lines, measuring 100 feet in length, were coupled to the building’s Siamese connection (the fitting which takes the flow of two or more hoses and combines them to a single outlet) near the main entrance. With the engine warmed up and valves allowing water to flow into the building’s standpipe system, the engineer brought pressure to 450 pounds per square inch. The crowd was amazed to see water from the hose clear the top of the 60-story structure, through a 1-1/8-inch nozzle with 67 pounds of pressure. (By the way, this was not the highest pump capacity in the Ahrens-Fox lineup—other available pumps ran as high as 1,200 gallons per minute!)
Two years later, on June 18, 1919, a Louisville, Kentucky, fire crew hooked an Ahrens-Fox Model I-P-2 to a three-way Siamese connector feeding 12 2-1/2-inch lines, with each hose throwing an impressive amount of water—much to the surprise of attending officials.
Perhaps the most impressive feature of an Ahrens-Fox was its ability to pump for days at a time. The flood that impacted much of the Midwest in January and February 1937 put Cincinnati’s waterworks out of commission, leaving the city’s fire hydrants dry. The nearby suburb of St. Bernard provided an Ahrens-Fox M-3 pumper, and fittings were quickly made so the 800gpm truck could draft from an artesian well. The sturdy Fox then pumped water through two 3-1/2-inch hoses to the nearest hydrant, which was 900 feet (three football fields!) away. The engine pumped for 216 hours—nine days and nights! It stopped only twice, to add oil to the crankcase. (How old was this cutting-edge technology that saved the day for so many Cincy families? This particular Ahrens-Fox went into service in St. Bernard on May 16, 1916, and was due to be retired. It was 21 years old at the time of the flood!)
Such feats were no trouble for the big piston pumpers. When the main water pumps at the Rock Island Arsenal in Rock Island, Illinois, failed, nearby Moline sent its 1923 Ahrens-Fox N-S-4 pumper. Rated at 1,000 gallons per minute, the N-S-4 pumped through 1,600 feet of hose for nine-and-a-half days!
An Ahrens-Fox Model J-M-4, in Rochester, New York, pumped for 133 hours at a blaze, keeping three 3-inch lines supplied. The temperature was below zero the entire time!
Hoboken, New Jersey’s, 1916 Model M-K-2 pumped for 220 hours at a warehouse fire. Just two months earlier, it had pumped for 192 hours non-stop.
In February 1937, a 1921 Ahrens-Fox J-M-4, brought in from Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, pumped water from flooded Louisville, Kentucky, for 24 days, stopping only to re-fuel and to relocate to different flood areas. It was 16 years old!
You are probably wondering: if the Ahrens-Fox trucks were so well-made, why are more of them not still around? The fact that they were well-made led to their downfall, because they were very expensive to build, and by the start of World War II, other apparatuses were available for a great deal less.
Ahrens-Foxes became so expensive to build that, for a time, there was almost no profit on the sale of the fire engine! In 1952, the Cincinnati plant made its last Ahrens-Fox piston pumper.
Another reason for their scarcity is that there were very few fire apparatus collectors in 1950. The big search for antique apparatus really did not take off until the advent of Internet chat rooms and forums, around the year 2000. It was then that collectors of all types banded together in clubs. The sale of a fire engine, previously known only in the local community it served, was suddenly advertised throughout the entire country. By that late date, most of the Ahrens-Fox piston pumpers were gone—scrapped, in many cases.
In 1952, one town in Ohio tried to sell its 1928 Ahrens-Fox Model M-S-4 piston pumper. It was dusty, but in excellent running condition, with very low mileage. The city already had a 1934 Fox skirmisher, so the larger M-S-4 was used for two-alarm fires, which in this sleepy little town occurred maybe twice a year. The town tried a sealed-bid sale, but there were no bids. The Ahrens-Fox was offered a second time, but still no bids. In desperation, the town offered it for sale for one dollar! No takers. It spent several embarrassing years with the street department, before a Kettering, Ohio, collector bought it for several hundred dollars! It is now worth many, many times that.
Unfortunately, many collectable Ahrens-Foxes ended up in junkyards. For example, Newark, New Jersey, was convinced that Ahrens-Fox was the best possible purchase. Newark acquired its first four trucks in 1919. Over the following years, the fleet of Foxes tallied 27 pumpers, nine ladder trucks, and even a fireboat that boasted two Ahrens-Fox piston pumps, complete with motors. Nothing lasts forever, though. Eventually, the remaining Ahrens-Fox Model 75-6-1—a 75-foot aerial ladder with tractor—was junked in 1962.
In 1966, department firemen started the Newark Fire Museum. Imagine the gritted teeth when they realized that not even one of the 38 sturdy Ahrens-Foxes had survived; every single one had been cut up for scrap! The only retired apparatus on hand was a 1937 Ford searchlight truck, which is not quite as imposing as an Ahrens-Fox. Undaunted, in 1972, the Newark Fire Dept. Historical Assoc. acquired an ex-Lyndhurst, New Jersey, Ahrens-Fox: a 1930 pumper, Model N-S-4. It is now restored, and a beautiful engine, but somehow it just is not the same.
Not all Ahrens-Fox trucks are dead.
Curt Nepper, engineer and one of the last owners of the Ahrens-Fox name, kept filling orders for parts and even built one of the last trucks. Eventually, Nepper would buy, for a few thousand dollars, the entire Ahrens-Fox company. Because of contractual disputes, Nepper was not able to take possession until existing orders were built and delivered. That would take another three years. C.D. Beck & Co., a bus manufacturer in Sidney, Ohio, would fulfill those existing truck orders under a sub-contract.
When, at last, those obligations were met, a “new” Ahrens-Fox company emerged. In 1955, Frank Griesser and Curt Nepper designed a new “cab forward” engine, just as American LaFrance had done. Griesser had been working most of his life for the same employer, Ahrens-Fox. He had become a very successful salesman. The secret of Griesser’s success was simple: he told each customer, “If you have a problem, call me.” Often, he would tear down that huge piston pump, replace a valve, then put it back together again. He was that good, and he enjoyed it!
Despite many problems, the Sidney plant produced 10 of the newly-designed Ahrens-Fox fire engines. At this point in December 1956, Mack Trucks, interested in entering bus production, made an offer for the Sidney production facilities. The offer was accepted. That was the end of production of the new Ahrens-Fox models. (It should be noted that Mack used the new Griesser/Nepper Ahrens-Fox as a model for the new series of Mack fire apparatus. Nepper owned a large parts inventory and the name Ahrens-Fox until his death in 1995.)
HME Inc., which began in 1913 as Magnus Hendrickson and branched out into the fire apparatus field in the 1970s, acquired the Ahrens-Fox name.
Not many can claim to be a third-generation fire buff, but Ed Hass has researched Ahrens-Fox history for most of his life. When he was 14, he started the Ahrens-Fox Fire Buffs Assoc. Much of the information in this article is possible because of his exhaustive research. And yes, Hass does own an Ahrens-Fox.