by Bill Hattersley
The Crown Coach Corp. traces its roots to 1904 in Los Angeles, California, where it specialized in horsedrawn business carriages as the Crown Carriage Co. For 76 years three generations of Brockway family members ran the firm, which should not be confused with the Brockway Motor Co.—a successful, unrelated truck builder in Cortland, New York.
During the World War I era, Crown started designing and building bus bodies, mostly for school transportation. In 1932 Crown introduced its first buses built on the company’s own chassis. The bus design quickly gained a reputation for safety and high-quality construction. By 1948 the school buses had evolved to a modern appearance, a contemporary look that would carry over to Crown’s new line of fire apparatus.
After World War II Crown managers were looking for a product to supplement the largely seasonal school bus orders. Having produced the occasional fire body on commercial chassis in previous years, management ordered a prototype fire apparatus to be built. Using a cab-forward design, Crown stylists used a proven bus-type front and engineering. To reduce the cost of the prototype, Crown used a commercial International Harvester Co. (IHC) chassis, almost certainly a modified L-306 fire chassis. The L-306 was the only IHC chassis with both a setback front axle and a Hall-Scott gasoline-powered engine. The Firecoach prototype was completed in late 1951 and sent out on a demonstration tour to solicit orders from fire departments in the western United States.
Crown was only the second U.S. manufacturer to offer a true cab-forward design, following American LaFrance’s pioneering 700 model of 1947. Compared to the long-nosed, conventional designs that dominated the market, the cab-forward design offered the advantages of compact size, increased maneuverability, and better forward vision. Production soon started, using Crown’s Z-section frame rails, and the first rigs were delivered in 1953. Of the first 45 rigs produced through the end of 1955, the city of Los Angeles took 15, while Los Angeles County received 18. Overwhelming acceptance by the two largest and most prestigious departments in Southern California gave a huge boost to Crown’s sales. Soon other California departments were ordering Crown rigs.
Crowns built between 1953 and late 1959 can be identified by the angled notch in the lower rear corner of each cab door; the trim-out was necessary to allow the door to clear the front fenders. In late 1959 Crown modified its design and started mounting the cabs nearly a foot ahead of the location of the cab on previous rigs, which eliminated the angled notch in the cab doors.
Most of these early rigs were built with open cabs; however, some rigs had canopy-style tops added later. Some, notably L.A. County rigs, had enclosed cabs added in the 1970s as a result of civil unrest firefighters encountered. Many of the early rigs had simple rounded rear fenders without compartments. As time went on, most rigs were ordered with compartments ahead of and behind the rear wheels.
Helping Crown gain a large share of the California market was the company’s high standards of construction quality and use of only the best equipment. Well-proven and advanced, Hall-Scott 6-cylinder engines powered most Crown rigs sold through the late 1960s. Crown fire apparatus was also available with the Waukesha engine—a well proven if somewhat less-powerful design. Crown also offered IHC 549ci gas V-8 and Ford 534ci gas V-8 engines, primarily for smaller departments that operated commercial chassis rigs with similar engines.
Crown built its first diesel-powered Firecoach in 1964. By 1970 most Crown Customs were being built with diesel power. Preference ran about two-to-one for Cummins over Detroit Diesel. In the 1975 to 1990 time period, many Hall-Scott-powered rigs were converted to diesel power. During this time period, Allison automatics were increasingly ordered over manual transmissions.
Assorted Rig Notes and Stats
- Santa Barbara received a squad with a high-pressure pump in 1966, and two more tandem axle pumper-tankers were built (in 1965 and 1971).
- Through mid-1961, aside from 18 high-pressure hose wagons built for the city of Los Angeles, nearly all of the custom chassis Firecoaches were standard pumpers, with three notable exceptions. In 1956, a tandem-axle pumper-tanker was built for Huntington Beach, and a tractor-only unit was built for Santa Monica. Another tractor-only unit was built for L.A. to pull a bulldozer on an equipment semi-trailer. In its best year to date, Crown delivered 50 custom Firecoaches in 1960.
- In 1961, Crown added to its product line by becoming a distributor for Snorkel. Now, Firecoaches were available with 50-, 65-, 75-, and 85-foot lengths of elevating platforms. Many of these rigs were ordered as quintuple combinations, with pump, tank, hose, ground ladders, and aerial device. Later on, Pierce built more than a dozen bodies for mounting on the Crown chassis. Between 1961 and 1978, more than 50 Snorkels were built on Firecoach chassis. About 1970, Snorkel introduced its Squrt and TeleSqurt devices. Only a handful of Squrts were built on Crown chassis, but the TeleSqurt was more popular, accounting for about 18 of the 50- or 55-foot TeleSqurts that were built, along with about eight of the less common 75-foot length device. TeleSqurts were found on Crowns all the way through the end of production.
- To flesh out its apparatus line, Crown needed to offer aerial ladders as well as elevating platforms. In 1966 Crown obtained the rights to install Maxim aerials. Between 1966 and 1976, approximately 27 Maxim aerials were mounted on Firecoach chassis. Midship-mounted ladders were most common on Firecoaches built in the later 1960s, with about six produced, including two quints. During the early 1970s, preference shifted more to the rear-mount design. About a dozen rear mounts were built, with about three being quints. Tractor-drawn aerials were also popular, with nine being built between 1966 and 1976. All of the Crown-Maxim aerials were the 100-foot length, with the exception of two 75-foot tractor-drawn rigs for Los Angeles built in 1975.
- A special Holmes wrecker was built for the city of Los Angeles in 1967. In 1968, a unique low-cab 85-foot snorkel was built for Wenatchee, Washington. Another one-of-a-kind rig was a 1978 Firecoach built with a 106-foot rear-mount Fire Spire aerial for Reno, Nevada.
- In 1977, Crown introduced a new wider fire cab, primarily to give more width in the rear-facing jump seats. Both cab styles were available through 1978, when the wide cab became standard. By the end of production in 1984, about 57 rigs had been built using the wide-cab design.
- Besides the Custom Firecoach, Crown also built a number of fire bodies on commercial chassis. During the earlier years, most of these rigs were patrol or brush rigs built on light-duty chassis, except for two hose-turret wagons built for Vernon, California, in 1957 on 1956 Ford chassis. About a half-dozen squad units on medium-duty chassis were built, mostly on Ford C tilt-cab chassis. Approximately eight pumpers were built by Crown on Ford and GMC chassis. Just over a dozen snorkel trucks were built from 1960 through 1970. Nearly all of the snorkel units were built on the ubiquitous Ford C tilt-cab chassis.
The 1979 energy crisis put a crimp in school district budgets, as the price of oil products virtually doubled. Many districts put off buying new buses or bought cheaper brands. In 1980, the Brockway family was forced to sell the corporation to the first of a succession of investment groups. Loans were taken out from the credit arm of General Electric, which then gained control of Crown when Crown was unable to pay the loans. The Los Angeles plant property was sold, and production moved to a new plant in Chino. The energy crisis also put a strain on fire department budgets, slowing the replacement of aging fire apparatus fleets. Increasing competition from high-volume manufacturers such as Emergency-One put downward pressure on apparatus prices. Crown fire coach production halted in 1982 because of slumping sales and an increasing complexity involved in fire apparatus production. In 1984, the Crown Coach subsidiary of GE began producing chassis-cab units to be completed by Van Pelt Fire Apparatus of Oakdale, California. Van Pelt built rigs on five of the chassis-cab units, using Hale fire pumps. With completion of those five rigs, Firecoach production ended.
A year before Firecoach production ended, Carpenter Body Works, based in Mitchell, Indiana, declared Chapter 11 bankruptcy. Carpenter bought the rights to Crown’s bus and Firecoach designs in order to continue Crown’s unit-body Supercoach Series II school bus line. Carpenter went out of business before using any of the Crown designs.
The Jewel in the Crown
A brief history of engine manufacturer Hall-Scott
Like many now-extinct transportation legends—Pierce-Arrow, Packard, Duesenberg, Bugatti, Vincent, Brough, to name a few—the company Elbert John Hall and Bert Carlisle Scott founded in 1910 had a reputation for engineering excellence and a hefty price tag to match. By World War I, Scott’s engine designs included forward-thinking components such as overhead cams, hemispherical cylinder heads, and lightweight pistons. War contracts and a brief foray into aviation made the company a major player in the industrial supply market, but Hall-Scott’s financial health began to suffer when American Car and Foundry took over in 1925.
World War II America’s need for troop mobility pushed Hall-Scott to the peak of its production and income. After the war the market was not as receptive to its expensive gas engines, especially when diesel engines could be produced cheaper. In 1954 ACF gave slow-selling Hall-Scott its independence, but the company would never see the financial success it enjoyed during two world wars. That year it dropped its marine engine line.
In 1958 the Hercules Engine Co. acquired Hall-Scott’s power division and moved production to Canton, Ohio. Hall-Scott engines sold through the late 1960s. Starting about 1967, orders for Hall-Scott declined nationally as many buyers and truck builders switched to diesel power plants. Southern California fire departments accounted for a large portion of H-S buyers, but they were not enough to keep the engine builder profitable.
Engine production stopped abruptly in 1970 just as leaded fuel was phased out of the nation’s fuel supply. The in-service Hall-Scott engines had to be modified to a lower compression ratio and have their timing retarded to prevent engine damage. The final blow to long-term use of the Hall-Scott engines came in the early 1970s when parts and service support ceased because the engines were no longer in production. Delco was the sole supplier of ignition parts, which it discontinued.
Crown numbered its rigs consecutively, from F-1001 through F-1869. The F-numbers included commercial chassis rigs built by Crown, as well as a few cancelled orders. Three Boardman rigs built in Oklahoma and sold by Crown—as well as some purely Pierce rigs sold by Crown—also got F-numbers. The five chassis built for Van Pelt in 1984 are numbered 75001-75005.
Crown Production in a Nutshell
A total of about 811 Crown Firecoaches were built between 1951 and 1985. The largest buyers of Crown custom chassis were the city and county of Los Angeles, each accounting for around 130 rigs. Orange County was third with about 35, and Honolulu was fourth with about 30. Los Angeles County and Orange County each ended up with more Firecoaches as they took over smaller departments that already used Crowns. Tallied by state, California had the largest number, with about 683 rigs. The state of Washington followed with 42 rigs, and Hawaii operated 34. Utah, Oregon, Nevada, and Arizona each operated six to 11 rigs. With totals of four each were New Mexico, New Jersey, and the country of Kuwait. With only one or two rigs each were Illinois, Alaska, and the country of Mexico. These totals exclude any commercial chassis rigs delivered to those areas.
Yearly production numbers varied widely, partly due to peaks and lulls in school bus orders. High points in volume were 1960, 1961, 1965, 1967, and 1968 with 45 to 50 rigs per year being delivered. After 1968 orders fell into the range of 15 to 35 rigs per year. After 1979 Crown built only a handful of rigs, many of which are still in service today. The company ceased to exist in 1991.