Mountain View Voice

News - February 21, 2014

Firefighters want to see vintage rig restored

by Daniel DeBolt

After Mountain View lost several buildings to fires in the 1920s, the city took delivery of what was said to be the best fire engine you could buy, and the best in all of Santa Clara County.

Shipped by train all the way from its builder, American LaFrance in Elmira, NY, the Mountain View Register-Leader proclaimed on May 16, 1924 that the "big American LaFrance fire engine" had arrived and "fully demonstrated its desirability" in a slew of tests, including a 62 mile per hour speed run — quite fast for the 1920s. "Mountain View" was emblazoned on its hood in the same fine gold paint that also formed its ornate pinstripes. "The appearance is very fine as well as the workmanship," the newspaper reported.

It wasn't just pretty — its engine-driven water pump could pressurize five fire nozzles at once, a huge upgrade from the city's old 1917 Model T fire engine, which had no pump at all, just two water tanks that were pressurized by a chemical additive. Many lost fire battles were blamed on a lack of water pressure.

For what was then a small town of around 2,000 people, the truck's $10,500 cost was a huge expense for Mountain View's residents, but considered entirely justified when a fire could do $40,000 worth of damage, like the blaze at the Foothill Cannery warehouse on Front Street did in 1928.

Thanks to the new fire engine and fire chief John H. Mockbee's training of the city's volunteer firefighters every evening to use it, the newspaper proclaimed that "buildings in our town will be safer from fire loss than anywhere in Santa Clara County" and "there is no reason why the property owners of the town should not have a very substantial reduction in insurance rates."

"All that is required now to prove to the wide world that Mountain View is prepared to put out fires on short notice, plain or fancy, is for some public spirited citizen to start a fire and let us see what we may see."

That fire came the next month when the three-story brick warehouse of the Prune and Apricot Association caught fire. The American LaFrance was dispatched and put down the flames with relative ease. The truck was the pride of Mountain View's fire department for many years — firefighter Damon Norvelle said he believes it was used well into the 1950s, retiring to a second life at a small fire department on Lake Tahoe. The city got it back in the late 1970s.

For several decades the "big American LaFrance" has sat in disrepair in a city storage yard under a tarp, largely forgotten. A fundraising effort in 1987 to restore it to its former glory had failed, Norvelle said.

There's now renewed interest in restoring the LaFrance, and public works director Mike Fuller has gotten involved. Norvelle said the desire of those involved is to hire experienced restorer Andy Swift for the job. Even American LaFrance itself has hired him to do restoration work on their own trucks. (The company ceased operations last month after building fire trucks for over a century.)

Norvelle said Swift, who has a shop in Maine, knows how to procure or reproduce its missing and worn parts and even uses the correct paint for the era — minus the lead, of course. The $170,000 estimated cost isn't cheap, but Norvelle said the department hopes to begin a fundraising effort soon so the project does not impact the city budget.

"There's not many people that want to break their knuckles and restore this stuff," Norvelle said. "I have people (in the fire department) who would be interested in the upkeep and seeing it done. The whole department would be happy then. We only have limited tools for fabrication."

He pointed out a missing piece at the rear of the body to the Voice. "That guy back in Maine knows what goes here. I'd like to see it done right," he said.

In its current state, the old fire engine appears a bit rusty, with most of its parts on hand but some removed and others stowed away to prevent theft, such as its signature bell and massive brass radiator. The 14-liter, in-line six-cylinder engine, which once made 100 horsepower, is hard to miss, as is the water pump under the driver's seat so the truck could be easily maneuvered up to a fire hydrant. Sitting amongst modern city vehicles and equipment, its swooping fenders and fine metalwork evoke a whole different era.

Norvelle says firefighters would prefer to not try to restore the fire engine themselves, as it's just too fine an antique. And restoring the city's 1917 Model T fire truck on a budget of only $700 a month has taken decades for firefighters in their spare time.

The LaFrance is the city's first effective fire engine and the sort of vehicle that wealthy collectors of the finest vintage cars have proudly shown off. And it belongs to the taxpayers of the city of Mountain View. Norvelle and other firefighters say they believe residents deserve to have it restored.

Email Daniel DeBolt at ddebolt@mv-voice.com

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