Firefighters want to see vintage rig restored


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 money could buy, and the best in all of Santa Clara County.

Shipped by train 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 Norvell 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, Norvell said.

There's now renewed interest in restoring the LaFrance, and public works director Mike Fuller has gotten involved. Norvell 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.)

Norvell 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 Norvell 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," Norvell 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.

Norvell 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 year 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. Norvell and other firefighters say they believe residents deserve to have it restored.


Like this comment
Posted by Stevie
a resident of Shoreline West
on Feb 24, 2014 at 11:24 am

Considering that American LaFrance has permanently closed it's doors this might be tough to find any needed parts for it!

Like this comment
Posted by Otto Maddox
a resident of Monta Loma
on Feb 24, 2014 at 12:11 pm

It better not impact the city budget by $1.

I'm not sure how the people of Mountain View will benefit having an 86 year old fire engine sitting around.

Even if they do get someone to donate $170,000 for the restoration it's still going cost us tax payers something in the long run.

It will have to be stored someplace, that's not exactly free.
It will require some maintenance, that's definitely not free.

City and State Fire Departments get dozens and sometimes hundreds of applicants for every open position so it's not like they need a recruiting tool.

They should clean it up, remove any sharp edges, and make it a playground feature at Rengstorff park. Now that would be good for the people of Mountain View.

Like this comment
Posted by Gouchy Grumpenstien
a resident of Cuesta Park
on Feb 24, 2014 at 2:34 pm

For the record, I'm OK with a $1.00 impact to the city budget for the restoration. Perhaps a few dollars more in the long run to preserve some history. We spend more on art that literally just sits around(I'm sure at the abject disgust of Otto). The engine would be fun to see at schools, parades and other community events. To know its been in our city for all these years is a chance for history to be alive for our young kids, and they could actually touch that history...after they wash their hands of course. That's worth a few farthings IMO.

Anyway, I'm glad the coast isn't huge so it looks like donations might do the trick, and we'll only have to listen to Otto threaten to complain instead of actually complaining.

Like this comment
Posted by Steve
a resident of another community
on Feb 24, 2014 at 2:38 pm

Isn't this something that Google should pay for?

Like this comment
Posted by Bill
a resident of Jackson Park
on Feb 24, 2014 at 3:07 pm

The city's Model T fire engine used to always be in the spring parade but I haven't seen it the last few years. I didn't know we had 2 antique engines.

Like this comment
Posted by @ Otto
a resident of Monta Loma
on Feb 24, 2014 at 6:15 pm

Good idea, "They should clean it up, remove any sharp edges, and make it a playground feature at Rengstorff park. Now that would be good for the people of Mountain View." especially their children.

Like this comment
Posted by Wow
a resident of Cuesta Park
on Feb 24, 2014 at 7:55 pm

They should clean it up, remove any sharp edges, and make it a playground feature at Rengstorff park. Now that would be good for the people of Mountain View.

Since he is such a positive force, maybe that is what should be done with Otto.

Like this comment
Posted by Mr Advice
a resident of Bailey Park
on Feb 24, 2014 at 9:27 pm

Google would be more than happy to fund a restoration project, it could be on display in hanger #1.

Like this comment
Posted by Fire Hose
a resident of Monta Loma
on Feb 25, 2014 at 6:02 am

I just hate to tell Otto that the "child proofing", safety reviews, installation and maintenance would likely cost a bundle as well, and since it would be an addition to the public park, its logical that that the city should pay for it out of their parks and rec budget. I do like Otto's idea, but his idea would use city funds, which he must be in conflict about.

Like this comment
Posted by Jay Park
a resident of Jackson Park
on Feb 25, 2014 at 8:11 am

I will point out that the ongoing maintenance costs for a child-proofed fire engine at a local park would be substantial.

Exposure to the elements is very harsh, and a vehicle with an intricate paint job (with gold accents and white trim stripes) would be even more susceptible to damage. Red paint has relatively poor lightfast properties and tends to fade, particularly if accurate pigments from the era would be used. Any repainting would require the vehicle to be disassembled and transported to a restorer's workshop.

The brass components would also be subject to deterioration from the elements and require routine restoration. And sadly, they would also be vulnerable to theft.

Of course, it could be left to the mercy of Mother Nature until it reaches a rather shabby state to defer maintenance, but then it would no longer be a source of civic pride.

Not so sure this is the best future for this fire engine.

Like this comment
Posted by Mary
a resident of Waverly Park
on Feb 25, 2014 at 1:10 pm

I think it's a great idea!! How cool could that be. It's history!

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Posted by Waldo
a resident of Waverly Park
on Feb 25, 2014 at 2:36 pm

Waldo is a registered user.

The MV Voice article is full of interesting historical facts, especially regarding some of the old building names. Hopefully, the MV Voice will track this topic, and let us know how donations will be handled for the restoration.

Like this comment
Posted by PS
a resident of another community
on Nov 5, 2015 at 9:10 am

I live in Kissimmee and we have a 1923 American LaFrance. It looks good over all and is functional but lately it has needed some attention and is not making our next parade as parts are hard to find or have to be custom made. Perhaps this old LaFrance that may never end up restored could be used to keep other more loved Lafrance's on the road. Instead of your truck being a burden on your community as some are stating you could recycle it buy selling off the needed parts to other municipalities that still use their old trucks for community events. That one LaFrance may be able to keep many others going around the country. But normally city items have to be advertised and sold at auction for the people’s sake. This would more than likely put the LaFrance in a private collectors hands which is a shame considering the People will not get to enjoy the former asset.

Like this comment
Posted by bill lee
a resident of another community
on Nov 12, 2015 at 4:43 pm


Like this comment
Posted by Greg David
a resident of Old Mountain View
on Nov 12, 2015 at 6:14 pm

Greg David is a registered user.

Maybe if the city was not planning on spending $800K on fantasy drawings of a transit center that will never be built, they could use $170K in the name of historic preservation.

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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