Members of the fire company are looking for photos of the truck to help in its restoration.
A vintage fire truck that answered its last call more than 50 years ago soon will be back driving on the streets of Magnolia.
The vehicle, using a 1929 Ford Model AA pickup truck as a base, is under restoration by a team at the Magnolia Volunteer Fire Company headed by fire chief Charles “Buck” Dougherty.
“About 98 percent of the truck was there when we found it,” Dougherty said. “But some of it was so dilapidated we ended up replacing things like the front fenders.”
Other parts, such as the tires, also were substituted for the originals, but Dougherty estimates at least 75 percent of the original will be there once the work is done.
Once complete, the Ford will be used for display and parades instead of answering fire calls, as it did for about three decades. The vehicle’s top speed is only 37 mph, so even if it was needed, it wouldn’t get anywhere very quickly, Dougherty said.
Pretty rough shape
The truck’s history has been meticulously researched by company vice president and historian Jim Quillen.
Two years after the company was founded in 1927, its members realized they needed to rely on more than a bucket brigade. They formed a committee to look into buying a truck but soon ran into the realities of that year’s stock market crash, Quillen said. It wasn’t until a year later when the General Assembly authorized money for a town water system the effort again gained momentum.
The diesel-engine truck was ordered in June 1930. Upgrades to the vehicle were approved over the years, including an electric siren in 1940 at a cost of $10, replacement hoses, headlights, tail lights (which were not part of the original purchase) and a civil defense radio in 1952.
The truck’s appearance was spiffed up with a new gold leaf in 1958, but two years later, the company, which had bought newer, more modern equipment, decided to sell the aging vehicle. Everything the company still could use was removed and the Ford sold to Albert Johnson, who used it around his airport until 1974 when he sold it to James Mood of Smyrna.
After a failed effort by the fire company to repurchase the Ford in the early 2000s, the vehicle ended up a derelict on Mood’s property until Quillen found it two years ago.
It was in pretty rough shape, Quillen recalled.
“Engine 1 was sitting under the trees to the side of the backyard,” he said in his report on the truck. In addition to a small tree having grown up through the engine compartment, it was covered in vines and had settled into the ground. Various parts were stacked on the chassis and lying about on the ground, he said.
After some negotiations and a unanimous vote by the fire company, the truck was purchased in April 2016 for $3,000. Shortly afterward, a crew went to Smyrna to recover the vehicle; to their amazement, they found the tires held air and the steering still worked. It was rehoused in Magnolia April 20.
Since then, work has progressed steadily thanks to a consortium of volunteers led by Dougherty and supplies donated by area businesses.
‘Our own blood, sweat, and tears’
Dougherty and others work on the Ford in a Walnut Street garage across from the firehouse. To save money, they decided from the beginning to do as much work as possible themselves.
“We could have sent it out and easily spend $300,000 on it,” Dougherty said. “But we wanted to put in our own blood, sweat, and tears.
“There’s been plenty of that so far, and it’s not over yet,” he said.
In one area where in-house work was not possible, the company enlisted the help of Carey Diesel in Leipsic to rebuild the original engine and transmission.
“We see a lot of old equipment, but not that old,” owner John Carey noted. “I’ve done a lot over the years; I’m 72 and that makes me almost as old as that truck.”
Carey rebored the cylinders, restructured the rings and replaced a number of other moving parts. He also installed an electric distributor to make starting easier.
“It runs great now,” Carey said. “With that new distributor, it’s amazing how fast the engine starts.”
Carey was impressed by the workmanship in the 87-year-old engine.
“The tolerances in those old engines are just as good as today,” he said. “That’s what’s amazing. You had to be a good machinist to do that.”
Dougherty also rebuilt the truck’s original pump, ensuring it will work as well as it did more than 80 years ago. He’s polished up the brass fittings, bringing out the dings and scratches incurred over the years. He’s decided not to fix a missing glass chip from a pressure monitor, probably the result of a misdirected hammer blow decades ago.
With all the success so far, Dougherty notes there’s one area where the company is missing information: photographic records. After searching fire company files and the Delaware Public Archives, he’s come up with only one photo of the truck in its heyday. Unfortunately, much of the vehicle is obscured by the men standing around it.
Anyone who has photos of the truck could help the effort tremendously by donating copies to the company, Dougherty said. The photos will help the volunteers figure out where equipment, such as fire lanterns and lights went, and how the truck was decorated.
Dougherty expects the engine to be complete and ready for display by 2019. It will be topped off by reinstalling the original fire bell, which was rung by pulling a rope. The bell has been in a fire hall display case since the truck was sold.
Work on the engine is exclusively financed by donations and is ongoing without using any fire company funding. So far they’ve collected more than $50,000 and used about half that figure, Dougherty said.