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Old fire truck kindles childhood memories

This rare 1937 Ahrens-Fox fire truck that has a distinctive polished chrome ball over its engine which serves as an air equalization chamber for the main water stream is displayed at the Marconi Automotive Museum in Orange County, Calif.
Dave T. Henley photo |

When I was a boy growing up in Southern California, my friends and I often would ride our bikes to the local fire station.

The front doors were usually open, and we would peer with awe and wonderment at the three gleaming red fire trucks, the red battalion chief’s car and the white Ford ambulance parked inside.

My favorite fire apparatus was the 1937 Ahrens-Fox pumper truck (it was a year younger than I) that sat in the front row next to the ambulance. Both vehicles, like the other three, had red lights, sirens and long “whip” antennas attached to their roofs and fenders.

The Ahrens-Fox was special to me because it bore a distinctive, signature fixture that I had never seen, and still haven’t seen, on any other fire truck: A massive, polished chrome, globe-shaped ball that was mounted on the truck’s huge water pump which sat atop the vehicle’s gasoline engine.

The ball, I have since learned, served as an air equalization chamber that kept the water pressure constant, ensuring that the main stream of water was steady while being directed at the fire.

The Ahrens-Fox also transported to fires the station’s mascot, a white Dalmatian dog with huge black spots. Named “Blaze,” the dog jumped onto the truck’s front seat and sat next to the driver when the truck roared out of the fire house en route to fires with its red lights flashing and siren wailing.

As well, I was personally indebted to the firemen who manned the Ahrens-Fox pumper.

As a lad, I sent away in the mail for special “secret agent” and “detective” rings that contained compartments for hidden messages, tiny mirrors which provided rear and side views of “suspects” I was covertly observing, magnifying glasses and even miniature telescopes and cameras.

On one occasion when I received one of these rings, I excitedly put it on my finger, but it wouldn’t come off. It was too tight! My mother immersed my finger in a glass of soapsuds and hot water, but the ring still didn’t budge.

So my father took me to the fire station, where two firemen assigned to the Ahrens-Fox truck slipped a sharp blade between the ring and my finger and started sawing away at the metal ring. The procedure hurt like the dickens and I cried. But the ring soon came off, and I still have it today.

I recently recited to my wife, Ludie, my nostalgia for the Ahrens-Fox truck and the episode of the too-tight ring, and she suggested I try to locate a 1937 model of the pumper.

Lo and behold, I found one! It is located at the Marconi Automotive Museum in Tustin, Orange County, Calif., and my son, Dave, and I have just visited the museum and its fire truck that is one of the few remaining Ahrens-Foxes in the United States.

I was excited to see the immaculately restored vehicle which served the Lansford, Pennsylvania, fire department from 1937 through 1982, and Dave took its photo that accompanies this column.

Ahrens-Fox trucks, which were capable of delivering 1,250 gallons of water per minute, have 6-cylinder engines and 18 spark plugs, are considered by antique fire truck buffs to be “hot” (no pun intended) items at vehicle auctions because they are highly coveted by collectors.

As an example of the high prices they fetch, 16 months ago a 1937 Ahrens-Fox was sold at a Kansas City auction for $125,000. This was the highest price ever brought for a 1937 model which, when it was new, cost $13,750.

Seventy years ago, I stood in wonderment before the Ahrens-Fox at my local fire house. When I came upon its sister (or brother) at the Marconi Museum this week, that awe and wonder returned.

Fire engines are the stuff boys’ (and older mens’) dreams are made of.

David C. Henley is Publisher Emeritus of the LVN. He may be reached at news@lahontanvalleynews.com.