Fire Engine Restorations

Restoring the gold leaf decoration
on antique fire apparatus.

In 1972 I worked for an antique car restoration shop in Arizona. This lead me to working for the Southwest Wagon and Wheel Works and other vehicle restorers. Over the years I have put stripes and lettering on antique cars, trucks, wagons, carriages, coaches and fire apparatus. I noticed that the decoration on early 20th century automobiles evolved from 19th century horse drawn vehicles. When I started restoring fire engines, I found their decoration to be consistently high quality. Early fire engines had complex color schemes and well planned striping designs. The thin lines and dots were expressive and individualized by each painter.

Decoration by Peter Achorn on 1923 Maxim fire engine fender and hose body.1927 American LaFrance fire engine in Atlanta GA museum.Seat riser hand painted and gilded decoration on a 1931 Ahrens-Fox engine.1926 Maxim fire engine displayed at the Owls Head Transportation Museum.1926 American LaFrance with gold applied in Fire Gold shop.1920s American LaFrance restoration about to leave Fire Gold shop.

I am always on the lookout for fire apparatus with original paint. I want my restorations to show the motifs, techniques and styles of these original pieces. I travel to museums and private collections to document engines in their original state. My library of books on fire service history contain few references to decoration. It is a topic that has not been written about much, thought it was quite important to the engine builders and firefighters of past times.

Maxim style fleur-de-lis details on frame.

Large communities began using steam powered fire engines between 1850 and 1910 . A coal fired boiler powered the water pump. This was fighting fire with fire. Fewer firemen were needed with steam power and the pump could work continuously for days. Most of these heavy machines required horses to pull them. The last of the steam pumpers were pulled by gasoline powered tractors

1920s Seagrave wheels

My favorite restorations are the hand powered fire engines. These were built all through the 19th century. In the early years, the painters developed styles and motifs that would continue to be used through the steam and motorized eras. Hand engines were painted yellow, plum, blue, cream, brown, black, olive green and many other colors. Red did not become the standard color for fire apparatus until the steam era.

Single stripe and double line on spring of Hansom cab. Hansom cab in Fire Gold paint shop.Painted lines on Rear body panel.Hansom cab in Fire Gold paint shop.

In 1985 I helped on the restoration of a steam fire engine for my local fire department. The following year I move to Maine and began working with Andy Swift of Firefly Restoration. His restorations of fire apparatus are as fine as any I have seen. Most of the fire engine restorations on these pages are projects from his shop.

Ken Soderbeck has been a driving force in the movement to preserve and restore antique fire apparatus. His skills go way beyond gilding and painting. They include mechanical work along with fabrication in wood, metal, glass, leather and much more.

Ken has been a generous teacher to myself, Andy Swift and many other restorers. He and Andy are pictured to the right.

Ken Soderbeck and Andy Swift in the steam. Ahrens-Fox restoration on way to owner.