John P. Ahrens and Charles H. Fox of Cincinnati, Ohio built their first motorized fire engine in 1911 just as the curtain was closing on the days of horse drawn apparatus. Motorized trucks were adapted quickly by fire fighters, as they were far easier to house, didn’t require feeding and care like horses, and could withstand the rigors of duty far better, particularly in extreme conditions. The Ahrens-Fox Fire Engine Company would go on to produce some of the finest, fastest and most exquisitely constructed fire engines in America, battling their chief rivals at American LaFrance for the top spot in the industry. Fire chiefs across the country were fiercely loyal to their Ahrens-Fox apparatus, and a great number of trucks had remarkably long careers in service. Such is their quality and attention to detail, the Ahrens-Fox is to this day considered to be the Rolls-Royce of fire trucks.
One of Ahrens-Fox’s specialties was the development of the pumper, with the N-S-4 of the late 1920s being one of their most popular and iconic models. A trademark of an Ahrens-Fox pumper is the beautiful polished sphere that sits atop the front-mounted pump. The genius of that sphere is that it served the purpose of smoothing the action of the pump, preventing pulsation through the hose and giving firefighters greater control and precision, all while allowing for tremendous power rating or 1,100 gallons per minute. Speaking of power, mounted aft of that pump is a great, thumping 998 cubic inch t-head inline six-cylinder engine. Backed by a three speed manual transmission, the N-S-4 had the power and capability to reach any emergency in record time.
This 1927 Ahrens-Fox N-S-4 Triple Combination Pumper is an outstanding example of this iconic firefighting rig. It is beautifully presented in restored condition and includes a fascinating, well-documented history. The name “triple combination” means the truck incorporates three distinct components – the pump, tank, and hose body – which allows for efficient response with a single vehicle. This truck, registration number 3312, was originally delivered in 1927 to the Piqua, Ohio Fire Department and was one of three Ahrens apparatus owned by the city. Extensive files document the history of this particular rig from its construction through its time in service in Piqua. Copies of original correspondence between Piqua Fire Chief Joe Caulfield and the Ahrens-Fox works date back to July of 1927 with a proposal submitted to Caulfield by John Ahrens to build the new N-S-4 pumper. Subsequent documents include hand-written as well as typed build sheets, and numerous pieces of original correspondence related to service and maintenance of 3312 through 1959. Also included are several copies of the Ahrens-Fox bulletin, parts lists, and factory memorandums as well as original instruction handbooks detailing the operation of all aspects of this machine.
Following its retirement from Piqua, number 3312 found its way to Michigan where it was owned by an antique apparatus collector. A photo from 1982 shows it in remarkably complete and sound condition, clearly a truck that was cherished during its time on duty. 3312 was subsequently treated to sympathetic restoration work by respected antique apparatus expert Ken Soderbeck of Hand in Hand Restoration. Today, this magnificent Ahrens-Fox presents in beautiful condition. The restoration has mellowed but has been very well maintained, and a number of the fittings and components remain in preserved original condition. Paintwork is excellent, and the truck is finely detailed with gold leaf striping and filigree as it would have worn when new. Numerous fittings include original ladders, large hoses, Foamite fire extinguishers, hose reel, nozzles, and tanks – even the original Grether search lamps remain in place on brackets flanking the dash. Vast swathes of nickel-plated fittings and lamps have all been beautifully polished to a warm luster. The driver’s compartment is trimmed in button upholstery as original, presenting in good condition with green linoleum floor boards and a polished wood fascia. It is easy to see why the Ahrens-Fox earned its nickname of “The Rolls-Royce of Fire Engines” as one could easily get lost in the seemingly endless detail and quality of this magnificent machine.
Underhood detailing on the massive T-head inline six is very good and the engine runs strong; delivering its massive torque through a three-speed gearbox and suitably heavy-duty rear axle. Records show the clutch was re-faced and brakes serviced as part of the refurbishment by Soderbeck. This example is fitted with pneumatic tires from new, allowing for ease of service and greater usability on the road. While this is no doubt a large and imposing vehicle, it is not so large that it could not be enjoyed on the road or in various events by a dedicated enthusiast.
This spectacular Ahrens-Fox carries with it a tremendous history from its time in service; we only wish it could tell us more of those stories. Such is its beauty and attention to detail, it would not be out of place in a collection of antique apparatus, yet it can also be appreciated by collectors of classic motorcars and trucks. This is a wonderful example of one of Ahrens-Fox’s most iconic models, a truly historic machine that is suitable for show or regular enjoyment.