Founded in 1873 by Thruxton Slocum LaFrance in Elmira, New York as the LaFrance Manufacturing Company, American LaFrance remains one of the oldest and most respected names in American fire apparatus manufacturing. Beginning with hand-powered firefighting equipment during the horse-drawn era, LaFrance Manufacturing merged with the American Fire Engine Company to become American LaFrance in 1903 and the company was among the first to adapt to horseless propulsion using steam engines, which proved cumbersome and were replaced by internal-combustion power by 1907. Quickly rising to prominence in the fire-apparatus industry, American LaFrance built a strong and enduring reputation for dependability and quality through the cessation of operations in 2014.
Much of the American LaFrance success story is directly attributable to the continuous development of faster, more powerful and capable fire trucks, more efficient pumpers, and increasingly specialized firefighting equipment. During the mid-1930s, American LaFrance introduced one of its finest model lines, the revolutionary Series 400 “Senior,” dubbed the Metropolitan. Engineering was first-class, as expected, with highlights including a 180-inch wheelbase chassis and 754 cubic-inch, overhead-cam V-12 engine rated at 250 horsepower with dual ignition.
The powerful American LaFrance V-12 powerplant made the Series 400 fire trucks ideal as pumpers, with the option of a 1250- or 1500-GPM water pump mounted inline between the engine and cowl. Early Series 400 models still relied on chain drive, but shaft drive was progressively phased-in during the relatively short production run spanning 1935 to 1939. As the flagship of American LaFrance’s model lineup, Series 400 was also the most expensive. While built for severe duty, the Series 400 Metropolitans were also quite beautiful with long, tapered hoods, sweeping skirted fenders, and impeccable proportions. In fact, the Series 400 is considered the first fire engine with intentionally styled bodywork, endowed with much of the presence of contemporary luxury cars from top American marques including Duesenberg, Packard, and Pierce-Arrow.
According to a listing compiled by marque expert John Kihlstrum during the 1980s, a total of 141 Series 400 Metropolitans were produced, including Number 7811, this wonderful example from 1937. Rarer still as one of just 21 Model 412-CB PWT examples produced, 7811 was equipped new with a 1,250-GPM centrifugal pump and 150-gallon water tank. Following assembly and pre-delivery tests carried out at ALF’s Elmira, New York factory on December 7, 1937, 7811 arrived by railroad box car at its El Centro, California destination, priced new at $13,988.15. The formal acceptance test was conducted by the Board of Fire Underwriters of the Pacific, with A.D. Quinn, delivery engineer for American LaFrance, at the controls. According to the report following the acceptance test, the water pump of 7811, rated at 1,250 GPM, actually delivered 1,418 GPM at full throttle. However, the underwriters observed incorrect readings from the pump discharge gauges and tachometer, as well as the lack of a second set of batteries, issues that were soon rectified by American LaFrance.
At 7:30 P.M. on December 31, 1937, the new engine was assigned Number 4 and placed into service at Station 1, 565 State Street, El Centro. Intended for one-man operation, Engine 4 was fitted with a “squirrel tail” suction hose. For the next 25 years, Engine 4 served as the station’s “first out” pumper until it was working a large hotel fire on January 21, 1962, when the connecting rod for the Number 2 cylinder pierced the cylinder block; however, the engine continued to run on the remaining 11 cylinders until an oil-vapor fire forced its shutdown. About a year later, a correct used engine was installed, and No. 4 was placed into reserve service.
During its nearly 25 years of “first out” service, Engine 4 received several updates, including removal of the water tank and hose reel and replacement of the running boards with diamond plate. In 1969, the water pump was rebuilt, and the hose-bed was divided into three sections with increased hose capacity. Engine 4 continued to soldier on, with the engine rebuilt. The end finally came in July 1978 when the radiator was removed for cleaning and the upper cast-iron tank was broken, with replacements unavailable and the repair costs deemed prohibitive. While left to the elements, the engine was rescued by Phillip N. “Norm” Heil, a retired El Centro firefighter, who knew its history intimately. Following its purchase on December 1, 1982, Mr. Heil embarked on an extensive “body-off” cosmetic restoration, returning the mighty engine to its former glory. Loss of storage space forced the sale of 7811 in 1984 and eventually, it was sold on to a new owner in Grants Pass, Oregon. While it was no longer his property, Mr. Heil kept a close watch over his beloved Engine 4, confirmed by a 2002-dated letter on file to the owner from Oregon.
As offered, this highly engaging 1937 American LaFrance Model 412-CB PWT is a wonderful collector find. It continues to present very well from the detailed 1980s restoration, including shiny and consistent paint, good chrome and brightwork, gold leaf El Centro Fire Department graphics, and an array of authentic fire-fighting apparatus. New running-board rubbers and fine details provide appropriate finishing touches. Documentation is outstanding, including the factory build records, original factory and acceptance test sheets, a historical narrative written by Mr. Heil, correspondence, and other supporting documentation. Proudly finished in its original El Centro Engine #4 livery, this exceedingly rare vintage fire engine is one of the most sought-after vehicles of its kind with the engineering prowess of the American LaFrance company in full abundance. As such, it is ready to show, enjoy, and appreciate.
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