Due to the nature of our wheeled collections, repairing these vehicles is not as simple as going to the local auto parts store. While radiator hoses, fuel lines, and brake fluid are simple enough to find, buying a replacement valve spring for a 1935 Stutz (Engine 35) is no easy task. Similarly, a brake light lens for a 1947 American LaFrance 700 Series pumping engine (seen below) is not readily available at most stores. A significant amount of time is spent by Fire Museum staff tracking down these parts, often spending hours poring over websites, parts catalogs, and researching interchangeable parts.
One of the great resources that we have come to rely on is the annual Eastern Fall Meet of the Antique Automobile Club of America (AACA), better known as “Hershey.” Held in the sprawling parking lots of Hershey’s Chocolate World and the Giant Center, Hershey is considered the holy grail of vehicle-related flea markets. With thousands of vendors spread across acres of asphalt, it can take several days to see everything being offered for sale. Two Fire Museum staffers were able to make the trip this year, and were successful in finding the aforementioned brake light lens, the appropriate door weather-stripping for Engine 49, our 1949 Mack, and a few smaller odds and ends that will help us tell a more complete story of urban firefighting in America.
Because fire engines (and fire trucks!) were never produced in the same numbers as the Ford Model T, the Chevrolet Camaro, or most other consumer vehicles, the availability of replacement parts is scarcer. This scarcity is compounded by the fact that, as a museum, we hold in our collections some of the more rare objects of fire history, like the 1898 Hale water tower that was used to fight the Great Baltimore Fire of 1904. When we had problems with the valve that controls the water into the mast, there was no manufacturer we could call on for design drawings or other assistance. In order to repair it, we had to research old valve company books in our archives, talk with machinists and engineers, and do multiple tests. There’s no manual for this sort of thing.
In a future post we will explore some of the difficulties of restoring our hand- and horse-drawn apparatus, which suffer from an even greater lack of official (corporate) resources. For instance, our 1898 American steam fire engine is in need of a new boiler – that’s not something you can get on Etsy or Amazon. (But you can help us by donating to the cause here.)