ROXBURY, NJ – Chugging over the relative flatness of Succasunna, perhaps with a tailwind, a skinny driver and no passengers, Roxbury’s first firetruck can boogie at 50 mph. That’s pretty good for a 1917 Ford Model T, a vehicle that’s supposed to have a top speed of 45.
With a 4-cylinder engine that - on a good day 98 years ago - generated only 20 horsepower, the truck is less inspiring when encountering upward inclines. However, it’s the firetruck’s deceleration capabilities that are truly sad.
“It doesn't go up hills very well, but the biggest other problem with this vehicle is the brakes,” said veteran Roxbury firefighter Charlie Alpaugh. “It will go 50 if you push it, but you have to make sure you are looking a quarter-mile ahead because if you have to stop you have a serious problem.”
The truck is in the hands of Roxbury Fire Co. 1, the Succasunna station that is preparing for its 100th anniversary celebration in 2017. The scope of the party has yet to be determined, but one thing’s for sure: The Model T, purchased new by the fire department in that inaugural year, will play a big part.
“It’s going to be the showcase of the anniversary,” said Alpaugh, a 78-year-old Roxbury native who joined the fire department when he was 20. “It’s going to be the highlight of the thing, obviously.”
Members of the firehouse are discussing the amount of time and money they should spend fixing up the firetruck between now and the centennial. Some believe a full-scale restoration is in order. Others, including Alpaugh, aren’t so sure. “Everybody treats it with respect, but we don’t put a barbed-wire fence around it either,” he said. “That’s my analysis of it.”
The Model T, refitted by American LaFrance Firefighting Equipment Co. to be a chemical firetruck, cost Roxbury about $1,800. It now could be worth upwards of $30,000.
That’s a pittance compared to the price of Roxbury’s modern firetrucks, but the little red vehicle is treated with protective reverence by the fire department. This is revealed when new firefighters express a desire to take it for a spin.
“There are many people who want to drive it, but the list is very restricted,” said Alpaugh. “You need maturity and mechanical ability.
Accelerating, shifting and braking the vehicle is something of a coordination test. “On the Model T, the brakes are inside the transmission,” said Alpaugh. “It has a 2-speed, planetary transmission. You have a pedal on the left. You push it down and that is low gear. All the way up is high. The next pedal, in the middle, is reverse. You put the left pedal in neutral and apply your foot to the middle pedal to make it go backwards. Or, you it in neutral or low and the pedal on the right was the brake.”
The accelerator is on the steering wheel. The headlights are run by a magneto, meaning they dim and brighten as engine speed changes, but mostly they’re rather dim. It had a siren, but the fire department removed it because cranking the thing was causing damage to the wooden firewall on which it was attached. “It has a bell you can ring, but it really didn’t do much,” Alpaugh said.
Speaking of not doing too much, the firefighting capability of the old engine might be deemed “better than nothing.” American LaFrance – which described the truck as being “remarkable for its simplicity, reliability, ease of operation and quickness of action" - fitted the Model T chassis with two large stainless steel tanks, three noncorrosive sulphuric acid receptacles, a soda canister and a 150-foot, 4-ply rubber chemical hose.
When the acid was added to the baking soda/water mixture nside the tank it created carbon dioxide under high-pressure that would be sprayed on the fire. “The chemical stream can be thrown for a distance of about 60 to 75 feet,” boasted American LaFrance. “Since the nozzle is not left continuously open like that of a water hose … this means that each tank is capable of an immense amount of firefighting.”
Alpaugh was not so enthusiastic in his description of the system’s capabilities. “It was great for bang-boom little things, but for anything that was going to take more than a couple of minutes and 50 gallons of water, you had to go to a mechanical pumper.”
The fire department got a bigger, better new fire engine in 1926 and another in 1938 and another in 1956, said Alpaugh. In 1960, it retired the 1938 vehicle, replacing it with a new truck. Through all the growth and progress, the town held onto its old Model T.
The little vehicle’s biggest threat came from America's thirst for metal during wartime. It was brand new when the United States entered World War I, but long out of service by the next big war, a prime target for the metal hungry war machine.
“We were lucky the fire truck didn’t go into a scrap drive,” said Alpaugh. “Miraculously, it was saved during World War II. It was stored in my grandmother’s barn in Succasunna.”
Alpaugh said he, his father William and a friend restored the Model T about 25 years ago. They didn’t go crazy on the truck, just replacing parts and making it look better. “We brought it up to the condition it’s in now, mechanically and cosmetically,” he said. “But over the last 25 years, there’s been a little deterioration.”
One of the Model T’s current ailments is a minor misfire. It’s a little sputter, a hiccup that the truck’s loving owners are planning to remedy. It will take some old-style troubleshooting as there's no onboard computer to help guide that analysis. There isn't even a battery.
“We haven’t completely figured that out,” said Alpaugh, who thinks the misfire might be due to a problematic coil or maybe the magneto.
“You’ve got to realize,” he noted. “It’s 98 years old.”
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