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Pride of Prescott – 1931 Seagrave Ladder Truck

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Pride of Prescott – 1931 Seagrave Ladder Truck. Photo by Jeff Koch

Professional vehicles, particularly fire apparatus, lead a charmed life. Or so we think. We typically see them being constantly washed, waxed and finely detailed on sunny days, and kept in tip-top mechanical order, but this kind of care is a necessity. When called upon, fire equipment is pushed hard, responding in haste to the needs of those in peril–their pumps, hoses and ladders as much first responders as the men and women they transport to a scene. The same maintenance also helps keep the apparatus, such as this 1931 Seagrave Model 6ET Ladder Truck, in service for a prolonged period of time.

The city of Prescott has the distinction of having the first–and therefore oldest–fire department in the state of Arizona, and this Seagrave was just the fifth motorized fire apparatus purchased by the city. Ordered in 1931 from the Columbus, Ohio, firm, it was delivered to Prescott by rail and officially placed into service in early 1932. Equipped with a pump, hoses and a water tank, it served the ever-growing city faithfully until 1982.

1931 Seagrave Ladder Truck

Photo Courtesy: Jeff Koch.

According to Prescott Antique Auto Club (PAAC) member Jim Schultz, “Over time it had been changed from its original configuration. The factory Hercules engine had been replaced by a mid-Fifties Buick ‘nailhead’ V-8; the four-speed manual transmission was swapped for a five-speed from a truck, and the pump had been removed in part because the Buick engine didn’t have the grunt to operate it efficiently. Near the end, it was a backup vehicle for the department and used for Fire Prevention Week events in the area and at schools. It had been quite an icon in the Prescott area for years until the city decided to put it up for bid. Although a couple PAAC members placed a bid, the city of Caborca, Mexico, submitted the winning offer. When Caborca found out it didn’t have a pump, officials refused the Seagrave, and we as a club ended up with it–for $1–in June of 1985. I think a good part of the price was that the club made it known we intended to restore it.”

1931 Seagrave Ladder Truck

Photo Courtesy: Prescott Antique Auto Club

The first concern was where to store the 40-foot-long truck. A solution was found courtesy of the nearby Chino Valley Fire Department; however, two years later, the decision was made to man that station, forcing the club to relocate the Seagrave to Jim’s property for the next 10 years. To keep it protected, the club bought materials to extend an existing lean-to. When Jim moved, so did the truck–under the watchful eyes of other members. In 2006, a 30 x 60-foot structure was donated to the club. It was at that time that they reached an agreement with the city to erect the donated structure adjacent to an existing building on what is now called the Prescott Rodeo Grounds, giving the Seagrave a permanent home for the next 25 years. Finally, in 2009, the time was right for its restoration to commence.

To be fair, some restoration work had already been begun in 1989 when club members Pat Mackin and Rich Echert located and purchased a correct six-cylinder Hercules engine. Accompanied by a correct four-speed manual transmission, the Hercules supplanted the Buick engine; a first step in returning the truck to its original configuration. Unfortunately, the replacement engine was well-worn, its prior service leaving it smoking and burning oil. Complicating matters was the fact that Hercules parts were hard to come by, making the prospect of performing a proper rebuild relatively daunting.

1931 Seagrave Ladder Truck

Photo Courtesy: Prescott Antique Auto Club With the truck outside of the clubhouse building, members have already begun the disassembly process by removing hoses, wooden ladders and miscellaneous parts. A thorough power wash removed grime to help expedite the next restoration phase.

Jim tells us that “Club president Charles Rulofson went on the Internet and found a guy in Ohio who dealt with quite a bit of military surplus. He advertised that he had a military-rebuilt Hercules in the crate and was selling it for $2,250. The engine was rebuilt in 1966; it was complete and ready to go in the truck, so we opted to put that one in, rather than the tired unit, during the restoration.”

With a new engine at the ready, the club carefully documented the nearly complete ladder truck with many photographs, power washed it and then began disassembly. Using electric drills with wire brush attachments, chemical paint stripper and whatever other tools the club could obtain, the team scrubbed every reachable surface to bare metal. Initially, the engine/transmission, ladder bed framing and suspension systems were left in place.

1931 Seagrave Ladder Truck

Photo Courtesy: Jeff Koch

“We were able to locate a pump that was close to what had been in place originally,” Jim explains. “Pat, Rich and Charles took on the yeoman’s task of calculating and mapping its mounting points with the intent of eventually making it functional. It was no short feat, because we also had to fabricate a driveshaft. There’s a short shaft that comes from the transmission to the pump, and then a second shaft from the pump to the differential–the driveline goes through the pump. A fire truck is basically a pump on wheels, and that’s why this had a engine in it; not for horsepower, but for torque to drive the pump.”

Once the pump location was completed, and the shaft fabrication under way, the chassis was relieved of its engine and transmission, enabling the team to finish stripping the paint. Ready to refinish the chassis was club member Ted De¬Vries, who is known for his restoration work that has appeared at the Pebble Beach Concours. Aiding the effort was a temporary, handcrafted paint booth erected just outside the shop, but due to the vehicle’s length, Ted could complete only half the chassis per each session.

1931 Seagrave Ladder Truck

Photo Courtesy: Prescott Antique Auto Club Again using detailed pre-restoration photos, every aspect of the Seagrave’s as-delivered livery was replicated with great care. This is the hinged side panel of the hood receiving its golden number, the black pinstriping having already cured.

Finish began with six coats of two-part urethane PPG primer in two sessions. Once cured, it was sanded using a step process that began with 120-grade paper and progressed to finer 400-grade. Having achieved a smooth surface, two-stage PPG urethane paint was applied: three coats of color, followed by three coats of clear. Final sanding was achieved using 600-grade paper, before buffing brought forth the fire-truck-red luster we’re all familiar with. This same process was employed by Ted at his home shop when he refinished the Seagrave’s removable panels–cowl, hood and fenders–and water tank, which had been fabricated from, of all things, a tractor-trailer’s fuel tank; the ladder bed was finished on-site. Before primer, however, a skim coat of filler was applied to these panels where needed, which was then sanded with 80, then 120-grade paper.

1931 Seagrave Ladder Truck

Photo Courtesy: Prescott Antique Auto Club The 1931 Seagrave nears completion. Everything was accomplished by club members within a three-year period, including bench seat upholstery. The only exception was trim that required new chrome plating, which was accomplished by an outside firm.

In addition to the body and chassis, the team–including club members Bob Hanshaw and Ed Hoffman, who both served as firefighters on the truck when it was still in operation–carefully restored the Seagrave’s array of wooden ladders. According to Jim, “We had to locate a couple of them first. One of our members found the longest ladder hanging off the side of a building in a town south of Prescott, while the city returned another. They are important, because the ladders were assembled and patented by Seagrave. The guys sanded every inch of each ladder and then sealed them in several layers of black varnish. This was also done outside; the fumes would knock you off your feet. We asked a fire fighter if it made sense to climb a burning building with a wooden ladder, and we were told they actually last longer than aluminum ladders.”

Reassembly started with the military-rebuilt Hercules engine–now repainted to a factory-correct hue–and transmission. The pump followed; however, further fabrication work was required. “We had to get it mounted properly so that the guys could craft new surrounding panels based on what we saw in the day-of-completion factory photo we had obtained. Ted painted the panels and then set about pinstriping the truck using detailed photos we had taken before disassembly. He did the front end with paint, while the rest was accomplished with vinyl,” remembers Jim.

1931 Seagrave Ladder Truck 1931 Seagrave Ladder Truck 1931 Seagrave Ladder Truck

Photos Courtesy: Jeff Koch.

Other details were still being tended to. While members made several trips to the hardware store to purchase replacement slotted screws, Pat, Rich and Charles redid the wiring, Jim restored the siren and Jim Mercado reupholstered the seat in a correct pleated pattern. New running board stainless trim was purchased, which was then sanded with 600-, 1000- and 1500-grade paper, then buffed, to replicate the original factory chrome-like luster.

As the Seagrave neared completion, the team considered a safety modification. “At 40 feet long, and with modern distractions, we began to think that most of today’s drivers might not see the hand signals from the driver. We fabricated turn signal lamps from Model A cowl lamps; one of our guys was able to locate red lenses for the rear pair. They made them work and they look really good,” remarks Jim.

As of today, the Prescott Antique Auto Club is still seeing to the Seagrave’s final finishing touches, particularly the pump–which will be operational shortly–and returning the hand rails to the cowl. For all intents and purposes, they proclaimed the project complete in 2012, the same year it was invited to be a part of college footballs’ famed Fiesta Bowl parade in Phoenix. The historic ladder truck–of which very few survive–has also once again served the Prescott community by representing the department during the funeral procession for the 19 Prescott Hotshot fire fighters who lost their lives battling an Arizona wildfire during the summer of 2013.

“Reflecting on it, I think the remarkable thing about this project is that we did everything as a club in-house, except replating; and we did it in a three-year period, for the most part on Tuesday mornings from 9 a.m. to noon or 1 p.m. To have it done in time for the 2012 and 2013 Fiesta Bowl and, most importantly, for the community, was very rewarding for us as a club.”

Owner’s View

Everyone seemed to pitch in. It was one of the most remarkable things: to have a project of this magnitude and all these people from all walks of life come together on this thing and have it turn out the way it did without much bickering or infighting–it was almost surreal how everything kind of went together. The Seagrave has entrenched itself in the minds and hearts of the whole area, and as far as our club goes, and me personally, it’s been one of the most rewarding and satisfying things–to have a part of this truck’s history, to have it come out the way it did and to have our guys pretty much do it all. The quality of the job and the accolades are just incredible. The history keeps moving ahead with it. We’re all very proud of that truck and ourselves.

– Jim Schultz, on behalf of the entire Prescott Antique Auto Club

This article originally appeared in the March, 2014 issue of Hemmings Classic Car.