1976 Crown Firecoach
When you think about calamities in California, depending on your age, you might think of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s declaration of a budget crisis, the Hells Angels rampages of the 1960s, or perhaps ABC Sports’ Al Michaels yelling, “We’re having an earthquake!” from the broadcast booth at Candlestick Park during the 1989 World Series between the San Francisco Giants and the Oakland A’s. Most people savvy about emergency management in California, however, would probably first think fondly of the unique custom fire apparatus built by Crown Coach Corp. of Los Angeles, which, due in no small part to its exposure through television and movies, remained America’s most immediately recognizable brand of fire truck for decades.
Crown was founded as a carriage- and wagon-maker in 1904, but began building buses by 1915. The largest segment of Crown’s market over the next several decades was school buses, with engines either amidships or mounted in the rear. Since the school bus business tended to be seasonal, Crown executives decided to adapt the midship-engine chassis for firefighting use, and call the resulting vehicle the Firecoach. The very first Crown Firecoach triple-combination pumper, with an open cab, was delivered to West Covina, California, and followed a technical formula that would be repeated hundreds of times henceforth: power from a gasoline-fueled, 935-cu.in. Hall-Scott straight-six engine, manual transmission, and a 1,250-gpm centrifugal pump.
Most sales were to departments in Southern California, and for years, Crown apparatus made up almost the entire fleet of the Los Angeles City and Los Angeles County fire departments, the region’s largest. An open-cab Firecoach served as the original Engine 51 on the 1970s TV hit, Emergency! But other Crowns found homes in locales as distant as New Jersey, Hawaii and even Kuwait. All could be spotted at once by their rounded, forward-leaning cab fronts and vertically stacked headlamps and fog-lamps.
The only major running changes made to Firecoaches during their history was the widespread adoption of diesel engines and automatic transmissions, and the introduction of a widebody cab in 1977. By that time, Crown’s school bus sales had trailed off considerably and the Firecoach market was no longer large enough to be profitable. Crown attempted an alliance with FMC Corp., which owns Van Pelt, another California fire-truck manufacturer, but the effort failed and the final Crown-Van Pelt pumper was delivered to Santa Monica, California, in 1985.
Today, the distinctive “devil wind fire wagons” still live in the hands of the Crown Firecoach Enthusiasts (www.crownfirecoachenthusiasts.org), a chapter of the Society for the Preservation and Appreciation of Antique Motor Fire Apparatus in America (SPAAMFA) whose members own some 80 Crowns. One of the more unusual rigs is this 1976 Firecoach tractor-drawn aerial owned by Mike McDonald. Tillered aerials were seldom produced by Crown, which generally sold either midship- or rear-mounted ladders on three-axle chassis, or Snorkel and Squirt booms in a variety of lengths. McDonald’s rig is a rare bicoastal hybrid: Its 100-foot aerial ladder was produced by Maxim Motors of Middleboro, Massachusetts, another regional builder that folded around the same time as Crown. This ladder truck originally served San Diego.
This article originally appeared in the MAY 1, 2006 issue of Hemmings Motor News.