The King of California: Hammering flames with the famed Crown Firecoach
The King of California
Hammering flames with the famed Crown Firecoach
Feature Article from Hemmings Classic Car
February, 2011 – Jim Donnelly – Photography Courtesy of Keith Cullom
For a long time, three things were always constants when it came to big fires in California: A lot of them originated in crisp, oily brush on nearly vertical hillsides; helicopters dropped water on the flames in heroic attempts to stop them; and on the ground, the grunt work of saving the day went to fire apparatus built by Crown in Los Angeles.
Like its East Coast counterpart, American La France, the Crown Coach Corporation built a lot more than just fire trucks, most notably school buses. However, during its years as a California icon, the company’s core business was building custom fire trucks. The cab-forward Crown Firecoach, with its rounded nose and vertical quad headlamps (adopted well before cars had them, by the way) is an immediately recognizable truck, even though many people who didn’t grow up west of the Mississippi can’t name the manufacturer.
Crown was created by the descendants of a Connecticut family that migrated west. Don Brockway arrived in Los Angeles during the 1890s, having earlier been a buffalo hunter on the Great Plains. In 1904, he started building carriages, then wagons, then commercial bodies for motorized trucks downtown at Sixth and Los Angeles Streets. Incidentally, there’s no known linkage between the newly arrived Brockways of Los Angeles and the truck-manufacturing family of the same name and era from Cortland, New York.
The firm surged shortly after World War I as it built bus bodies during the first great California population boom of the 20th century. Since the school bus market was largely tied to the school year, Crown adapted its rounded-front, mid-engine bus chassis as the platform for a triple-combination pumper, creating the Firecoach. That was in 1951, when American La France was about the only other firm building a similar rig, its 700 series.
To find the real blueprint for the Firecoach’s enduring success, you stay close to its home. The breakthrough came in 1953, when the Los Angeles Fire Department bought a single Firecoach pumper. It would later purchase nearly 150 new rigs from Crown. The Los Angeles County Fire Department bought its first new Firecoach in 1954 and followed up with 130 more, plus acquiring several others from cities that merged their smaller departments, and their apparatus, into the county over the years.
Perhaps the most common Firecoach specification was a triple-combination pumper with an open cab, a 500-gallon booster tank and a pump with a capacity of 1,000 to 2,000 gallons per minute. In the Los Angeles area, most were fitted with the massively torquey Hall-Scott straight-six gasoline engine, displacing 935 cubic inches, coupled to a manual transmission. Los Angeles City, as it was then called (to distinguish it from L.A. County) bought a pair of huge, three-axle Snorkels in 1968, both painted yellow. One toppled over at a downtown blaze in 1970, killing a firefighter. The city did better with another experiment, mounting 50-foot Snorkel and Squirt articulating booms on Firecoach pumpers beginning in 1969. One of them, Engine 229, is shown here in an image by fire photojournalist Keith Cullom, while attending to a major commercial fire in the Wilshire district of Los Angeles.
Most Firecoaches saw duty within sight of the Pacific coast, although a couple were sold in Illinois and even in New Jersey. Unfortunately, the Brockway family sold the company to new owners who only needed a few years to bungle it into oblivion. The final completed Firecoach, a pumper built in conjunction with another local apparatus manufacturer, Van Pelt, was delivered to Santa Monica, California, in 1985. About 1,800 were built in all.
You learn quickly that its fans esteem the Firecoach. Several clubs exist, perhaps the biggest being the Crown Coach Historical Society, http://crowncoach.info, maintained by the Brockway family, and the Crown Firecoach Enthusiasts, www.crownfirecoachent.com. Keith, whose photography site is www.fire-image.com, followed the Crowns in a literal sense to 35 years in the Santa Barbara County Fire Department. “I grew up in Santa Monica, and rode downtown from there a couple of times a year to watch the Crowns being built,” he said. “It was the thing to do.”
This article originally appeared in the February, 2011 issue of Hemmings Classic Car.
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