More than 20 years ago, a group of men who regularly met for coffee were invited to help with a challenging project.
Now each Tuesday, these volunteers take a step back in time with a goal of keeping a 95-year-old American LaFrance fire truck that once served the City of Anacortes.
With its glossy red paint, gold details and open top, the truck catches attention both in parades and in the occasional jaunt down a street for a maintenance test drive.
The truck didn’t always look so spectacular, though, and it didn’t always run. Keeping it running gives the volunteers an ongoing project that never really ends.
Purchased by the city at a fire equipment expo in San Francisco in 1924, the truck served the City of Anacortes until the 1950s. Then it fell into disrepair, according to volunteers.
In 1995, a firefighter took on the mission to fix it but ran into too many challenges. So when Loren Knudson found out about the project a few years later, he asked his coffee group to help.
“When he got it, it was all in pieces, and he had no idea how it went together,” volunteer Mike McCunn said.
Knudson led the charge to fix up the old truck.
He appealed to the city, which agreed to pay for parts and for outside help as needed if volunteers would do the majority of work.
The truck was stationed first at someone’s house and then at various fire houses around Fidalgo Island, but it took up room and always needed to be moved. After a few years at the Dewey Beach station, it was moved to Summit Park. Later, it was moved to an open building in town owned by Len Dawson.
The truck is a show model and there is nothing quite like it in the world, Allen Bush said. That makes fixing it and getting parts difficult.
“There’s no manual,” he said.
When the men started their rebuild of the classic fire truck, it just had a frame and the rest of the truck was in pieces. They put on the tires and started rebuilding.
While most of the volunteers have experience restoring cars or working on machines, there is still guesswork involved for a truck unlike any they have ever seen.
“It should be simple, and yet it’s not working,” volunteer Gary Follstad said.
Sometimes, it’s as simple as picking up a piece and trying it out everywhere until it fits, Allen Bush said.
The team also rebuilds and repairs working parts, because new ones don’t exist. Broken pieces must be repaired and tried again.
There are places around the country that can repair parts, but sending them off is risky, Clay Leming said. If an irreplaceable part gets lost or more damaged in transit, the truck may never run again.
They’re also heavy. The clutch itself weighs more than 100 pounds and it has to be lined up right to be put in. It often takes several tries.
“It’s a learning experience,” McCunn said.
The volunteers keep a log of what they do and what successes they have so that people in the future might continue their work.
“Every week we find or solve a new problem. Or both,” said Dick Storwick, who helps lead the effort to restore the old engine.
He said he got involved because of an interest in mechanical systems. He said fixing the truck is like working a crossword puzzle. A person plans to work on it for a few minutes and then, pretty soon, they are dedicated to learning all the answers.
Repairs can be slow, but eventually, the truck came together and started running … for a while. It still stalls out at some speeds, McCunn said.
“Five miles an hour is as slow as it can go,” he said.
Though many of them have been hard at work on the project for years, they don’t see themselves slowing down now.
“It sucks you in,” McCunn said. “It really is a piece of artwork. This is a creative process.”
Follstad agreed. He said when he sees it driving down the road, looking the way it would have looked in 1924, he wants to make sure it keeps going.
“You get overwhelmed with it,” he said.
The men are trying do the repairs necessary to have the truck available to drive around town, in parades and be a showpiece for the city.
The truck went through a makeover recently. An artist from Portland named Mitch Kim spent hours repainting it, adding shiny gold details and making the truck a showstopper, McCunn said.
“This guy was just a true artist,” Bush said.
A picture of it taken on the Fourth of July is being put on a national calendar, he said.