the Motorized Era


Fire Engines in the age of
gasoline powered vehicles.

The gasoline engine changed fire vehicles as much as the steam engine had in previous years. Experiments with steam power moving steam pumpers never quite worked. It took too many precious minutes to power up the engine once the alarm was sounded. Horses were quicker to the fire. Now the pump could be powered by the same source that moved the vehicle.


Early gas motors were used in tractors to pull steam pumpers. Many horse drawn steamers were converted to be pulled by a motorized tractor. Horses were a big expense and the tractors were more economical. For a few years new stream pumpers were built with gas powered front ends. Soon the gas engine was powering both needs.



Early motor cars were called "horseless carriages". Early gasoline powered fire engines looked like horseless wagons. The wheels had wooden spokes and the decoration was the same style found on fancy horse-powered vehicles. The forms of a leather dash and fenders from a carriage appear in sheet metal on early motorized fire engines. Flat sheet metal surfaces were often striped with boxes to resemble wood panel construction.

The two-toned paint jobs of horse-drawn vehicles were also used on early motor engines. An expensive color was used on the body of the engine. The frame, axles, pump and wheels would be painted a cheaper color. These parts would need to be touched-up or repainted before the body. Bright vermilion red was cheap and it covered well. A common design was a dark carmine red body with vermilion running gear.

The Seagrave company continued a theme from 19th century paint shops. Every engine had unique decoration. The placement of the scrolls was consistent on most Seagrave engines, but the details of each scroll were custom designs. This was a hold-over from the Fancy Style of 100 years before. The painter had the freedom to improvise new designs on every engine. Flowers, birds, shells, fish, animal heads and many leaf forms appear on this company's fire engines.


The Ahrens-Fox company used 23 karat gold decals for their corner scrolls. The scroll designs continued the traditional Renaissance leaf images used for years on fire engines. The new technology of lithography updated the technique but not the motifs. The gold stripes, white lines and lettering were still hand painted.



The photo above shows the first American LaFrance motorized vehicle. Their engines had large Renaissance style gold leaf scrolls reminiscent of the shaded scroll work on early hand engines. The scrolls were built from calligraphic brush strokes, like connecting the units of Lego toys. Designs could be made to fill any size and shape surface by combining leaf units. The scrolls always harmonize with each other and with the scrolls on any other American LaFrance engine from any other year.