- Written by webmin
Inspired by Jim Donnelly’s recent profile of Chrysler turbine pioneer George Huebner in the October 2010 issue of Hemmings Classic Car, Dave Collins thought we’d like to know about a very unique turbine-powered vehicle he personally had some experience with: a 1961 American-LaFrance pumper truck. Dave recalls that it was one of three that American-LaFrance built that year and the only one shipped to the East Coast – specifically, to Mount Vernon, Virginia, where Dave worked at the time as a professional firefighter. Dave thus had the chance to man the wheel of the pumper many times, even once driving it as far as Washington, D.C., to participate in a special display of turbine-powered vehicles. Dave writes:
It is a 1961 900-series American LaFrance, 1,000 gpm pumper. The engine was made by Boeing Aircraft. It weighed approximately 330 lbs. and gave us approximately 330 blown horsepower. If you note in the picture the clearance between the top of the tire and the front fender opening speaks to how light the engine was. The chrome stack that sorta looks like something off a steamship was the exhaust stack. The engine was rather unique in that it had an air intake at the front axle. There was an intake impeller, then two fireboxes, and then a second impeller. The first and second impellers were directly connected to each other by a single shaft. There was a third impeller inches from the second one, with no direct connection. The burning fuel in the fireboxes turned numbers 1 and 2 impellers. The thrust coming off #2 would turn #3. That 3rd impeller was connected to a gear-reduction box. Connected to the gear-reduction box was a normal flywheel and clutch and 5-speed transmission. Since there was no direct connection between #2 and #3 impellers, you could put the transmission in gear, hold the brake, and let the clutch out until you were ready to move, then let your foot off the brake and roll down the road. The gear-reduction box was needed due to the fact that the engine idled at 19 THOUSAND. Top RPM was 39,000. The starter and igniters brought the engine to 10,000 RPM. At that point incoming fuel was ignited by what was already in there burning. Under normal driving, we came out of the building starting in 5th gear because if you did normal shifting you lost too many rpm’s between each shift and therefore using 5th gear got you to top speed quicker. Lower gear starts were more for hills. Sometimes when starting the engine, you would get a hot start therefore flame came out the exhaust stack. Consequently, we had to install asbestos on the ceiling above the pumper. Also, the heat from the exhaust would break the window panes in the door in the winter-time, so we changed the center panes to heat-resistant glass. Engine fuel was kerosene. The apparatus was extremely fun to drive. At the time of purchase the engine was a $10,000 option.
A big draw-back was maintenance. If we had a problem, we had to fly a Boeing mechanic in to do the repairs and put him up in a motel. For one trip, he decided to stay in our bunkroom and naturally, it turned out to be a busy time and we ran all night, so he didn’t get any sleep.
San Francisco’s pumper was basically the same as this one. Seattle had theirs in a Tiller ladder-truck.
This was kept in service for about 10 years but not all of that as a turbine. The fuel control governor went out on it probably in 66-67. The cost would have been $3,000 at that time to replace it. The fuel control governor was basically a carburetor but needless to say, more complicated. Engine maintenance was starting to be cost-prohibitive, especially with having to fly in a mechanic from Boeing each time. When the turbine was removed, a continental inline 6-cyl was its replacement. The turbine was sold to a racer in California. Eventually the pumper ended up at our academy as a training piece for the recruits before being sold at auction.
UPDATE (24.September 2010): Dave also sent us this simplified drawing of the turbine that he sketched to give us a better idea of what was powering the fire engine.