Farewell to American LaFrance

After more than 100 years in business, American LaFrance (ALF) announced it was going out of business on January 17, 2014, ending its long history as a fire apparatus manufacturer. HERE, you can see both a visual history of the company’s products and the evolution of its fire apparatus. Below, John Malecky shares his memories of ALF apparatus, and Walt McCall offers a summary of the venerable manufacturer’s history.

HERE we offer series of old ALF advertisements as they appeared in The Fireman’s Journal in 1880; in Fire and Water in 1905; and in Fire Engineering in 1926, 1943, 1960, 1982, 2002, and 2006. 

John Malecky, Fire Engineering‘s Apparatus Deliveries author, offers some personal reminiscences of American LaFrance apparatus.

I was about four years old when my mom took me to the firehouse across the street from the grammar school that I would eventually attend. It was an American LaFrance pumper, complete with a heavy steering wheel and spoked wheels that the firefighter placed me on! My hometown of Bayonne, New Jersey, had some ALF apparatus, as did Jersey City to our north. So they were plentiful then, and there are still some ALFs in both cities.

Years ago, ALF demonstrators would have ‘AFD’ painted on the doors, which stood for ‘Anytown Fire Department.’ Many towns bought these popular rigs.  It’s a shame to see this company close, compounded by the loss of many jobs. I served in the Bayonne (NJ) Fire Department for 33 years and worked with these trucks. After I retired, I worked for an ALF dealer for three years, driving apparatus in for service and repair and also delivering new apparatus to customers. The farthest I ever drove was to the old R.D. Murray plant in Hamburg, New York, about an eight-hour drive. ALF had taken over the plant and built stainless-steel apparatus there. I brought a pumper up to have some additional piping added and drove it back to the dealer the next morning. I have no regrets about their performance.

Walt McCall, author of 100 Years of American LaFrance: An Illustrated History (2005) and American Fire Engines Since 1900 (1976), outlines a brief history of the company.

Once the colossus of the American fire apparatus industry, American LaFrance LLC (ALF) abruptly closed its South Carolina plant on January 17 –the sad end of a storied dynasty extending back 114 years (182 years if you include predecessor companies that trace their roots back to 1832). The American-LaFrance Fire Engine Company of Elmira, New York, was founded in 1904.

In 1927, the company acquired O.J. Childs Co. of Utica, New York, which had developed Foamite, a chemical foam fire suppression system. The firm was thereafter known as American-LaFrance–Foamite Corporation, until 1955.

Among the firm’s technical milestones, ALF produced its first successful motor fire apparatus in 1910; the industry’s first V-12 engine in 1931; and the first compact, forward-control service aerial in 1938. But its most iconic product was the revolutionary cab-forward fire apparatus design introduced in 1947. The industry-leading ALF 700 placed the driver ahead of the engine, vastly improving visibility and safety. Virtually all of today’s custom-chassis fire apparatus is of the same game-changing configuration ALF pioneered more than 60 years ago.

The January 2014 shutdown marks the third time ALF has gone out of business. The company closed its ancestral plant in Elmira in 1985, only to reappear the following year as a much smaller entity in Bluefield, Virginia. Eight years later, the successor company also shut its doors. In 1996, Freightliner Corporation revived ALF once more, introducing all-new ALF Eagle custom fire apparatus made in a modern new plant in Cleveland, North Carolina. Just five years later, ALF relocated to the Charleston, South Carolina, area, and in 2008, it moved into a huge new plant near Summerville, South Carolina. Amid incessant rumors, ALF moved to yet another new plant–its fourth–last year, where owner Patriarch Partners finally pulled the plug. This time it looks like American-LaFrance is down for the count. The legendary nameplate is about to join other once-revered names like Maxim, Pirsch and Ahrens-Fox in the pantheon of U.S. motor fire apparatus history.


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