Fire Engines by Reader’s Digest

Mike Pigott returns to the subject of fire engines with a look at this unusual range that was given as a premium with subscriptions to Reader’s Digest books.The long-running and popular monthly magazine Reader’s Digest contains a selection of condensed articles on a wide range of subjects, and for many years was one of the best-selling magazines in the world. Reader’s Digest also publishes books; probably the best known of these are Condensed Books, which are hardcover volumes containing four abridged novels. There are also sets of encyclopaedia and large reference books.

To encourage sales of the books, Reader’s Digest often sends premiums with book orders. While these are frequently things such as pens or coffee mugs, they can occasionally be diecast models. Sets of two or four models were given as the ‘free mystery gift’ with large reference books, while individual models from a series were included with each condensed book or encyclopaedia volume. There were various types of model vehicles given away, including vintage cars, classic cars, classic trams, trains, delivery vans and vintage planes. And, as we’re about to see, fire engines!

The fire engine series consisted of eight different models of classic American fire trucks. They were only issued in the USA, and were produced in 2000. Like most of the Reader’s Digest models, they were made by Chinese budget company High Speed. As with many models from this manufacturer, quality and accuracy was somewhat lacking. However, what made the series collectable was the extremely unusual models included; they were all-new castings and not copies of other brands, as was the case with Summer Toys. Some of them were fire engines from incredibly obscure companies… where else are you going to find a Knox-Martin or a Task Master?

HORSE-DRAWN PUMPERUnfortunately, the first model in the range was incorrectly credited as ‘Horse-Drawn Pumper’, which it wasn’t. Horse-drawn fire engines had steam-powered pumps mounted at the rear, and had shafts for the horses at the front. The version modelled is actually a very early self-propelled fire engine, possibly electric powered, of indeterminate marque. Like all the models in the range it had one diecast component, in this case being the chassis and dash. The engine and pump mechanism is in black plastic, with an unusual M-shaped cover. A large bench seat is fitted at the front, with a balloon-shaped air pump mounted behind. Suction hoses are fitted around the sides. The wheels are in red plastic, with fairly detailed spokes, and are larger at the rear. The model is painted red with gold trim on the seat, rails and front bell with some very intricate coachlining on the engine cover.

1914 KNOX-MARTINThe Knox-Martin company of Massachusetts was not technically a fire engine manufacturer. It actually produced small three-wheeled tractors to allow older fire engines to be converted from horse-drawn to motorized vehicles. Only one Knox-Martin fire engine still exists in a museum in California, so presumably this is what the model is based on. Knox-Martin tractors had a steering column that extended across the bonnet to the single front wheel, which gave a very tight turning circle.

The model represents a three-wheeled tractor combined with a steam-powered pumper. There is one diecast component, which consists of the chassis of both sections, the bonnet and seats. The base, boiler and side rails are in black plastic, as is the accurately shaped, if too thick, steering column. The top of the boiler, grille, steps and bell are in chrome plastic. The wheels are black plastic, and an odd mix – with a single front wheel, dual centre wheels and large spoked wheels at rear. The model is painted dark red with black seats.

1919 PIRSCHPeter Pirsch and Sons, Inc was founded in Kenosha, Wisconsin in 1899, and initially built horse-drawn fire engines and ladders. Within a few years the company began producing motorized fire trucks on proprietary chassis. By 1926, Pirsch produced its own fully-built fire engines, and was one of the major players in the industry until the company folded in 1987.

The Reader’s Digest model is based on a 1919 Pirsch, which is one of the appliances built on another company’s chassis; as the front grille is rather crude it is impossible to tell which marque. The layout of this vehicle is typical of American fire engines of the era, with an open cab, centre-mounted pumps, rear hose beds, and a platform at rear for the firemen to ride on. The front half of the model’s bodywork is diecast, which includes the bonnet, front wings and seats. The rear section is plastic and consists of the hose bed area, which contains a brown ‘wood effect’ platform, two black hose reels and a red hand rail. A brown ladder and a pair of suction hoses are mounted on the sides. The base is black plastic and includes the running boards and rear platform , and a separate steering wheel is fitted. The wheels are gold with spokes and separate rubber tyres. The grille, headlights, and bell are chrome plastic, as are the chemical fire tanks behind the seats. The model is finished in dark red with gold coachlining on the sides of the bonnet and seats.

1924 BUFFALOBuffalo was a fire extinguisher company formed in 1895 in the New York State town of the same name. In 1922 the company began producing fire engines, initially on other firm’s chassis, and from 1928 on its own platform. Buffalo was a major American fire engine manufacturer for many years, and was known for its modern, stylish appliances. After the war, the company pulled out of the fire engine market and went back to making extinguishers.

The model from Reader’s Digest is a 1924 model, so like the previous model it is based on the chassis of an uncertain manufacturer. It has the bonnet, front fenders and bodywork as far as the seats in metal. The rear section is plastic, and incorporates the hose bed. There are four hose reels in this area, with the hoses touched up in white. The base, including the running boards and rear platform is in black plastic, as is the seat, dash and steering wheel. The grille, headlights, spotlights, tool boxes and side pumps are in chrome plastic. A brown ladder and pair of white suction hoses are attached to the sides, and being a Buffalo, there are plenty of fire extinguishers fitted. The wheels are surprisingly realistic, with duals fitted at rear and separate rubber tyres.

1939 WARD LAFRANCEThe Ward LaFrance Corporation was not connected to the better known American LaFrance Company, other than the company having been founded by a member of the same family in 1916. Based in New York State, Ward LaFrance specialised in all types of trucks and commercial vehicles, in addition to fire trucks. The first fire engines were built in 1930, and continued until the company closed in 1979.

This model is one of very few miniature Ward LaFrance vehicles produced over the years. Based on a 1939 model, it has a standard American fire engine layout, but sporting a modern, streamlined look with a flashy chrome grille and rear wheel spats. Like the previous models, it has a metal bonnet and cab, with the rear half in plastic. A windscreen is part of the cab casting, but with no glazing. The cab interior is black plastic, as is the base which includes the running boards and rear platform. There is fake woodgrain panelling in the hose bed, together with two black hose reels. The grille, front bumper and side-mounted pumps are in chrome plastic. A ladder and three suction hoses are mounted on the sides, and there is a spotlight either side of the cab. Wheels are the same as the Buffalo, and there is gold coachlining printed on the doors.

1948 TASK MASTERDespite trawling my many reference books on trucks and fire engines, and performing various internet searches, I could find absolutely no mention of a manufacturer called Task Master. Possibly it was a small, short-lived manufacturer, or perhaps Reader’s Digest got it wrong, and Task Master was a model designation. What is clear is that this fire engine is built on to the cab and chassis of a 1948 Chevrolet truck, so presumably Task Master did conversions of proprietary trucks.

This model had a fully-enclosed cab, which leads to a sweeping , streamlined rear section. Again, only the front half is diecast, and the cab has no glazing. The interior and base are in black plastic. The rear bed has a brown ‘woodgrain’ platform with two black hose reels, plus a brown ladder and pair of black hoses mounted on the sides. Rather unusually for a post-war truck, the plated parts – grille, front bumper and pump outlets – are given a golden finish. The wheels are like the previous models but in brown rather than red. There is intricate gold lining on the bonnet sides and doors.

1954 AHRENS-FOXAhrens-Fox is probably best remembered for its classic fire engines with the front-mounted pumps and spherical air chambers. These were regarded as the ‘Rolls-Royces’ of fire engines by American fire crews, and many remained in service for decades. However, Ahrens-Fox also made cheaper models that were more conventional looking, including some on other firms’ chassis.

The model shown here appears to be one of the Ahrens-Fox budget models. The front grille is rather crudely moulded, but it doesn’t have the split grille of an Ahrens-Fox cab; I suspect it is based on a GMC truck. Again only the front section is diecast. The truck has a closed cab with a black interior and no windows. The rear half is plastic with a pair of hose reels, a ladder and two suction hoses. The grille and pump panels are chrome plastic, although the front bumper is a separate red plastic part. The base is black plastic and the wheels are the same as previous models. A red dome light is mounted on the cab roof, and there is gold signwriting on the doors.

1974 MACKProbably the most recognisable vehicle has to be the 1974 Mack, based on the long-running Mack CF fire engine. The Mack CF was a forward-control fire truck that was produced between 1967 and 1990. It was produced in aerial ladder, pumper and aerial platform configurations, and was one of the most widely-used fire engines in the USA.

The model Mack CF has a diecast cab, in red with mask-sprayed upper section. The interior is again black plastic, and the lack of glazing is most notable in this type of cab. The rear section is in red plastic, with two small hose reels fitted, a chrome bar with spotlights, a short ladder and a single suction hose fitted. The base is plated, and includes the front grille, bumper and headlights, plus the rear platform, and the pump panels are also chromed. There is a clear red roof light and three horns on the cab roof, plus scrollwork on the front doors. Wheels are the same as the previous models.

PACKAGINGThe models were packaged in picture boxes with a photo of the enclosed vehicle on both sides and on the end flaps. They were fitted into vac-form trays.

 

This range appears to have been only issued in the USA, and were not sent to subscribers in the UK or other countries. They do turn up frequently on the internet, so a good deal of them must have been distributed. However, it is very hard to find a full set for sale; so presumably not too many people completed their book subscriptions! Some of the castings have turned up as premiums from German breweries.

The Reader’s Digest fire engines are interesting, if lacking in quality. They are fairly cheaply-made items, and lack such basic parts like glazing. They are all in the livery of the generic ‘No. 1 Fire Dept’. However, what sets them apart is the fairly uncommon marques modelled – of which several are completely unique – making them a must for fire engine collectors.

 

This article originally appeared in the January 2021 issue of Diecast Collector magazine.

Text and photos (C) Mike Pigott 2021.

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