The Demise of American LaFrance … Again

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So, American LaFrance (ALF) has closed its doors once again. Although this comes of no surprise to me or to anyone else in the fire apparatus industry, it brings to an end a 175-year saga in which the company seemed to have nine lives.

The companies that eventually formed ALF built hand-drawn, hose-drawn and steam-powered fire apparatus as far back as 1832. ALF itself started operations in 1903 in a large factory in Elmira, N.Y. It acquired the Foamite Childs Co. almost 25 years later.

In the early 1980s ALF underwent another corporate change, becoming a division of Figgie International, which owned Snorkel, Scott Aviation, Automatic Sprinkler and Safety Supply America. It moved out of the older East La France Street plant in Elmira and into a larger, 500,000-square-foot plant, just down the road. But this location didn’t last long; in 1985, Figgie announced it was shutting down the plant. At this point, ALF had been in operation in one form or another in New York—once known as the fire engine capital of the world—for more than 150 years.

But the closure didn’t keep ALF down for long. The company started up in Bluefield, W.Va., in another plant occupied by Kersey Manufacturing and also owned by Figgie International. The new company would be known as Kersey American LaFrance. History soon repeated itself, and in 1994 Figgie announced that it would again close down ALF.

It wasn’t down for long, because in 1996, Freightliner Corporation, under the leadership of Jim Hebe (a former ALF employee), purchased the company. Freightliner put a great deal of money into ALF, building a chassis plant in North Carolina that primarily built ALF’s Eagle cabs and chassis for any manufacturer interested building their own bodies.

But that plan didn’t last long either. Hebe bought LTI to make ladders for ALF and purchased 3D, Boardman, RD Murray, Rescue Master, Snorkel and a host of other companies. ALF began building the entire line of apparatus and moved into a vacant Western Star truck plant in Ladson, S.C.

In 2005, it was announced that Patriarch Partners, a New York-based investment firm, had bought the company. However, in 2007, ALF moved into yet another home: a new, 500,000 square foot building in Summerville, S.C.

This, too, was short-lived; in 2008 the company filed bankruptcy. A new business plan was devised where the cabs and chassis would be built in Summerville along with the Condor line (commercial vehicles) and the fire truck bodies would be made at the old RD Murray plant in Hamburg, N.Y., and the LTI plant in Ephrata, Pa. However, this plan was also changed; the RD Murray plant shut down and half of the LTI plant closed.

ALF had since moved out of the Summerville plant into a smaller plant in Moncks Corner, S.C. Last month, Patriarch announced that—due to unexpected current financial conditions— the company would cease operations. ALF’s historical collection of museum-quality apparatus will remain at the North Charleston American LaFrance Museum and Fire Education Center.

In its heyday, ALF was known as the Cadillac of the fire apparatus industry. It produced thousands of apparatus of various makes and models and was known to be an innovator. It’s truly a shame that we will never see the distinctive rounded edges of the American LaFrance cab again.

Or will we? You never know what the future will bring. ALF certainly does have a history of coming back. And by my count, they’ve only used up eight of those nine lives.

Sidebar: ALF Apparatus Fire and Commercial (courtesy Truck Planet)

  • Commercial vehicles: Condor, C.T.C., Big Chief, 2R/3R/5R, Type 6
  • Concept vehicles: 1000 Series Turbo Chief, 900 Series Turbo Chief
  • Military vehicles: YDXF1, Type 0-10/0-11A/0-11B, 500 Series Army Air Corps, Type 500/600, TK 6
  • Specialty vehicles:
    •    Eagle
    •    Metropolitan
    •    Patriot
    •    Century 2000
    •    E10
    •    Spartan II
    •    Spartan/1
    •    Century
    •    Pacemaker
    •    Pacemaker with PemFab cab
    •    1000 Series
    •    Pioneer III
    •    Pioneer II
    •    Pioneer I
    •    Airport Chief
    •    900 Series
    •    900 Series Airport Chief
    •    800 Series
    •    700 Series
    •    Type 600
    •    600 Series
    •    Type 500
    •    Type 500 with International cab
    •    500 Series
    •    JO / JOX
    •    400 Senior Series
    •    400 Junior Series
    •    300 Series
    •    200 Series Master
    •    Type 231 / 233
    •    100 Series Metropolitan
    •    Type 97 / 99 / 199 / 299 / 399 (GMC chassis)
    •    Type 91 / 92 / 94 / 96
    •    Type 36 / 46 / 63 / 66 (Brockway chassis)
    •    Type 32 (Ford Model T chassis)
    •    Type 31
    •    Type 23 / 25 / 26 / 28 / 30 / 33
    •    Type 18 / 21 / 22 / 24 / 29
    •    Type 17
    •    Type 15 / 19
    •    Type 14
    •    Type 13 / 16
    •    Type 12 / 20 / 34 to 56 / 69 to 75 / 80 / 85 / 90
    •    Type 10 / 39 to 41 / 60 to 68 / 78 / 82 / 89
    •    Type 5