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Guaranteed to light your fire

April 15, 2003, by Bill Cawthon

One of the nice things about writing these columns is I occasionally have the opportunity to check out a model before it hits the hobby shop shelves. Most often, as you'd expect, it's a new product from Promotex but sometimes it comes from another manufacturer. When it's a model as nice as Athearn's new Ford C-8000 Fire Truck, the privilege becomes a real treat.

The newest Athearn vehicle model won't be available until next month, but if you are a fan of 1:87-scale firefighting vehicles or have a modern-era fire station on your HO layout, place your advance order or have the proprietor of your favorite hobby shop promise to get them. This is a must-have model. I'm not a fire truck fan, but even I can't wait until I have one of my own.

Athearn's new Ford Rescue Pumper is among the world's best 1:87 scale fire truck models. Photograph by Bob Johnson.

The new Athearn fire truck is based on a prototype Ford C-8000 canopy cab-chassis with a "rescue pumper" body owned by a fire department near Athearn's California headquarters.

A rescue pumper is a first responder vehicle intended to fill multiple roles. Depending on the department's specifications, they can be equipped with everything from emergency medical equipment to the "Jaws of Life" tool for extricating victims from automobile accidents. They also carry the traditional implements like ladders and axes as well foam or water for fighting a fire. In most departments, the rescue pumper is the busiest piece of equipment, sometimes handling up to three-quarters of all calls.

If you are familiar with the Athearn Ford C-Series trucks, you know they are world-class products and are very nicely detailed. Based on the pre-production sample I saw, this new model will take that reputation to new heights. In fact, Athearn has likely set a new benchmark for firefighting vehicle models that will have even the German competition groaning. The pump control panel is beautiful; even the bezels on the gauges are trimmed in black. The hoses, deck gun and other details are equally well done. The embossed pattern on the diamond tread plate on the cab roof and hose covers is sharp and clearly defined.

Check out the beautifully detailed pump control panel and extra details like the safety bars between the cab and pumper body. Photograph by Bob Johnson.

Aside from the excellent reproduction of the parts you would expect on a quality model, Athearn has gone the extra mile, adding detail pieces I haven't seen before on any production model. Safety bars between the canopy and pumper body, covers on the ends of the ladders, even the warning to "Stay Back 300 Feet" are all present and painted. This is as "ready-to-roll" as it gets. The only detailing you will need to add is to all the other vehicles in your fire department to bring them up to the Athearn model's level. What's truly amazing is that you get all this for a suggested retail price of $24.98.

Athearn will offer the Ford fire truck in six different paint schemes covering the most common fire department liveries. Athearn did quite a bit of research on paint colors used by fire departments, so the colors are as close as possible to those found in the real world.

Of course, the model is prototypical for North American-themed layouts, but one of the important things to know about a model is the era for which it is suited, especially when it's based on a truck that was in production for so long.

To get a better idea about the model's proper time frame, I turned to a couple of experts: my friend Bob Johnson and Jeff Webster, a Pennsylvania fireman and fire truck model fan.

Bob told me the Ford C-8000 was produced from 1957 to 1990, but units built at the end of the run might have been considered as 1991 models. The basic Athearn cab would be generally correct for any of those years except for the four years between 1958 and 1961 when Ford equipped the C-series truck with quad headlights, but the canopy cab was a later modification. From information I have found, most early Ford COE fire trucks used the standard cab with a bench seat.

In this shot, you can see the detailed hoses, slam locks and safety caps on the ladders. There is even the safety warning on the rear panels. Photograph by Bob Johnson.

Narrowing things down a bit farther, Jeff said the rescue pumper became popular in the 1980s as did the canopy cab style. He also noted the treadplate and deck gun appeared to be more modern and ventured an opinion the prototype Athearn used might have been a refurbished unit, that is, an older chassis with a new body. In addition, the Code 3 light bar used on the Athearn model was in widespread use by the late 1980s so the consensus is the model is suitable for any period from roughly 1987 to today.

But what if you need a nice fire truck for a layout set in an earlier time; say the 1970s? It's not a problem, according to Jeff Webster. First, remove the hose cover or replace it with something that resembles a tarp. Tissue paper soaked with a mixture of white glue and water works well for this. If you need to backdate much beyond the late 1980s, you will also need to replace the Code 3 light bar. An older-style light bar, like the Federal Twinsonic used on some Roco models or the Aerodynic found on older Trident models will work. The Twinsonic was introduced in 1970, the Aerodynic in the early 1980s. Both Trident and Roco offered these light bars separately in accessory sets, but those sets seem to have gone out of production. You can also use the warning lights Busch offers in the No. 49962 accessory set. Those will get you back to the mid-1960s, if need be.

Personally, I think the modern equipment will suit me just fine. Pikestuff has a nice modern fire station kit that will work just fine for a small volunteer department. I already have the Busch American LaFrance pumper, which can serve nicely as the "older" unit as it is based on the Century series trucks built from the mid-1970s to the 1980s. It's tempting to add one of Trident's brushfire trucks, but the Trident Chevy is based on an prototype from the early 1980s, so that might be a bit too old. Trident has finally produced the 1990-something Ford F-350 crew cab they have promised for several years, and it needs a bit of work to be a presentable model in any case, so perhaps grafting the mini-pumper body onto the Ford frame might be a worthwhile project. Of course, there's the option of simply adding an ambulance instead of the brushfire truck. Busch's new Ford E-350 is quite good-looking. A chief's car is no problem and Promotex has a nice model of a Jeep Grand Cherokee that would make a good command vehicle.

On second thought, perhaps that Pikestuff station isn't quite big enough.

This brings me to my one and only complaint; one I actually feel a bit churlish for bringing up. The Athearn model is too complete. While I know that some modelers will look forward to stripping the Athearn model down and giving it a complete makeover, I would be happy with a basic red engine with no department markings. Then I could simply add decals and create a uniform look for all my fire apparatus. As it is, the thought of treating the Athearn model to a bath in Polly S ELO is a bit like taking turpentine to the Mona Lisa because it doesn't quite fit with the furnishings. Perhaps Athearn could work a deal with Microscale to produce decals of the Athearn markings for use on other models.

My miniscule quibble aside, the new Athearn model is outstanding. It deserves a place in any collection of scale fire trucks or on any modern layout where it can protect your scale citizens.

The new Athearn fire truck will be offered in six prototypical paint schemes. Photograph by Bob Johnson.

So what about future releases? The first round of Athearn fire trucks are pretty generic, like "County Fire Department," "Fire Protection District" and "Fire Rescue." However, Jeff Webster said many departments used real fire engines like the Athearn model across the United States. Chicago, Los Angeles and Washington D.C. all used the canopy-cab Ford. Perhaps we will see a future Athearn model in Chicago's famous red-and-black.

How about the New York City Fire Department? It's probably the most popular modeling subject among fans of American fire truck models. To save a bit of research time, I again turned to the experts. Michael Martinelli is a Hackensack, New Jersey firefighter and a photographer for Fire Apparatus Journal magazine. He is also the proprietor of, the largest website devoted to pictures of fire apparatus. Michael told me FDNY had only a few large Fords of any type in its fleet and the only C-series truck of which he was aware was a flatbed wrecker acquired when the department took over responsibility for emergency medical service. Jeff added that FDNY used mostly Mack and American-LaFrance equipment up until the 1990s, when the department began to standardize on Seagrave trucks.

I want to express my appreciation to Jeff Webster and Michael Martinelli for their expert assistance with this column. Special thanks to Bob Johnson for his help and for the great photographs. In his note, Jeff said he hopes Athearn will consider making a rescue truck using the standard cab for the next firefighting model. Sounds like a plan to me.

See you next time!

- Bill Cawthon

Bill Cawthon is an award-winning modeller and collector. His primary modeling interests are model railroading and vehicle models in 1:87 and 1:160 scales. He has written numerous articles for regional and division NMRA publications and is a contributor to the newsletter of the 1-87 Vehicle Club. He follows both the automobile industry and the European scale vehicle industry.

In real life, Bill is a full-time marketing and public relations consultant for the high-tech industry. He lives in Houston, Texas with his wife and four children.

Bill writes bi-weekly for Promotex Online. To learn more about him, click here.


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