Old No. 5 has seen better days.
When first joining the Mount Airy Fire Department around 1967, No. 5 was fresh off the assembly line of American LaFrance, a major U.S. manufacturer of fire trucks at that time. Its traditional fire engine-red color was enhanced by glimmering chrome bumpers and all the other bells and whistles that then made it the pride of the city’s fleet.
Eventually the fire truck — the fifth one acquired by the department since it first was obtained in 1916, hence its No. 5 tag — was mustered out of service and sold as surplus property, remaining in private hands for about two decades.
But after nearly 50 years since it first arrived here and many miles and blazes later, the venerable No. 5 has found its way back to a bay at the city fire station on Rockford Street via a circuitous route.
Unlike its early days, the once-bright red paint is now faded, parts have rusted, there are mechanical issues and the old fire truck otherwise has seen better times. However, a project is now under way to restore No. 5 to its former glory.
That goal is multi-pronged — preserving an important part of Mount Airy history, and also allowing it to be seen on the streets by the public on a regular basis.
“We really don’t have an antique parade truck,” Fire Chief Zane Poindexter said of a vehicle that most longtime fire departments tend to possess. “We wanted a piece of our history we could take around town.”
The first three fire trucks acquired by the municipality are preserved and on public display at Mount Airy Museum of Regional History.
“We’ve got a wonderful exhibit in the basement of the museum,” Poindexter said, “but we can’t get any of those out — they’re built in with the building.” In addition to the 1916 fire truck, the exhibit includes 1926 and 1946 models.
Meanwhile, the whereabouts of the fourth fire truck purchased by the Mount Airy Fire Department also are accounted for — that vehicle is rusting away in Fancy Gap, Va., which causes Poindexter to cringe every time he passes through on the way to Hillsville.
The outlook is better for No. 5, which will become the oldest drivable fire truck of those used by Mount Airy over the last century. But its fate was uncertain at one time.
“It was surplused back in the early 1990s and sold at auction,” Poindexter said of the vehicle’s chronology.
The fire truck fell into the hands of Chris DiRusso, a local attorney, who recently came into contact with department personnel as a result of a fire inspection. “And he got to talking with the guys and he was thinking about getting rid of it, and one of the guys came and told me,” Poindexter continued.
“We asked to have first dibs,” he said of the old truck. “We expressed an interest in getting it back.”
After meeting with City Manager Barbara Jones on the matter, an arrangement emerged. “He donated it to us,” the fire chief said of DiRusso.
And soon No. 5 was back in the fire department’s fold, where it has been since late 2013.
Now the challenge with old No. 5 is to get the vehicle back into good condition, both mechanically and aesthetically. “We’ve actually had it running,” the fire chief reported of the truck that never again will run fire calls but be used for exhibition purposes.
“It’s in real good shape,” Poindexter said of the relative condition of the 1967 model, mentioning that it had been mostly stored inside. “It’s been taken care of — Chris took real good care of it while he had it.”
There is still a major restoration effort involved, added Poindexter, who said a fundraising campaign is under way by the Mount Airy Fire Department Ladies Auxiliary to generate about $30,000 for the repairs through private donations. Contributions can be mailed to the auxiliary at 439 Rockford St., Mount Airy, NC 27030.
“Right now we’re in the process of getting the brakes worked on,” the fire chief said. And the gas tank was removed due to being consumed by rust.
The truck also will need a new paint job and some of its parts re-chromed, among other tasks.
Fire department members with mechanical and other automotive knowledge are working on the project on a volunteer basis during their off-duty time. Expertise from veteran mechanics in the area also is being tapped into, Poindexter said.
As is the case with many vehicle restorations, the refurbishing of old No. 5 will be a work in progress, with the fire chief indefinite as to its completion. “We don’t have a projected date,” he said.
Yet the end result will allow Mount Airy residents to witness history literally pass by them.
“Everybody (now) has to come to the museum to see our exhibit,” the chief said of the other three fire engines.
“This one we can take to them.”
Tom Joyce may be reached at 336-719-1924 or on Twitter @Me_Reporter.