LAFAYETTE, Ind. - John Gambs is a Lafayette lawyer ... but a
part of him is a resolute fire captain behind the wheel of a big,
red, 1924 American-LaFrance pumper truck.
Bells are clanging, kids are yelling and dogs are barking as he
and his men roar away, going hell-for-leather to another scorcher.
"If you're in the right mood, you can feel like you're back in
the 1920s," says Gambs, who owns one of the finest collections of
original antique fire engines in the United States.
He had 25 once, but has narrowed it down to a dozen. That's
besides a slew of antique cars and pickup trucks, plus a 1932
Parisian bus and mounds of vintage fire helmets, nozzles, axes and
alarm boxes.
"To do this, you have to admit that you're absolutely insane,
accept it and go on," Gambs says with a laugh. "There's no
justifying it."
His hobby fills five barns and garages on his wooded, 23-acre
property a few miles east of Romney. The choicest vehicles are kept
in heated buildings.
The fire engines are so rare that several were featured on
national TV, through "Personal fX: The Collectibles Show," in
1995. "A couple of people called us about (Gambs') collection,"
says Chandler Hayes, publicist for the New York based program.
"Our producers were flabbergasted when they saw it. I thought they
were talking about toy fire engines; I had no idea they were real
ones."
That put Gambs in the company of other "super collectors,"
including a Boston man with 300,000 marbles and a Chicagoan with
24,000 sets of cufflinks.
Gambs, former president of the Society for the Preservation &
Appreciation of Antique Motor Fire Apparatus in America, was born
to rescue aged fire engines, it seems.
His father sold new GMC fire trucks and often parked them
outside the family home in Columbus, Ohio.
"There was always a fire engine at my house. I thought it was
normal," Gambs says. "We'd squirt water and run the sirens."
At 11, using money earned delivering newspapers, he bid $75 for
an old fire engine that a local department wanted to get rid of. It
went to a scrap dealer for $85.
"I've been saving this stuff ever since," Gambs says. "I've
got a disease."
His wife, Kathy, calls his fossil-fueled passion "the best
'other woman' I've ever known." It's a love affair, pure and
simple.
At 12, Gambs paid $35 for his first car: a 1929 Packard.
In 1971, Gambs bought his first fire engine, a 1927
American-LaFrance. Collectors favored antique cars, so old fire
engines often sold for $500 or so.
They're fun to work on, he says, because they're high quality,
heavy duty, and low mileage. Many 50-year-old pumpers have been
driven fewer than 5,000 miles.
Gambs has his own shop and tons of parts. He and several friends
sometimes spend three years getting one vehicle ready for final
painting. Gambs' collection is unusual because many of the early
engines still have their original fittings, paint, gold leafing and
elaborate lettering.
Three 1916 fire engines stand out. An Ahrens-Fox came from
Carlisle, Pa.; a Watrous was used in Swedesboro, N.J., and an
American-LaFrance served Evelyth, Minn. All sat in barns,
untouched, for about 50 years.
"If they'd been parked outside for six months, they'd be
junk," Gambs says.
Gambs loves to share the stories that accompany various pieces.
For instance, he rescued a 1929 Ahrens-Fox aerial truck from a
junkyard in Hattiesburg, Miss. Its first owner was the New Orleans
Fire Department.
Gambs was told the truck once rescued 21 prostitutes from a
brothel fire on Bourbon Street in the French Quarter.
The search for equipment never ends. Gambs recently traded for a
1918 White fire engine, restored and decorated so elaborately with
gold leaf that it probably looks even better than new.
"It's the chase that's fun," he says.
Perhaps his greatest prize isn't the rarest, or the most
valuable, or the most eye-catching. It's the 1946 Pirsch that Gambs
drove when he was a college student, 40 years ago at Notre Dame.
Notre Dame's longtime fire chief, Brother Borromeo Malley, made
the decision. He and Gambs had lived in the firehouse together, and
he wanted "Babe," as the truck was known, to go to a good home.
There's no doubt that if he didn't have the means, desire and
storage space, many magnificent machines, and their fascinating
stories, would be lost forever.
"You're not the owner," Gambs says. "You're just preserving
it for the next guy."
Distributed by The Associated Press

(Copyright 2003 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)