Ballam: American LaFrance Assets Picked Like a Turkey Carcass

Oct. 21, 2014
Late this summer, an auction of about $8M in fire truck parts was held at the American LaFrance South Carolina plant. Where did it all go?

Late this summer, there was an auction of all the remaining assets of American LaFrance, including half completed fire trucks, engines, pumps and all kinds of parts and accessories.

The question that remains is where did all the parts go, especially the proprietary stuff that will only fit American LaFrance apparatus? That’s a big question for those fire departments who bought ALF apparatus recently.

It’s a good question, but I don’t have the answers and there doesn’t seem to be anyone who can say either.

The auction at the Moncks Corner, S.C., plant was held on Aug. 27 and the auction house charged with liquidating the assets of the defunct truck builder said there was $8 million of inventory to be sold in over 1,200 individual lots representing 2.5 million parts.

Among those parts were 14 brand new Cummins diesel engines of various horsepower and rates, two pumpers that seemed almost completed--one went for a mere $50,000, eight fire pumps from Hale, Darley and Waterous, axles, Bostrom seats, Hannay hose reels, Whelen lights and all manner of parts that go with building fire trucks.

The auction was ordered by Berkeley County, S.C., to recoup delinquent taxes.

A bit of history might be in order to fully understand and appreciate the significance of the auction. In January, American LaFrance abruptly ceased operations and shuttered plants in Moncks Corner, Los Angeles and the former Ladder Towers Inc., (LTI) complex in Ephrata, Pa.

Hundreds of jobs were lost, departments didn’t get new fire trucks they were expecting and lots of creditors, including Berkeley County, were left on the hook for tens of millions of dollars of credit and inventory American LaFrance had acquired during the course of operation, but apparently couldn’t manage.

A news release from American LaFrance issued on Jan. 17 said; “Unfortunately, the company’s unexpected current financial condition requires the discontinuation of operations in these locations at this time and these facilities are not expected to reopen.”

That was perhaps one of the biggest understatements of the year. Not only did they not reopen, they were shuttered and locked by creditors looking to protect assets. It was the end of more than eight years of operations by Patriarch Partners, a New York-based investment firm that took over in 2005. Just after two years of operations, American LaFrance filed for bankruptcy in January 2008 citing $100 million in debts. 

The company shed the debt, got a boost from Berkley County and other agencies on to sputter and fail again earlier this year. It was at least the third time American LaFrance had been resurrected only to crash and burn as many times.

It’s difficult to know how many fire departments were left in the lurch by ALF’s sudden and unexpected closure. There was one truck that was almost done that went for $50,000. It could have been one that was due to a Rhode Island fire department.

The Manville, R.I., Fire District placed an order for a $685,000 quint in 2012 and had expected delivery of the unit by August 2013. The apparatus was five months overdue when the plant closed in January. Just weeks before, the district’s fire chief had traveled to South Carolina to check on the truck, found that it was three quarters complete and was promised a February 2014 delivery date.

That didn’t happen and Manville was worried about the status of the $300,000 down payment it had given to American LaFrance for the truck. Fortunately, the district had a performance bond on the apparatus and after several nail biting months, it got its money back. The community is in negotiations with Smeal Fire Apparatus for another aerial.

Ironically, it was Smeal that acquired the assets of LTI, ALF’s aerial division in Ephrata, in June. A news release from the company said the acquisition gave Smeal control over LTI Ladders, Squrt and TeleSqurt as well as Snorkel and Smeal has plans to “revitalize” LTI products.

A silver lining in that acquisition was the announcement of Smeal’s intention to offer continued support for current LTI owners as it had acquired technical data files on previously sold units.

That was good news for departments with those aerials in service.

But what about the other folks with American LaFrance apparatus in the fleet? It doesn’t look good for those folks.

When ALF closed, it said there would be information provided to owners on where to get proprietary parts.

A ghost internet page attached to American LaFrance lives on in cyberspace and, not that I thought I’d get anywhere, I called the main office phone number at the South Carolina plant. You can guess what happened. Yup, a recorded notice from the phone company stating the number was no longer in service.

There was another number for parts that was not at the Moncks Corner plant. I called that one too. Surprise, surprise, that one was disconnected too.

The buildings had been empty from the January closure to the August auction when the place was teaming again with activity but not a good kind.

Local news outlets said about 75 people attended the auction in person and another 120 bidders were on-line when the auctioneer from the Branford Group started bidding.

Picking the ALF bones were a variety of business people, many looking for generic items like tires and universal parts. One competitor said he was there specifically looking for stuff that wasn’t specifically and proprietarily designed for ALF.

The news outlets said not all the lots were sold, even though there were many bargains to be had. The building, had to be cleared and the auction house said it was going to scrap anything that couldn’t be sold. 

It makes me cringe to think about the stuff that got junked. It seems likely the stuff that couldn’t be bolted to a bus, or a dump truck or even another kind of fire truck was probably left on the pallets on the shelves that were ultimately sold too.

I cruised eBay recently and found brand new SCBA seats emblazoned with American LaFrance logos for cheap money and a few other parts. I bet they came from the auction and may have been among the misfit items nobody wanted. It’s not like you can bolt those into any other apparatus. Seats in fire trucks do wear out and they do need to be replaced from time to time, but realistically, how often does that happen?  There's another eBay dealer located in Summerville, S.C., just 16 miles from Monks Corner who has just listed a bunch of odd-ball and miscellaneous parts with American LaFrance tags on them. I bet that dealer picked up an aggregate lot or was paid to haul the stuff away. It might be a good idea for any American LaFrance owner to look that guy up and put his name on file.

And, I wonder what happened to the emergency warning light bar lenses. When the Eagle cab and chassis was introduced back in the late 1990s, Whelen Engineering designed a very nice curved light for the curved cab. It was made just for that truck and it looked sweet. I doubt it would fit anything else and the poor department that finds it needs to replace one is going to have to scramble. Maybe Whelen kept a few.

I wish I could tell you where to find parts, but I can’t. I’ve looked, and asked, but can’t find any sources.

Maybe an astute former ALF dealer gobbled up all the proprietary parts and will emerge as the preeminent ALF parts dealer.

Perhaps someone in the fire service has a source that could be shared. There would be legions of departments grateful for that knowledge as it would help them keep their apparatus on the road.

Then there’s the issue about what happened to the name and any intellectual property associated with American LaFrance, a brand associated with the fire service since 1832. Sources have told me Patriarch Partners retained the name, but another source told me recently the name was sold to another major apparatus builder. It’s not unusual for that to happen. Look at Ahrens Fox, another storied name in the fire service, which was bought by HME, Inc. And there’s Maxim which was bought by an E-ONE dealer in Massachusetts that now uses the name for a line of wildland apparatus it makes.

American LaFrance was once the name in fire apparatus and its performance and cache was legendary. It is undoubtedly bruised and battered, but it wouldn’t surprise me it was resurrected yet again.

If that happens, whoever tries it ought to name a new cab and chassis the Phoenix.

About the Author

Ed Ballam

Ed Ballam served as associate editor for Firehouse. He is the assistant chief of the Haverhill Corner, N.H. Fire Department, and a National Registered EMT. He is also a Deputy Forest Fire Warden for the New Hampshire Division of Forests and Lands. Professionally, he's been a journalist for over 35 years working for a variety of publications, including employment as managing editor of a national fire service trade journal for more than a decade.

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