General Fire Truck Co.


General Fire Truck Co. built fire apparatus starting in 1926 in St. Louis, then moved to Detroit from 1937 to 1957, and during their last few years in business they were apparently the principal company producing the Commando pumper for Willys Motors, after which Howe Fire Apparatus took over.

Postcard This postcard shows a General Commando with an open cab. This "semi-cab" often appeared in advertising, but judging from surviving examples was not as popular as the optional closed cab.

The text on the back of the card (60K JPEG) carries basic specs such as 500 GPM / 150 PSI pump, 150-gallon tank and 150' of booster hose. The company address is listed as St. Clair Shores, Michigan. Thanks to Alden Jewell for the scan.

East Joliet IL A rare in-service photo showing an open cab is this one taken in East Joliet, Illinois, and found by Gary Dreyer. The cab is protected by a roll cage, but I don't know whether that was from the factory, or installed by the East Joliet FD. The cardboard fire axes suggest the truck was on its way to a parade.


Patch Disneyland According to an 1993 article in Firehouse magazine by Mike Heller, "There has always been a fire service at Disneyland. When the park officially opened on July 17th, 1955, Disney acquired a 1954 Willys Jeep with a front-mounted pump for fire protection and staffed it with ex-military personnel."

That Jeep was a Commando built by General, and probably delivered to Disneyland through a Willys dealer. Much of the equipment usually included with a Commando, including ladder, suction hose, and nozzles, is no longer on the truck in this photo, which likely dates from after the truck was replaced in service by a 1981 Chevrolet mini-pumper.

(For any very rare major incident at Disneyland, there is a mutual-aid arrangement with the Anaheim Fire Department, which is also of benefit to the city since the park has some 18 million gallons of water on site.)

Webster, Pennsylvania

Pennsylvania This 1955 General Commando belonged to Rostraver #1 Volunteer Fire Department, in Webster PA. It was not the first piece of apparatus at Rostraver #1 VFD, since they were founded in 1949, but was a treasured piece of their history. As of 2018 the truck showed about 12,000 miles.

The pump platform is shorter than on the later conversions by Howe, so it has a piece of tubing welded to the front to protect the pump intake.

Circa 1961 A Webster apparatus photo circa 1961, courtesy of Bonnie Hart Rozik and Rostraver #1 VFD, shows the Willys with a 1961 Mack and an early-1950s Federal pumper.

Pennsylvania Another distinctive feature of the General Commandos is an indentation in the top of the water tank, allowing the booster reel to sit lower than on the Howe version.

See also a rear view of the hose bed (400K JPEG). Thanks to Joe Gagliani for the photos taken in 2016 at a car show in Monessen PA.

May 2018 The truck led a huge cortege of apparatus at the funeral for Captain Michael Godzak of Rostraver #1, in May 2018.

Waterous pump On the front bumper is a Waterous 500 GPM pump.

The spotless engine compartment (400K JPEG) includes a newer alternator, probably necessary to keep all the lights on the truck operational while idling or in parades.

The interior (350K JPEG) still has the two-way radio whose antenna is seen in the 1961 photo above.

College Station, Texas

Texas This photo taken by Ron Logan of College Station TX is hand-dated 1945 on the back, but is clearly more like late 1950s. It shows some men admiring a brand new Commando, with its General builder's plate on the side, but not yet lettered for a fire department. This may be at the fire training school at Texas A & M in College Station.

Photo courtesy of the Fire Museum of Texas and Texas History

Trippe light In the above photo, I noticed the unusual streamlined roof beacon, identified by Andy Hogencamp as this Trippe Mfg. revolving light. Andy commented, "Neat looking. Crap signal." This light has also shown up on a 1957 Willys from Valley Fire Truck and an unidentified conversion seen in More Willys Fire Trucks.

left This may be the same General Commando demonstrator, snapped by Martin Sernatinger of Kalamazoo, Michigan while showing off its 500 GPM pump in June 1955. Thanks to Bob Freeman and Gary Dreyer for preserving the photo.

Grandville, Michigan Engine 153

In the early 1950s Grandville MI was undergoing quite a bit of expansion and was faced with the need for another piece of fire apparatus. The equipment needed had to meet a "Class A" rating yet a full sized pumper would not fit in the department's station. A Commando, built on a Willys 6-226 special fire truck chassis by the General Fire Truck Co. in 1954, was purchased through Home Acres Willys in Grand Rapids, as Engine 153. This photo shows the Grandville Fire Department in 1960, including Engine 153.

Thanks to Gary Dreyer for the Grandville photos.

Grandville Fire Dept. 1960

The Commando had a 500 gallon-per-minute pump which met the "Class A" rating. The unit also had ample hose storage, compartmentation and a small water tank. This engine, although small, packed a pretty good punch and was first out on most alarms due to its size, speed and maneuverability.

Working fire A late-1950s press photo by Ray Stoel that turned up in 2023 is a great find for several reasons. It shows the Grandville engine at a working fire, and provides a rare archival rear view of a Commando. It also includes a good look at the roof beacon, another unusual light from Trippe Mfg. in Chicago, this one a Trippe HB model (50K JPEG).

1963 The long suction hose on Engine 153 had been replaced with an Air Pak when the department lined up for a photo again in 1963, near the corner of Chicago Drive and Franklin Street. Gary says, "I'm guessing that they were doing training, as this was a large parking lot directly behind the fire station. I do know that they ditched the suction due to cramped quarters."

Gary adds, "Within five years of this photo, the firefighters went on strike in order to push the issue for a new fire station. Prior to the strike the city was always bundling funding for a new fire station with other city improvements. And they were getting shot down in elections. After the strike it went on the ballot as a standalone issue."

Engine 153 served the city from 1955 until 1976 when the city disposed of it at auction. A year or two before that, it was down at the other end of the lineup seen below, in front of the new fire station. The Department's 1948 American-LaFrance was also still in the lineup, and would be until the late 1980s. The General was now all red, and the Trippe beacon had been replaced after the station door reportedly came down on it!

Grandville Fire Dept. circa 1975

Gary Dreyer Equipment on the truck included:

Engine 153 now belongs to Gary Dreyer, who had it on display at the 2004 SPAAMFAA national muster in Frankenmuth, Michigan. See more photos from SPAAMFAA 2004.

Cab interior Gary had tried to buy it from the previous owner for 17 years. He says, "This unit held special significance to me because when I was just a small child my grandfather took me for a ride in the truck -- it was the first fire truck I ever rode in."

Engine"Although the 17 years of perseverance paid off for me, it didn't do the engine in the truck any good as it needed a complete rebuild with only 5800 miles on the odometer."

See also the L6-226 Super Hurricane engine from the right side (100K JPEG).

leftThe front mount pump is a Waterous CF-3-500 single stage pump. See also a right front view photo (90K JPEG).

There is a small panel on top of the discharge valves with a compound gauge, tachometer and discharge gauge. One way to distinguish a Commando made by General from a Howe Commando is that the Howe units have the compound gauge on top of the intake, and discharge gauge above the discharge valves.

Waterous engineering Gary passed along the build sheet from Waterous for the pump on his truck (right).

In 2006 he provided a tip on pump repair: "Last summer I had the pump seal go bad, the mechanical seal behind the impeller. The original manufacturer had it available for $380, then I thought about it and figured that someone must make these seals for Waterous, so I began the search and found that US Seal Manufacturing had the seal for $68. I rebuilt my pump with the new seal and had the opportunity to draft with it today. It worked superbly -- it pulled a prime through one 10' suction in seconds. I plan to rebuild the discharge seals next fall to tighten up my pump."

See also diagram 53-5-6 from Waterous showing the CF-3 pump body, diagram 54-10-7 of the gear assembly, and diagram 52-12-17 of the impeller shaft assembly.

Builder's plate
The builder's plate on the cowl, as well as the tubing welded to the front bumper, are the quickest ways to identify a Commando built by General.

Gary says, "As I understand it, General and later Howe produced the Commandos. My Commando is identical to the ones in the literature and others which I have located, in the layout, cabinetry, and equipment which was originally mounted on it."

This version of the Commando postcard was done in just two colors, presumably to make it cheaper to print. Thanks to Alden Jewell.

Thanks to Gary Dreyer, Mike Heller of Heller Creative, and Andy Doyle's Online Patch Collection. -- Derek Redmond

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Last updated 23 December 2023 by Derek Redmond redmond@cj3b.info
All content not credited and previously copyright, is copyright Derek Redmond