The Wheel of Years has been sent spinning and when the clicking stops, the red arrow will point to a year – that’s where we’ll start. The tale can flow forward or backward, flow into any subject depending on where my 81 year old hard drive decides to go. We’ll both be off to whatever we find. – Bob Gurr
Today’s Wheel of Years stopped at 1951, so here we go. Being a member of the local Horseless Carriage Club, I’d attend various gatherings of “brass era” auto collectors. At one such meet in 1951, I met a most interesting guy who had a 1911 Maxwell fire chief’s car – cutest darn thing ever. I told Dan Post of Post Publications in nearby Arcadia California about this guy and his little cutie. At the time, I was writing my first book with Dan. “Why, that’s my friend Ward Kimball, a famous Disney cartoonist”. Dan soon drove me over to Ward’s house so I really meet him. I noticed railroad tracks running down the side of the house – good gosh, there’s a steam train in the back yard!
Ward and I became fast friends, he showed me his Maxwell and the train too. In the house he had a room filled almost to the ceiling with every kind of toy, a narrow path meandering thru the stuff. But what caught my eye out back was a big red fire engine, a 1916 American LaFrance. It had a sign saying “Firehouse Five Plus Two”, which was the name of Ward’s Disney Studio ragtime band. This guy is truly nuts! Ward and Dan were long time friends who loved antique cars – and steam locomotives too. Sometime later I ran across a 1938 MG Magnette Roadster for sale – cute little yellow thing. I told Ward about it and he ran right over and bought it. Car collectors – nutty people all.
Note: When I went to work the next year in Detroit for the Ford Motor Company as a car stylist, I met Dick Teague, Chief Designer at Packard. Mentioning Ward Kimball, Dick told me he sold the Maxwell in 1945 to Dr. Homer Wise of Los Angeles who later sold it to Ward. Like Ward, Dick and I became life long friends. See, this stuff is all connected!
Returning to California in 1953, I resumed my friendships with Ward and Dan while writing my second book on car design. One day Dan said that Ward was going to drive the Maxwell in a Temple City parade and needed a professional American LaFrance driver to handle the big fire engine. Dan sent me over to Ward’s, telling me Ward would teach me how to drive it. What I didn’t know until later was that Dan had told Ward I was already fully qualified as a fire engine driver. Uh oh.
Arriving at Ward’s home, he’d hooked his horse drawn 1888 Silsby steam fire engine to the tow bar on the back of the American LaFrance. Another uh oh. This big old rig was a right hand drive, manual transmission, shifted with a giant brass outboard lever next to a big hand brake lever. Worst part – it had a cone clutch, which I did know about. They were so touchy, get it wrong and you’ll break something. You’ll also break transmission gears if you get it wrong. “Start ‘er up and we’ll get radiator water at the gas station”. Oh no. Ward stood on the running board waiting for me start it – absolutely NO INSTRUCTIONS. Dan had pulled a dirty trick on both of us.
Somehow I found neutral gear, knew what magneto switch to flip, which way the spark retard lever was to go, and put my foot on a floor button. Oh my gosh, it fired right up with a vibrating rumble of an open exhaust. So far so good. Now, you must realize big gears take a long time to slow down inside a big truck transmission and you can’t just move the shift lever willy nilly. Disengage the clutch, wait for the right moment and slide the gear lever – snick snick – no grinding! I got it into first. Off we went. Now for second – when your moving it’s a bit easier. Got past second into high. Rolling right along, Ward’s got a bid smile while I’m drenched with sweaty armpits. I’m driving a real fire engine. Yahoo!
After putting water in the leaky radiator and loading up about twenty kids who wanted to ride in the parade, away we went – downhill. Another uh oh. The monster had only rear two wheel mechanical brakes and we’ll have to stop eventually. It took all my weight and strength, pulling myself up with the steering wheel to apply enough pedal pressure to stop. Whew. It soon became real fun, I had a siren, I was learning how to double-clutch, eventually shifting smoothly without using the clutch. Oh wow, I really was a professional fire engine driver. It wasn’t until 1998 that I ‘fessed up to Ward that I had no idea how to drive it, that Dan told me you would teach me. The look I got from Ward was just too precious. Car collectors indeed.
In the spring of 1958 I had the chance to tell Walt that we didn’t have a fire engine on Main Street at Disneyland. “No bobby, we don’t”. A few minutes later the accounting department called to give me the charge number for the new fire engine project. Even Walt has to get a charge number. Oh happy day, I’m going to finally get my very own fire engine, even if I have to share it with a few million Disneyland guests. As Rolly would say, it’s kind of a cute story, maybe it’ll be a future spin on the Wheel of Years.
Did you enjoy this turn of the wheel folks? Have you ever stopped to see that fire engine on Main Street? Let’s hear from you below.
Bob Gurr is a true Disney legend who was hired on to design the Autopia for Disneyland. Over nearly four decades, Bob would become famous for developing the Monorails, Submarines, Flying Saucers, antique cars and double-decker buses of Main Street, Ford Motor Company's Magic Skyway (at the 1964-65 New York World's Fair), Omnimover ride system, Matterhorn and lots more. It has been said that if it moves, Bob probably played a part.
Upon leaving Imagineering in 1981, Bob worked on a number of "leisure-time spectaculars" and "fantastical beasts" for parks and developments all over the world. Most notably, he created King Kong and Conan's Serpent for Universal Studios Hollywood, A UFO for the closing ceremonies of the 1984 Los Angeles Summer Olympics, and the memorable T-Rex figure featured in Steven Spielberg's motion picture "Jurassic Park."
You can find Bob's column, Design: Those Were The Times, right here on MiceChat. Though don't pin Bob down to a schedule, he's busy being "retired."