- - Thursday, June 28, 2012

It’s a long way from Tokyo to Ellicott City, Md., about 6,800 miles and 72 years in the case of the 1933 Datsun fire truck owned by Dan Banks.

As far as he can determine, this is the oldest Datsun truck in private hands. Numbers on the frame predate the first production at the Yokohama Datsun assembly line factory on April 12, 1935.

According to company historians, many Datsun automobiles in the early 1930s went unsold because of a dearth of licensed Japanese drivers. Consequently, many of the unsold cars were later converted into more practical vehicles such as fire trucks.

The engine number suggests that this fire truck was originally a sedan that a specialty shop converted into a more useful vehicle.

In pre-World War II Japanese metropolitan areas, the suburbs were a rabbit warren of tiny streets. Diminutive fire engines were ideal for their ability to navigate through the narrow streets. Mr. Banks’ fire engine measures 10 feet, 4 inches long, 4 feet, 7 inches wide, rides on a 74-inch wheelbase and has an 18-foot turning radius. Despite its small size, the heavy fire truck isn’t easy to steer on its 4.50x16-inch tires.

‘We know that it served during World War II in the industrial Tokyo suburb of Kawasaki,’ Mr. Banks says.

During its working life, it received, as do modern fire trucks, updated and improved equipment as it became available. Records indicate that the little fire truck was not retired from active duty until 1960.

The trusty fire truck was then exiled to a Yokohama junkyard where it slowly fell into disrepair. A week after Valentine’s Day in 1962 Edward D. Daniel, a young navy sailor, purchased the relic and rescued it from the junkyard. In June that year he had his little fire truck sent to Hachiohji, a district of Tokyo, for reconditioning at Hihon Kikai Limited, a manufacturer of fire trucks.

Upon completion in 1964, the Datsun followed Mr. Daniel from Yokohama to Oakland, Calif., where he was assigned to the U.S. Naval Base at Treasure Island in San Francisco. In 1967 the fire truck was shipped - through the Panama Canal - to Bayonne, N.J., where it was then trailered on to Binghamton, N.Y.

After retiring from the Navy in 1976 as a senior chief petty officer, Mr. Daniel thought long and hard about what to do with the Datsun fire truck.

By 1987 he determined to bite the bullet and proceeded to have his 1933 Datsun fire truck restored to its original splendor.

Eventually, the vehicle ended up at Reinholds Restorations in Reinhold, Pa. After about 1,500 hours, the task was completed in the spring of 2002.

The appropriately fire-engine-red truck was pinstriped in gold paint and the 16-horsepower, four-cylinder engine was rebuilt and reinstalled. Power to the rear wheels is transferred via the three-speed manual transmission. Double clutching is recommended.

A brass valve under the driver’s seat near the water pump must be set for pumping fresh or saltwater at the rate of 200 gallons per minute through a 2.5-inch hose. The engine could be destroyed if saltwater goes where freshwater is supposed to go.

Four 7-foot lengths of intake hoses and reels of output hose are carried on the truck. Four shiny brass nozzles are stored, at the ready, on the rear step plate. The uptake hoses were intended to pump water from whatever source was available. In order to prevent fish, small stones or other debris from being sucked into the pump, a woven bamboo ‘filter’ fits over the end of the uptake hose.

Mr. Daniel offered his restored fire truck for sale in January 2005. Mr. Banks contacted him and, once he was satisfied of the authenticity, the transfer of ownership took place on May 7 at Mr. Daniel’s home in Sinking Spring, Pa.

With the fire truck at his home, Mr. Banks inspected the Datsun from stem to stern, not believing his good fortune.

Without fail, each time he climbs behind the three-spoke steering wheel on the right side of the vehicle, he savors the experience. The spare tire is mounted vertically behind the seat cushion to double as the back of the driver’s seat.

A siren must be hand-cranked to issue any warning, as if the driver didn’t have enough to contend with already.

The clutch is in the familiar place as the far left foot pedal. To help confuse the driver, the brake and accelerator have switched places.

Unlike modern fire engines, with a multitude of lights, this one has only a single taillight, mounted in the fashion of the day, on the left fender. At the right end of the grab bar, above the rear step plate is a spotlight with a fire bell occupying the left end of the bar.

A single, manually operated wiper is designed to clear the glass in front of the driver, a seemingly useless task on a vehicle with no top, side windows or doors. Atop the windshield frame is a forward-facing red light. At each end of the windshield frame, a metal bracket supports a semaphore (lighted arm) turn signal.

From the driver’s seat, looking past the overly optimistic 100 kmph (60 mph) speedometer and the stubby little engine hood is the brass hood ornament. Actual top speed has been estimated at about 70 kmph (about 40 mph).

Mr. Banks continues to dig into the history of the vehicle, though much of the documentation was lost during World War II. He is gathering Japanese firefighting equipment to show whenever he displays the 1933 Datsun, so painstakingly restored at great effort and expense by Mr. Daniel.

Whenever he shows the fire truck, Mr. Banks is easy to identify. He’s the one with a smile as bright as the polished chrome 1952 Datsun ‘DC-3’ sports car front bumper on the front of his fire truck.