American LaFrance (ALF) was an American fire apparatus manufacturer. One of the pre-eminent American apparatus builders of the 20th century, the company was resurrected in the late 1990s and finally ceased operations in 2014.
American LaFrance was incorporated in 1904, but can trace its history to a period several years before that. In 1832, John Rogers began building hand-operated fire in Waterford, New York. The company changed hands, and by 1841, was owned by Lysander Button. Production continued under the name of Button & Blake and steam fire engines were built in the latter part of the 19th century. In 1891, Button merged with three other steam fire engine builders (Silsby, Ahrens and Clapp & Jones) to form the American Fire Engine Company.
In 1873, Truckson LaFrance and a number of investors founded the LaFrance Manufacturing Company in Elmira, New York, where it manufactured, among other things, steam fire engines. The company was renamed LaFrance Fire Engine Company in 1880.
In 1900, Chicago industrialist Charles Locke consolidated the American Fire Engine Company, the LaFrance Fire Engine Company and other manufacturers to form the International Fire Engine Company. However, the new entity proved unwieldy and was restructured again in 1904. The new company took the names of its most prominent components, American and LaFrance, to form American-LaFrance.
Over the following decades, ALF moved from steam powered apparatus to motor-driven vehicles, creating many innovations and becoming a dominant player in the industry. Historians have likened ALF to the General Motors of fire trucks. Developments included V-12 engines, cab-forward apparatus, hydraulically-operated aerial ladders and more. After the Second World War, ALF introduced the 700 series of cab-forward chassis, revolutionizing the fire truck. More than 3000 were built.
In 1955, American-LaFrance merged with Sterling Precision Instrument Corporation to form American LaFrance Corporation. In 1966, it became a division of the Automatic Sprinkler Corporation (later Figgie International (1963), renamed A-T-O in 1969). A-T-O acquired Snorkel Fire Equipment in 1973 and Snorkel and TeleSqurt aerial devices were added.
The 700 series was succeeded by the 800 and 900 series, and supplemented by the Pioneer series in the early 1960s. Rear-mount ladders were introduced in 1968 to join Aero-Chief and Ladder-Chief aerial devices that had debuted earlier in the decade. These remained until the Snorkel acquisition of 1973. Later custom cab models included the Century and Spartan.
Based in Elmira from the beginning, a new manufacturing plant was opened in nearby Southport in 1981. However, in 1985, ATO announced that it would no longer operate the Elmira-area facility. The last truck was built in mid-1985. It appeared that ALF was no more, but in 1986, ATO announced that production would start up again in its Bluefield, Virginia facility. The Century 2000 series chassis was introduced, as were the less-expensive models Pacemaker (chassis built by Pemfab) and Pioneer 90 (built by Spartan Motors). In 1991, American LaFrance acquired Hahn Motors Inc. and the Patriot chassis was introduced in 1992. Despite these developments, newer companies like Pierce and Emergency One dominated the industry by the early 1990s. ALF continued to lose money and ATO announced that operations would cease in 1994.
The following year, American LaFrance was resurrected. In 1995, Freightliner executive James Hebe, who started his career at ALF, announced that Freightliner had acquired the name and assets of the venerable company. The new Eagle custom chassis was introduced in 1996 and deliveries started the following year from a plant in Cleveland, North Carolina. Initially, ALF was strictly a chassis builder in the same mold as Spartan Motors. Chassis were sold to body manufacturers throughout North America. But soon, aerial devices became part of the product line with the acquisition of Aerial Innovations Inc..
Freightliner's corporate parent Daimler merged with Chrysler in 1998 and ALF became a division of the new DaimlerChrysler. By this time, ALF was moving into full apparatus manufacturing with the acquisition of R.D. Murray Company of Hamburg, New York, 3D Manufacturing Inc. of Shewano, Wisconsin, Becker Fire Equipment Company of Casper, Wyoming and Boardman Emergency Vehicles of Clinton, Oklahoma. ALF also bought Snorkel Fire Equipment, reuniting the two for a second time, and Ladder Towers Incorporated. Trucks for Canadian customers were built through an agreement with Hub Fire Engines of Abbotsford, British Columbia. ALF also acquired Aero Products Corp. of Sanford, Florida and built ambulances there under the Medic Master name. Fire truck production was shifted to Ladson, South Carolina in 2005.
The Metropolitan chassis was introduced in 1999 as a less expensive alternative to the Eagle. The Liberty followed in 2005. Commercial chassis trucks were also produced. By 2005, they had penetrated the top five tier of apparatus builders in North America.
ALF underwent a series of corporate changes after its rebirth. Freightliner sold the company to investment firm Patriarch Partners in 2005. Patriarch was granted use of the Ladson plant until 2007, by which time ALF had moved to a new facility in Summersville, South Carolina. Nevertheless, troubles continued. Losses for 2006 and 2007 totaled $104 million and American LaFrance filed for bankruptcy protection in 2008 to restructure over $200 million in debt. Executives came and went, and orders declined amid quality and customer service issues. In 2013, it moved its South Carolina operation again. In January 2014, Patriarch announced the final closure of American LaFrance.
A Canadian subsidiary, LaFrance Engine and Foamite, was established in Toronto in 1914. It built fire apparatus until 1971.
- 1964-1978 American LaFrance Pioneer
- 1972-1976 American LaFrance Pacemaker
- 1973-1985 American LaFrance Century
- 1985-1994 American LaFrance Century 2000
- 1992-1994 American LaFrance Patriot
- 1995-2014 American LaFrance Eagle
- 1999-2014 American LaFrance Metropolitan
- Figgie International Inc; Case Western Reserve University; Encyclopedia of Cleveland History; Accessed September 13, 2020.
- American LaFrance, the firefighting legend, is no more. Hemmings.com. March 12, 2014. Accessed Sept. 6, 2021.
- McCall, Walter M.P. Illustrated Encyclopedia of American Fire Engine Manufacturers. Hudson, WI: Iconografix, 2009.
- McDermott, John, "What happened to fire-engine icon American LaFrance," The Post and Courier (Charlotte, South Carolina). Accessed 6 October 2014.