The Little Engine That Could

Unique 1966 Gladiator Fire Engine

by Jerry Formaz

The only color photograph we have of the Jeep Gladiator fire engine designed by Jerry Formaz in 1966, shows the truck with Chief Basil Stoddard on the day it was delivered to the City of Walled Lake, Michigan (below). Looks like Walled Lake was a town that knew the value of Jeeps, judging by the snow on the ground, and the CJ-5 with Meyer hardtop in the background of the photo.

DeliveryFormaz had identified a need in many cities for a versatile mini-pumper capable of dealing with incidents ranging from brush fires, to freeway accidents, to parking garage calls. He built a truck capable of filling that need, but unfortunately never got enthusiastic support from the Kaiser Jeep Corporation.

On this page, we present for the first time the story of this unique fire truck, in the words of Jerry Formaz. -- Derek Redmond

How It Started

My first love of small fire apparatus were the FC units built by Valley Fire Apparatus of Bay City, Michigan. When I got to the point where I had the contacts that perhaps I could rep the company, I called several times but could not contact them. My wife and I decided to drive up to Bay City and find them. I went to their location, only to learn from a neighbor that they had ceased operations about two weeks earlier. I did not stop thinking about my vision of a smaller, better unit.

Lansing, Nov. 24 -- Those high, boxy fire engines are all right, but Lansing firemen are asking for one low, sleek model. The problem is that the state's new underground parking garage next to the Capitol has a clearance of only six feet, six inches and the city fire trucks need eight feet. -- Associated Press, 24 November 1965.

I was attending a meeting in the Michigan capitol of Lansing, and happened to park in the city's brand new parking garage. As I parked and got out of my car, I was surprised at how low the ceiling was, and I wondered how they would handle a car fire in the garage. I did some "inquiring" and after a short time the AP article appeared. I also visited parking garages in several other cities and noticed the same situation existed.

The Solution

Jerry Formaz is a man with a better idea. The Shelby resident designed a fire truck so compact that it can be operated by one man, yet is equipped for any emergency.
There are other trucks similar to Formaz' but none can be operated by just one man. Mounted on a Jeep chassis, the truck has four-wheel drive, power steering and brakes. "You don't have to be a truck driver to drive it," Formaz said.
For going through brush fires, the truck is equipped with two nozzles just above the bumper. The driver can operate them. The truck is equipped with resuscitator equipment, breathing apparatus for the fireman who must go through smoke, a chain saw, a fan to remove smoke from a home, its own pumping equipment, hoses and everything else a large truck has with the exception of a snorkel.
Formaz lists other ideal uses for his truck including freeway fires, since the little truck fits handily on the shoulders of highways, and lake areas where the truck can go between cottages right to the lake to pump water.
As a volunteer fireman in Shelby, he became interested in selling fire trucks and through a mutual friend he met Steve Gibons, owner of Young's Equipment Co. Gibons needed aman to sell FWD apparatus, so Formaz started on a part-time basis.
-- Utica Daily Sentinel, 13 March 1967

Young's Equipment Co. of Southfield, Michigan became my backer. We were dealers for FWD Trucks and Fire Apparatus, and also represented Pierce Auto Body, Snorkel Fire Equipment Company and Seagrave Fire Apparatus. In addition we were authorized Jeep dealers.

I contacted Penco, a small fire apparatus body repair and service center owned by a friend of mine, Ken Pence of Perrysburg, Ohio, to construct and mount the unit on my 1966 Jeep chassis, to my drawings and specifications. The truck was V8-powered, dual-rear-wheels, and the transmission had the provision to utilize two power take-off units. One drove the water pump and provided "pump and roll" operation, and the other PTO powered the Warn winch.

RearThe only acknowledgement we ever received from Jeep after a brief meeting in Toledo when this picture was taken, was a short 1966 feature in Jeep News (Vol.12, No.5). See the Jeep News front page (300K JPEG). Not really knowing us very well, but knowing we did not have a manufacturing plant, they seemed a bit skeptical as to where we were going, and you can't blame them.

This photo shows the electric rewind booster hose reel with controls to the right of the reel. The complete pump panel for stationary operation of the pump is located inside the compartment just behind the driver's door.

The front view photo (100K JPEG) also used in the Jeep News article and later included in Jeep: The Unstoppable Legend (Arch Brown, 1994) shows the ground sweep nozzles, controlled individually by the driver by 1/4-turn ball valves. They were originally equipped to apply coverage of 60 degrees, and the tips could easily be changed to cover a wide variety of patterns.

An Offer I Couldn't Refuse

TankThe truck attracted a lot of attention and did many demonstrations. I hadn't planned on selling it so soon after completion, but could not pass up the opportunity to sell it to the City of Walled Lake in November 1966.

This photo from the Utica Daily Sentinel shows me with Walled Lake Fire Chief Basil Stoddard. In the center is a manual fill for the main water tank. A piped fill with a 1/4-turn shutoff ball valve was mounted in the front vertical compartment, behind the compartment doors on both sides of the body. The round cover on top of the manual fill tower is hinged. The safety glass disc was installed to allow visual observation of the water level in the tank, and also served as a "blow-out" safety device to prevent over-pressurization of the tank when filling from a pressure source.

Also shown is the unique method of mounting three 8 ft. lengths of hard suction hose. The end with the exposed male threads was inserted under the covered portion of the forward end of the hose tray. The opposite end with the rotating female threads had one of its "ears" inserted into a machined slot in a box attached to the rear of the hose tray, thus allowing for quick, easy removal.

The wood partition and large smoke ejector fan were added by the Fire Department. A two-section 16 ft. extension ladder mounted on the right side of the body, with the forward end of the ladder slid under a cover similar to the suction hose. The opposite end of the ladder was attached at the rear by a spring-loaded, quick-release De-Sta-Co clamp.

Meanwhile in Detroit

A pint-sized "fire truck" with a two-man crew may be the Detroit Fire Department's next answer to the growing problem of false alarms. The small, jeep-type vehicle would respond when an alarm is turned in from a street alarm which has had a large number of false alarms, then summon more help if the alarm is legitimate.
Fire Commission Secretary Robert E. Tighe said the department will look into the feasibility of using the smaller vehicle. "With one or two men, this would be enough to hold down a fire in its incipient stage while more equipment was summoned by radio," Tighe said. "That way, a lot less equipment would be tied up by false alarms."
-- The Detroit News, 8 February 1967.

DetroitIn this photo taken outside the City of Detroit Fire Department headquarters, the people pictured from left to right are:

The reaction in Detroit was enthusiastic by the Commission, and better than I expected by the Chief and Deputy Chief. The fire fighters took a rather dim view, and the fire fighters union rep. was very much against it, as he saw it as a threat to job security (a two man truck instead of a four man truck). But anyway, our timing was a bit bad, as the economy was starting to slip, and City funding was running dry.

Note that the wheels were originally painted white and the cab Jeep President Red when delivered to me by the Jeep factory. When we painted the body, I had the wheels and body painted the same President Red, a look I preferred (see the photo at the top of this page). After the truck was delivered to Walled Lake, they painted the wheels white again, apparently a look they preferred! I do not know how long the unit was in service, or what became of it. I moved on to other ventures and lost touch with the Fire Chief.

Why Only One?

Pressure was put on us to back off, primarily by the largest fire apparatus company we represented. They were aware of what we were doing, apparently had done some market research, and saw the potential and actually had a unit on the drawing board shortly after we sold ours. I looked one over when it was first built, and was not impressed. It was very lacking and did not sell well at all.

The mini-pumper concept really took off in 1971, with Pierce getting the majority of the business, and rightfully so, using a lot of 4-wheel-drive International Harvester light duty chassis. Howe Fire Apparatus remained the "approved" fire apparatus supplier for Jeep. This was the one initial goal of mine that I never achieved, but we gave it a damn good shot with a well-performing, easy to operate "Little Engine That Could." -- Jerry Formaz

Thanks to Jerry and his son Bob for helping us put this story on the historical record. -- Derek Redmond

See also more Gladiator Fire Trucks.

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Last updated 2 December 2004 by Derek Redmond redmond@cj3b.info
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