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450-Mile Expedition in a Big Bolt!

By Michael Stemmler
Bolter # 1458

Rosie's Gallery Page

Mike shares his recent success (and challenges) on a road trip he took from St. Louis to Indianapolis in Rosie, his 1941 Chevy Big Bolt fire engine. This great saga may inspire others to get out on the open roads! Whooo-ya!..

<<< click on the images for a larger view >>>
More photos in Me Gallery

Rosie, The Truck

Rosie is a 1941 Chevy Art Deco, closed-cab fire engine powered with a freshly rebuilt (from top to bottom) 216 (not the original engine). It is bored .030 over, has aluminum pistons and insert bearings. Otherwise, the truck is stock with a rebuilt Carter W-1 carb.  It still chares with a 6-volt, with a generator.  Rosie is either underpowered or “over-trucked” depending on how you look at it.  She has a full body with steel booster tank, overhead ladder rack with a heavy, three-section wooden ladder, and a 400-gpm pump on the front bumper.

The Prep

While the engine was out being done, we rebuilt all four wheels and brake cylinders, checked the crash-box tranny, and fixed one flat tire (inner-rear dual).  A new wiring harness from Rhode Island wiring was installed.  LOTS of incidental stuff was addressed (rebuilt electric wiper motor, replaced bulbs, etc.).

The weeks leading up to our expedition were spent furiously working out kinks.  At first, the truck seemed far weaker than I had hoped it would be.  After our first test drive, we found we left a plug wire off of number one plug during electric fuel pump install - DUH!  Also, we forgot to check tire pressure.  All were 20 lbs or less.  We aired all of them up to 55 psi (750x20s).  For a while, the truck would occasionally stall out when warm, sometimes under load, sometimes not.  We found the float seat in the rebuilt carb had come loose, causing fuel to seep out of the bowl and load up the engine. Then, finally, we found the wire from the ignition to the coil was LOOSE. 

Rosie has a mechanical siren (Sterling Model 20), add-on turn signals, and flashing lights.  Electric load is high.  The generator didn’t seem to be charging properly. The regulator seemed in decent shape, but a dousing with contact cleaner cleared up a sticking point, and the ammeter then read perfectly -- moderate charge after starting, gradually tapering to flat after 5 or 10 minutes (with no lights on).

The day before we left, we changed the oil, topped off the tranny, lubed the entire chassis, checked all lights, and fiddled with the reluctant horn. With advice from posts here on the Stovebolt, we swapped in cooler R-43 spark plugs for the highway driving. We then loaded with spare oil, spare water, spare brake fluid, tools, tarps, “Slow Moving Vehicle” sign and placards, cleaned windshield, and secured insurance!

The Convoy

Our trip from St. Louis to Indianapolis (for a fire truck convention, of course!) included four trucks: a 1940 Art Deco Open Cab with a 216 in the lead; then Rosie; then a late 1940 Jeep pumper (Go-Devil engine); and an early 1950 Ford with a V-8 in the rear. Two support vehicles, including a large pick-up with trailer, also made the trip. Top speed was slated for 45 mph, and we were never on the interstate.  I had secured Motorola Radios for all vehicles.

The Departure

Rosie started out with a full tank of gas, Pilot (me) and Co-Pilot (Don), and snacks and drinks.  The trip there went very well!  Rosie managed to keep up without showing signs of over heating -- though there was an ever-so-slight miss or hesitation in the engine. I had been worried about keeping up, as Rosie had the worst power-to-weight ratio of the group, and our few shake-down cruises revealed no more than 35-38 mph on the speedometer. Happy circumstance: one of our chase vehicles verified a speed of 45, with Rosie’s speedo only reading 35-ish.  It’s not often you’re GLAD to find out something isn’t working right!  Interestingly, we compared the odometer to mileage markers, and it did NOT seem to be significantly off.

The Drive

We convoyed in a loose formation, so people could pass without too much trouble on the two-lane highways we were usually on.  Only once were we leading a parade of cars, and then only for 10 or 15 minutes.

The add-on turn signals were definitely an added security.  I have them wired to the brake switch, so they also act as brake lights, and they’re mounted way up high on the hose-bed. The driver behind me said they really helped him, also.

Easily, the two hardest parts of the driving were: one, starting from a stop and up-shifting; and two, having a conversation while going 45 miles per hour, with that 216 pounding away! 

My tendency with shifting was to accelerate as quickly as possible from a stop, and wring out every last rpm before shifting. Since these trucks are geared slow compared to modern cars, I think it’s natural to get nervous and try to push it too hard. I coached myself hard to calm my expectations, and eventually started accelerating slower / smoother, and upshifting sooner. I think these big trucks are meant to cruise in third and fourth, and it’s better to let them accelerate SLOWLY in these upper gears, than to torture the lower gears getting them up to speed. Eventually, I unlearned my “modern habits,” and adjusted to the crash-box method.  It became natural by-and-by.

I also eventually got used to the roar of the motor at cruising speed. Thankfully, we spent most of the trip in (relatively) quiet fourth gear, allowing us to talk at a slightly-louder-than-normal level. But then we’d have to down-shift into third, and that tranny would start WHINING LIKE A BANSHEE.  (OK, I’ve never really heard a banshee whine - in fact, I wouldn’t know a banshee if it bit me on the arse.)  My point is, it was LOUD. It got to be funny, because inevitably, someone would call me on the radio just as we were pulling away from a stop, and there was NO WAY I could hear what they were saying. (Sorta like the teacher in the Charlie Brown shows . . .)

The only other (small) issue: we had removed the throttle cable from the cab, cleaned it, oiled it, and replaced it. Well, we did too good a job - the knob wouldn’t hold. My right leg started to get sore and crampy toward the later hours, and having that “cruise control” would have made a difference.

The Muster

The Fire Truck Rally was phenomenal. There were 100 trucks on one lot -- every age, type, condition. Heck, even one from New Zealand -- a Dennis from the 1920s.  Rosie wasn’t particularly special in this crowd, but she was definitely special for having driven in on her own! No Trailer Queen this one!

The weather was terrific all four days of the trip, only one tiny speck of rain for a few minutes. We had a great time, and people were genuinely impressed that we drove our trucks in, and told us so.

The Second Leg

It was the trip home where things started getting interesting. First, the driver in the Ford pulled off the road, saying “something broke.”  Just as quickly, he was back on the road, signaling us to continue. He later admitted “nothing was broke except the operator!” 

Then, the Jeep went lame. It gradually grew weaker and stalled out with less than half a tank of gas. We topped it off, and diagnosed it with a fuel pick-up tube that was getting clogged with sediment when the tank was getting low.

Well, how wrong we were! It stalled out again close to home. The driver took off the gas cap, and we heard a fairly loud “THUNK!” below the seat (gas tank). Turns out, the gas cap vent was clogged, and the engine was starving for fuel due to the vacuum in the tank! The thunk was the gas tank flexing back into shape.

About two hours into the voyage home, it was Rosie’s turn. The outdoor temp was in the low 70's, with a cool breeze. I was keeping my eye on the gauges when I noted the engine temp inching higher. This seemed to coincide with an increase in roughness in the engine, and a lack of power. I engaged the electric fuel pump to see if it made a difference. (This fuel pump is plumbed parallel to the mechanical pump -- that is, “T-ed” at the tank, and “T-ed” back in-line before the carb, but after the mechanical.) It didn’t make any difference.  I added some snake-oil fuel additive at the next fill-up, which showed no change.

The temp continued rising and the hills were getting progressively harder for Rosie. The needle entered the red zone, and we started discussing options. My brilliant co-pilot suggested that maybe it was running lean, and giving it a bit of choke might help.

We pulled the choke out slightly, and the improvement was almost immediate! The temp gradually fell down to 180, where it sat, nice and steady. The engine was smoother with more power on the hills.  Amazing!!! I dubbed Don an Absolute Genius, and promptly nominated him for a medal of valor. Gotta love an easy fix!!!

Two notes on that lean phenomenon: 1 - the amount of choke was absolutely critical. There was no “about there will do it.” It was either the right amount of choke, or it hardly helped at all.  2 - why didn’t this happen on the trip out?!! 

My only thought is that, perhaps the Indiana / Illinois gas was less popular with Rosie than her home-turf, Missouri fuel.  I plan on investigating possibly a larger fuel jet, and further research.

The Upshot

Rosie pulled back into quarters after a combined 18 hours of road time. Calculated mileage was around 10-ish on the starting leg, reached 13-ish in the middle of the journey, and settled around 11-ish for most of the way home, including with the choke slightly pulled.  I was pleased. Also, we were VERY lucky weather-wise. Slightly overcast and cool throughout.  Perfect driving weather.

What DIDN’T please me was the oil leak that presented as I backed into quarters. Rough inspection looks like somewhere towards the rear of the engine. If it’s the rear seal, I may have kittens.

All-in-all, it was a FANTASTIC voyage. I wouldn’t hesitate to do it again, even WITHOUT chase vehicles and a convoy! People in the towns we went through were universally supportive, loads of waves and raised thumbs. We had fun returning the gestures with a toot of the siren. It was just flat-out rewarding and fun.

I never thought I would feel like my old truck was truly RELIABLE. Having those miles behind me has done wonders for my confidence. I encourage everyone to get their trucks on the road!

-Michael Stemmler

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