I have always loved fire engines, since my earliest memories. The colours, the arresting wail of a siren, the very nobility of a vehicle whose sole purpose for existence is the preservation of life and property – to this day, it is perhaps the continuing child in me that still thrills with every encounter. As my involvement in numismatics and antiquities in general developed in adulthood, I further grew to appreciate the aesthetics and history of vintage fire engines, with their special charm and evolution. Even entering my second decade as a professional coin dealer, however, I would never have anticipated being the catalyst for the world’s first legal-tender Fire Engine coin.
In the spring of 2002 I had been in the coin business for 14 years, and was at that point operating out of my Kanata home-office. It would be two years before we opened our Almonte gallery, and much of my business involved online sales as well as the wholesaling of British Mint products to other colleagues. I had a good relationship with a local Ottawa firm who specialized in direct-marketing, and who also represented a number of foreign mints in Canada.
As both a collector and dealer, it genuinely surprised me that of all the incredibly diverse themes that had appeared on collector coins – from Elvis, Mosquitoes, and Warships, to Dinosaurs, Donkeys and Spacecraft – there had never been a legal-tender coin featuring a Fire Engine. To me it seemed like a puzzling no-brainer. Quite aside from the countless millions who owed their lives or livelihoods to these vehicles, based on their aesthetics and “coolness” factor alone it defiled logic that the theme had never been utilized.
To my pleasure and surprise, my Ottawa colleagues seemed intrigued by the idea, and asked me for a written proposal for possible consideration on a Liberian-issued coin. Within a week or two, I pitched “Legends of Hose and Ladder – The World’s Greatest Fire Engine Coins”. As the title suggested, I was in for the project whole-hog and envisioned a series of coins, each drawing upon the incredible diversity in function and design found among the fire engines of various nations. Naturally, it was my fondest desire that this first inaugural coin would have two key characteristics: first, I wanted to feature a vintage engine, in order to maximize the appeal of the coin as something that might be collected by vintage auto fans as well as fire-fighting buffs. Secondly, I wanted this first model to be a Canadian-made fire engine, so that even a Liberian-issued coin would share a small piece of Canada. This first criterion could not have been easier to satisfy, as even within a 100-mile radius of my office we were blessed with an abundance of lovingly-maintained vintage Fire Engines, most retired and occupying places of honor at their old fire halls. The second of my requirements, however, proved to be unexpectedly complicated.
Blessed with a complete ignorance of virtually any four-wheeled automotive vehicle, I naively assumed that all cars and trucks could be divided into two simple categories: those that were Canadian-made, and those that were not. Thus, it had never occurred to me that trucks were (and still are!) made up of all sorts of pieces that could come from either side of the border. Sure, a certain vehicle could be factually described as “Canadian-assembled”, however to be properly called a “Canadian Fire Engine”, the bar would need to be set considerably higher. I had soon set my focus on a lovely 1936 “Bickle Seagrave” engine that belonged to the Athens, Ontario Fire Department, and which has served their community until 1969. Having travelled to Athens to meet the department Chief and photograph the engine, I subsequently connected with Walt McCall – author and authority on fire engines – who advised that that the 1936 engine in question was more accurately a “Bickle-Ford”. In other words, until the next production year, this engine was manufactured with a significant American-produced component (either pump assembly or chassis, I don’t recall which). Thus, I was back to square one.
It would be deep into 2003 before I decided to call the Canada Science and Technology Museum in Ottawa for advice on how to properly assess and locate a true Canadian-made Fire Engine of some antiquity. To my surprise and delight, a curator with their large vehicle collection advised that they might have an ideal candidate. If I made an appointment and the weather was appropriate, they would drive it out of the warehouse for me to photograph.
I happily agreed, and on a warm summer day in the summer of 2003, a superb cherry-red 1932 Chieftain Triple Combination Pumper drove out into the sunshine. Manufactured by Bickle Fire Engines of Woodstock, Ontario, the classic open-cab engine was the perfect candidate. The Museum appreciated the exposure a coin would bring, and was pleased to grant me permission to photograph the fire engine as long as any subsequent numismatic issue properly referenced the Museum and its collection.
I completed my proposal, together with an appropriate mock-up from the photographs, and presented it to my Ottawa colleagues. Shortly afterwards, I was advised of a significant development. While the proposal for a Liberian host did not materialize, Australia’s Perth Mint had confirmed interest in the proposal for use on a numismatic issue of the Cook Islands. This was even more exciting, for as an associated protectorate of New Zealand, any resulting coin issue would necessarily bear the portrait of Queen Elizabeth on the obverse. Additionally, the Cook Islands agreed to the proposal of issuing the coin with a full-colour reverse, which would truly depict the engine in its full glory.
I believe a year or so passed with much back-and-forth between my colleagues and the Perth Mint, in terms of design and specifications, and we were ultimately advised to expect a 2005 release. With an anticipated launch-date in hand, I had arranged for a gala unveiling to be hosted by the Science and Technology Museum, with the Ambassador of New Zealand agreeing to represent the government of the Cook Islands. For reasons that never were clearly explained, however, the Museum abruptly withdrew their approval for the launch event, and we therefore prepared for our own soft-launch once the coins had arrived.
And arrive they did, in the form of a lovely 40mm One Dollar issue struck in .999 Silver, with a reverse-proof finish highlighted by my favorite photograph of the 1932 Chieftain set against matte-finished fields. “Fire Engines of the World” was the name chosen for the series, of which this – the world’s first legal-tender Fire Engine Coin – was the inaugural issue. Having served the Montreal West Fire Department from 1932 to 1969, the name and initials of the department remain clearly visible on the engine’s left side, and even the tiny license-plate reflects its Ontario identity, having been replated for its final journey to the Museum.
The coin remains one of my proudest accomplishments, and was followed by at least four further issues in the series, depicting Fire Engines used in England and Germany, etc. Tempering my pleasure at the release, however, was a disheartening lesson in business learned by a then-still somewhat naive young coin dealer, namely that the bond of a hand-shake gentlemen’s agreement was only as strong as the word of the parties involved. I had no capital to invest in the Fire Engine project, yet was the sole driving force in giving birth to the concept. In recognition of this contributed “intellectual equity”, I had negotiated an agreement with my colleagues that would have me receive a small commission on each and every piece sold for the duration of the issued series. Contently sealed with a hand-shake (which, to ethical numismatists, remains a sacred contract to this day), I never heard from them again after the release of the 2005 Bickle issue.
Today, with 25,000 pieces struck in the “Fire Engines of the World” series, I think of that misplaced faith as simply water under the bridge. Rather, I take quiet pleasure in the memories of a six-year-old fire engine enthusiast, who could not have envisaged the opportunity to leave his enduring mark on the world-wide numismatic canvas.