Vintage Rolls Royce-made fire engine gets a makeover

Engineers from the Palace of Gondal and experts from WIAA collaborate with Mumbai fire brigade on Rs 20 lakh-mission to resuscitate 90-year-old fire engine that survived 1944 dock explosion

A vintage fire engine that dates back 90 years and sits in the Byculla headquarters of the Mumbai fire brigade is going to get a new lease of life thanks to the royal family of Gondal, near Rajkot in Gujarat.

The 90-year-old Rolls Royce-made fire engine survived the 1944 Bombay dock explosion that killed over 60 fire officers and 1,000 others
The 90-year-old Rolls Royce-made fire engine survived the 1944 Bombay dock explosion that killed over 60 fire officers and 1,000 others

The department was treated to a teaser on Friday when as part of the ongoing Fire Safety Week celebrations, the engine travelled from Byculla to Bandra, albeit atop a trailer.

When its refurbishing is complete, the department hopes it rolls out once again, gracefully like it did in the 1980s before its machinery packed up.

Pic/Satej Shinde
Pic/Satej Shinde

From the Rolls Royce stable, the engine — a turntable ladder, to be precise — was manufactured by the erstwhile British Leyland company in 1926 and procured by the Mumbai fire brigade in 1937 for a sum of about R1.5 lakh. It was an assembled fire engine; its chassis was British but its ladder was from Germany.

Just when the department thought the engine would never hit the road again, Chief Fire Officer PS Rahangdale happened to have a chance meeting with members of the Gondal family, famed for their vintage automobile collection that includes an imposing Daimler Double Six and the Mercedes 300 SL.

Kumud Kumari Gondal
Kumud Kumari Gondal

"Their collection of vintage cars is handled by a team of experts," said Rahangdale. "When I happened to mention the engine, they were kind enough to extend help. Their engineers visited us a few weeks ago to check its condition, and will be working with us to fix it."

Maharani Kumud Kumari of Gondal, speaking to mid-day over the phone, confirmed the news.

chief P Rahangdale
Chief P Rahangdale

"I was in Mumbai last month, and met the fire brigade officials. I am happy we could help," she said. While the team of engineers from the palace managed to get the dysfunctional engine started in time for the Safety Week joyride, further repairs will kick off once necessary spares are procured, which is the fire department's next challenge. The project is likely to cost the BMC R20 lakh, and extend over six months.

The expenditure, say, fire officials, is going to be worth the wait and price because the engine has played an important part in the city's history.

Nitin Dossa, WIAA
Nitin Dossa, WIAA

Additional municipal commissioner in charge of the fire brigade, Sanjay Deshmukh, spoke of the devastating Bombay Docks Explosion of 1944 in the Victoria Dock where freighter SS Fort Stikine that was carrying cotton bales, gold, ammunition and explosives caught fire, killing over a 1000 people and destroying several ships.

It was the day that's remembered by the city's senior citizens as one when fortune and tragedy rained on Mumbai. Gold ingots were flung hundreds of metres across. The Stikine was said to be carrying £890,000 of gold bullion in bars in 31 crates. The sound of the two explosions was heard right up to the suburbs.

The vintage fire engine is 90 years old
The vintage fire engine is 90 years old

Over 60 firemen lost their lives in the tragedy, and the memorial at the fire brigade headquarters stands as a reminder of their sacrifice. It is in memory of the incident that April 14 is observed as Martyr's Day.

"Two fire department vehicles were burnt in the fire but the brave driver of this engine drove it right through, saving it," said Deshmukh. For the department, then, the resurrection of the engine is a symbol of firemen's bravery.

The engine has a wooden body that is 9.5 mts long and 2.5 mts wide. It weighs 19.5 tonnes and has a ladder that stretches to 37 mts. The department is hoping to procure an engine carburetor, magneto, water pump assembly for cooling the engine and some parts for the braking system. The ladder needs to be checked, too.

The Western India Automobile Association (WIAA) also offered the expertise of its engineers, says Nitin Dossa, executive chairman of the apex body for automobiles which holds an annual vintage car rally in the city.

"P Rahangdale approached us since he knew we have expertise in dealing with vintage engines. WIAA sent two engineers, Sunil Shetty and Raju Singh, to work on the engine last week. They worked all night, and the engine did manage to start."

Dossa said he is confident the engine will be back to mint condition. "Rahangdale's enthusiasm is infectious and we all are enthused. It should run on the roads."

Dossa said, like vintage cars, the engine too is part of Mumbai's vehicular history and the last surviving fire engine of the 1940s.

"We hope this move is a catalyst in getting the state government to realize that vintage vehicles need to find a home to be preserved for future generations."

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