My Searchlight Truck
People always ask me why I am spending all my time and money building a life-size Tonka toy.  This is my answer:

First, some background information on the truck:

This is my historic 1970 Seagrave 1000 gpm triple combination pumper.  It served the Jackson, MI Fire Department from 1970 until 1998. 

The odd body shape is called a "Canopy Cab" and this particular truck was the very last of its kind.

The canopy cab design was revolutionary when it was first introduced by Seagrave in the 1920's.  You see, early motorized fire apparatus (1910's through 1930's) had open cabs with no doors or seatbelts to hold drivers or crews on the rig.  Firefighters rode to emergencies on sideboards and tailboards where they frequently suffered injuries and over-exposure to the elements.  Beginning in the 1930's, Seagrave sold thousands of custom "canopy cab" rigs similar this one by touting the improved comfort and safety of its design, which provided a wide rear-facing bench for 4 crew members safe and sound under the reinforced canopy.  The body style of my rig, introduced in 1951, was called the "70th Anniversary Series".  These rigs were very popular for many years, especially in the Northeast USA, and the design survived with only minor modifications for over 19 years.

The mechanical siren in the nose and the long curved grill bars gave 70th Anniversary Series trucks a distinctive "smiling" face that was very endearing for many observers, especially children. 

Beginning in the 1950's, more and more fire departments began purchasing trucks with more modern "cab forward" designs, which improved crew and storage space in the cab by placing the driver and officer seats ahead of the front wheels.  By the late 1960's, nobody was ordering canopy cab trucks anymore, so Seagrave shut down it's 70th Anniversary Series production line in 1969.

Then, in late 1969, Seagrave got one more order for a canopy cab truck.  The Fire Department of Jackson, Michigan operated a large number of Seagrave Canopy Cab rigs and it wanted to preserve the uniformity of its fleet.  Seagrave filled JFD's order but had to assemble the rig by using spare parts from their parts bins.

My truck was the very last "70th Anniversary Edition" rig produced.  Several historical publications confirm that this rig marks the transformation of custom fire truck design from the old style traditional front-engine cabs to modern era cab forward designs.  This is how the truck looked when it was delivered in 1970.

Photo Credit:  "Photographic History of Seagrave 70th Anniversary Series" by Walt McCall.

I purchased this rig sight-unseen on Ebay just before Christmas 2002 and flew up to Michigan to drive it home through a raging snowstorm with no working heater and a leaky exhaust.  I had to stop for two days in Texarkana to recover from CO poisoning.  

From a driver's perspective, this truck is much more fun to drive than the big new cab forward rigs that I drive for the VFD.   Handling is superior because of better weight distribution.  It feels more like a big car than a truck.  Visibility is not so good because that big long nose, designed to house a large V12 gasoline engine like the one in my 1937 Seagrave pumper, blocks much of the driver's forward view. Although this rig originally had a V12, it is gone now.  Sometime in the 1980's, JFD replaced the gas V12 with a smoke-belching Detroit Diesel 8v71.  Repowering the truck changed it into a different kind of vehicle. Under throttle, this truck pulls like a locomotive. No wonder this big green Detroit Diesel motor was the preferred power plant for tanks, armoured personnel carriers, big boats, and Greyhound busses through the 1990's.  It sounds like a locomotive too!  Unencumbered by emission controls, the Detroit's two stroke engine noise is deafening. If you remember the brutal noise that city buses used to make before the EPA began regulating municipal vehicles, then you can image how manly this fire truck sounds.  My kids have always called this rig "The Beast".


For several years my kids and I drove The Beast to parades, parties, and special events.  Most every child and adult in our neighborhood got a ride at one time or another.  My neighbors got used to the sound of the sirens that blasted every time a new passenger pushed on the irresistible dash buttons.  We traveled to several fire truck musters and motorcycle club ride ins.  My daughter's select softball teams adopted the truck as a mascot and it went to tournaments all over Texas, Louisiana, and Mississippi.  

My boss asked to use the truck as a part of his re-election campaign.  The first time he ran against an opponent, my boss rode The Beast to victory.  Four years later, the electoral mojo was apparently depleted from The Beast because my boss was defeated at the polls.  A few months later, I was out of a job.

Nobody ever again asked to use The Beast for an election campaign.  

Sometime in 2010, I decided to restore The Beast.  That was about the same time I became interested in searchlights (see my page for AN/TVS Searchlight).  It seemed like a good idea at the time to combine my interests in old fire trucks with my new interest in searchlights by creating a full size copy of my favorite childhood toy.  The idea was to copy the Tonka Searchlight Truck shown above.  

Of course, I had no idea what I was getting into.

The first problem with The Beast was the rust.  All those winters in Michigan were tough on this poor truck.  By the time I removed all the rusted parts, there was very little truck remaining...

Luckily the historic canopy cab survived.  But, most of the remainder of the truck body would have to be replaced with new steel.  This is one reason why it never made sense to restore this truck to "original specifications".  No matter how much I wanted to preserve the original metal, this was inevitably going to be a new truck.  It made no sense to mimic the original configuration of the body since I could never do it to the same standards as "original".  This would have to be a new design from the frame up.

Thankfully, I was befriended by Mark Griggs, a professional welder/artist who operates a business called "The Metal Shop" in North Houston.  Bit by bit, Mark helped me design and build a replacement body specifically configured for my searchlight.  Notice the "space frame" made of square tubing.  The new body was much much sturdier than the original body, which was nothing more than sheet metal panels bolted together.

After many months, the new body took shape.  I got The Beast back to my shop and began to engineer the generator and light setups.

By 2013, The Beast had new wheels, new tires, new radiator, new starter, new 320 amp alternator, new electricals, and a new automatic transmission.
In the photo above, the rig has its new body and the first of several generator sets intended to power my searchlight.  This was a 15kw generator head that was intended to run off a PTO.  I hoped to engineer it so the bench seat could remain over the generator for rear-facing passengers.  But, this idea turned out to be impractical.  Also impractical was the first searchlight planned for the truck.  I purchased a broken WWII 60" carbon arc antiaircraft searchlight with the intention of converting it to 12kw HMI and powering it from the PTO generator in the photo.  But, this plan changed just as I began purchasing components for the HMI conversion.  Nothing seemed to work right.  In the process of converting my carbon arc light, I discovered a much more powerful and attractive searchlight -an AN/TVS3 20kw xenon searchlight.  See my page for AN/TVS Searchlights.  I decided to use that light on my searchlight truck instead.  Once again, I had no idea what I was getting into...

First of all, I had to get a different generator.  Unlike most other electrical appliances that run on household current (60hz), the AN/TVS3 runs on 400hz power, which is not readily available in the civilian world outside of aviation.  In San Antonio, I found an old Air Force ground power unit like the ones used to start B-52's.  I bought it and brought it back to Houston for my project.  After messing around with that old thing for months, I finally gave up and purchased a more modern GPU from Southwest Airlines at Hobby Airport.  It was a 60Kw unit.  Getting the generator mounted on the truck under the canopy cab and working properly was a huge feat, but I did it!

Now I set about mounting the AN/TVS3 on the truck and getting it to operate just like the Tonka Toy.  This required a lot of engineering prowess.  Unfortunately, I am not an engineer and I have very little prowess.  So, the project bogged down for several years while I tried to figure out how to automate a half-ton searchlight that was designed to be moved only by hand.

This photo shows the light on a temporary trunion that I used to power everything up for testing.  I decided the best way to transmit power through a rotating mount was to use the turntable from the WWII antiaircraft light.  Problem was, the slip rings and power contacts were not designed to carry the high AC amperage required to run this light.  So, once again, my project bogged down while I scratched my head and tried to solve problems that probably should have been turned over to trained professionals.  Too bad that's not how I roll.  I had to somehow figure this out myself.

In 2014, my wife and I moved out of the suburbs and got a place in the country where we were able to spread out a bit and keep some animals.  I built a shop to accommodate the searchlight truck project and my other pumper.   Now that we were far away from airports, I was able to exercise the searchlights without having to worry about interfering with aircraft trying to land.  

Through the years, I continued to work on my other truck, a 1937 Seagrave Triple Combination Pumper.  For more information on this truck, see my web page for "1937 Seagrave".  This is where I spent a lot of my time and money that was originally intended for the searchlight truck project.  

My searchlight collection grew in 2015 when I acquired some US ARMY 24" xenon lights.  These are Vietnam era AN VSS 1's.  They have adjustable beams that can go to over 150 million candlepower.  These lights were mounted on the barrel of tanks.  They also mounted them on the back of jeeps.  My lights are actually the version intended to mount in jeeps, known as AN VSS 14.  

When I got these lights, my first really great idea was to mount a couple of them on the back of the searchlight truck behind the main searchlight.  The goal was to create an even more awesome light truck. However, I was so excited about adding awesomeness I failed to consider how adding two more lights of a different type on the searchlight truck would add more layers of complexity on top of a project that already had a lot of unresolved complexities.  I also never considered the effect of adding all that extra weight.  None of this occurred to me until after I mounted the new lights - because that is how I roll.

December 2016: The beast is back home after a few months at Mark Griggs' Metal Shop.  Two AN-VSS 1 tank lights are installed at the rear of the truck on their original mounts.  The AN - TVS 3 primary light is mounted on a modified turntable from a WWII vintage carbon arc antiaircraft light. It can rotate 360 degrees. Power will be transmitted into the light via heavy duty slip rings.   I haven't been able to test the power transmission through the turntable because now my generator is broken.  Still, I am forging ahead with the project because that is how I roll.

Warning lights are all mounted up.  Excessive, I know, but this project is all about excess.  In addition to the Federal Q mechanical siren, the rig has a vintage PA100 electronic siren with two speakers, two emergency vehicle "stutter horns" and two big-rig air horns.  No doubt this will be the most obnoxious truck in the parade.  In order to run all this electrical stuff, I will probably have to have four house batteries.  I also have the option of adding an additional alternator under the hood.  This can be done after paint if necessary.  When stationary, the 60kw AC generator will supply a 12 volt power supply to recharge the batteries.

I will be testing the lights after the holidays.  No need to make it neat because everything has to be removed for paint.  For now, I will just slop together the wiring.  A lot of details will be addressed after the body is painted.  Perhaps 2017 will be the year I finally get the Beast painted.

For the first time, all the equipment is mounted on the truck and I can see what the profile will look like.  This is the truck in travel configuration.  I plan to paint the truck in its original Jackson FD colors, red on the bottom and white on the top.  The searchlights will be painted grey.  Red vinyl covers will protect the lights when in transit.  Mounted equipment includes 4 "Circle D" lights with 500,000 candlepower aircraft landing lamps, 2 yellow "Circle D" power outlets attached to 100' cords that are stored on internal retractable cord reels, 4 100' power cords on portable reels, a 5 gallon jerry can for spare diesel fuel, and a full complement of extinguishers.  The rectangular grill under the canopy cab window is the radiator grill for the transverse-mounted generator.  Power supplies and other electronics to run the searchlights are mounted under and behind the passenger seat.  A powerful electronics cooling fan will blow out of the exhaust vents behind the passenger door.  The forward cabinet contains two batteries.  The forward cabinet on the driver side has room for two more batteries if needed.  The rear cabinet is full-width storage.

The reason I have not updated this site in a couple of years is shown below.  In 2014, this 1952 ALF was donated to my VFD.  It was in pretty rough shape when we got it.  So, naturally, I volunteered to restore it.  It took two full years, but now that restoration is nearing completion.  The full story is on my Facebook page, "Parade 18".  Now that the ALF is out of my shop, I can start to devote some attention to the Searchlight Truck project again.

This damn fender is giving me fits.  All other metal fabrication is complete.  The truck is 100% rust free and straight except for the passenger front fender.  Mark and I have tried everything we can think of to get it aligned.  However, nothing we do seems to work.  This fender is what professional body repair men call "katywumper".  One way or another, this fender has to be straight before this thing goes to paint.

I found this photo in an old history of Jackson FD.  IT seems to explain why the passenger front fender is so messed up:

May 2018 Update:

My Searchlight Truck remains in storage several miles away while Magnolia VFD's 1952 American Lafrance sits in my shop waiting for the machine shop to finish the engine.  Consequently, I can only work on the searchlights and other components while the truck waits to return home.  

I took the AN TVS 3 searchlight off the truck and restored it to its original Army configuration.  See my AN TVS 3 page for photos.  I no longer plan to mount it to the truck.  The reason I did this is because the AN TVS 3 is so big and complicated that it presented a bunch of technical problems that I could never completely resolve.  Furthermore, the AN TVS 3 and the huge generator it required to operate weighed so much it actually inverted the leaf springs on the truck.  I became worried that the rig was badly overloaded and unsafe.

So, I finally decided to redesign the truck to use one of my AN VSS 1 lights.  Although this is a significant downgrade in candlepower, the AN VSS 1 is still quite powerful.  Rated at 150 million candlepower, these lights were mounted on the barrels of tanks and had about the same effective range as the guns, which was about 2 miles.  This means that these lights are far brighter than any scene lights used on fire apparatus and certainly bright enough to shine into clouds.  No matter how you measure it, the AN VSS 1 is plenty bright enough for my purposes.  

The AN VSS 1 is relatively simple to operate and maintain.  It has a cooling fan and air heat exchanger, but it doesn't require coolant.  The army used these by the thousands during the Viet Nam years and so spare parts lamps are inexpensive and plentiful.

There is another advantage to this latest design change.  Unlike the AN TVS 3, which runs off 400hz power, which is useless for any purpose other than running military electronics and airliners, the AN VSS 1 operates with 28 volt DC power, which can be easily converted from a regular 50/60hz generator.  This means that I can install a conventional generator on the truck that can be used for normal backup power when needed.  This increases the utility of the truck.  Now, instead of designating this rig as simply a "Searchlight Unit", I can designate it a "Light and Power Unit."

So, off comes the light!

May 2019 Update:

The Beast is still in storage while I work on the V12 motor for the American Lafrance.  However, I do have room to work on the VSS1 searchlight assembly.  These lights work on 28 volts DC and two car batteries wired in series will power them up for testing.  I have a total of four VSS1 lights and none of the work.  Amazingly, the insides of the these lights are pristine.  So, I was able to swap out the best-looking components until I finally got one light to work by trial and error.

I am using the turntable from the junk WWII carbon arc antiaircraft searchlight that I got for the original design of the truck. 

This light draws about 200 amps at start up and about 100 amps continuous when running in "overdrive" mode.  Luckily, the slip rings in this turntable are able to handle the current and more.  The large rings are for main power and the smaller rings are for 13 separate control circuits.  I'm using the control circuits for switching the light and controlling and limiting the elevation servo.  The main turntable (azimuth) motor is from a Chinese scooter.  Speed and direction is controlled by an electronic motor controller.  A smaller scooter motor mounted in the trunion will move the light up and down (elevation) and it has its own separate electronic motor controller.  The gears and transmission that turn the light 360 degrees are the original components dating from 1942 and they are so perfect they need no modification.

The turntable searchlight assembly is mounted to a heavy duty scissor lift table.  This will allow me to raise the searchlight high enough to shine over the top of the canopy cab.  From there, toggle switches will make it possible to aim the light at any point in space.  The light will also be cable of spinning around in constant circles like an advertising light.  As far as I know, this is the only VSS1 light with this capability.

The searchlight is assembled and tested.  This is what it looks like fully raised. 

The array of sealed beam lamps look like automotive headlamps, but they actually 28V aircraft landing lights (extremely bright) and they are capable of illuminating everything within 200 meters.  The main searchlight becomes effective beyond 200 meters out to about two miles.  I'm pretty sure this is the longest range scene light tower anywhere in the world.

So now the searchlight assembly is done.  This was the most challenging part of the project in terms of engineering and problem solving.  Nothing like this has ever done before with lights as powerful as this.   I has to go through several configurations and overcome numerous issues before arriving at this final successful design.  Now, finally, I can turn my full attention to the truck itself.

July 2019 Update:

The "Beast" came home from storage.  After sitting idle for almost 2 years, it started right up!

In my shop at last!  Now I need some help.  Mark Griggs has offered to help me get all the mechanical issues straightened out and then get it ready for paint.

February 2020 Update:

I finally had the opportunity to address the remaining mechanical problems on the truck.  I replaced the air compressor and most of the brake system.  A diesel shop in Galena Park serviced the motor and replaced the hoses, belts, and filters.  The leaky head gaskets were replaced.  I cleaned up the engine compartment and installed heat insulation on the firewall.

April 2020 Update:

The Coronavirus Lockdown gave me some time to work on the truck. The Allison Transmission shop in Houston pulled the transmission, dyno'd it, and fixed the leaky seals.  While the tranny was out, I had them replace the leaky main seal on the motor.  The hood, nose, and front body were blasted and primed.  The fenders were finally straightened to my satisfaction.  Now I installed all the body panels for the last time.  I know the general appearance of this truck hasn't improved for years, but there has actually been a ton of progress.  The truck is finished underneath.  

The quarantine also allowed me time to perfect all the equipment that will be mounted on or in the truck.  Since I decided the truck should be a dedicated "Light and Power Supply Unit" I am removing most of the fire extinguishers and fire-related equipment.  Instead, the rig will carry a large supply of portable floodlights, power supply boxes, adapters, and over 1200 feet of electric extensions cords.  In addition to running the AN/VSS 1 searchlight, this truck will be able to provide emergency power and lighting to any remote location or any building with a supply panel up to 100 amps.

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