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 Custom Canopy Cab 1000 gpm triple combination pumper.  It served the Jackson, MI Fire Department from 1970 until 1998. 

The canopy cab design was revolutionary when it was introduced by Seagrave in the 1920's.  Early motorized fire apparatus (1910's through 1940's) had open cabs with no doors or seatbelts to hold drivers and crews on the rig.  Firefighters rode 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 canopy.  The body style of my rig, introduced in 1951, was called the "70th Anniversary Series".  These rigs were very popular for many years 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 modern "cab forward" designs, which created more crew and storage space 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.

Then, 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.  JFD ordered this truck in late 1969.  Seagrave 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 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 on Ebay just before Christmas 2005 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 it is hard to see around that big long nose which was designed to house the original V12 gasoline engine. Sometime in the 1980's, JFD replaced the gas V12 with a huge smoke-belching Detroit Diesel 8v71.  It would be an understatement to say that this is a torquey engine.  Under throttle, this truck pulls like a locomotive.  No wonder this big green Detroit Diesel motor was the preferred powerplant for tanks, armoured personnel carriers, big boats, and Greyhound busses through the 1990's.  Unencumbered by emission controls, the Detroit's two stroke engine noise is deafening. If you remember the brutal noise that city busses 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...

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 designed and built a replacement body specifically configured for my searchlight.  Notice the "space frame" made of square tubing.  This body is 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 brakes, 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 faded when I began purchasing components for the HMI conversion.  I discovered a much more powerful and attractive searchlight, an AN/TVS3 20kw xenon searchlight, and decided to use that light on my searchlight truck instead.  Of course, I had no idea what I was getting into...

First of all, I had to get a different generator.  The AN/TVS3 runs off 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.  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 70Kw 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 tried to figure everything out.

In 2014, my wife and I moved out of the city 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 federal SWAT teams fast roping down on my driveway to arrest me.

Through the years, I continued to work on my 1937 Seagrave Triple Combination Pumper, shown below.  This is where I spent a lot of my time and money that was originally intended for the searchlight truck project.  Someday I might put together a page on this truck. 

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 over 150 million candlepower.  These lights were mounted on the barrel of tanks.  They also mounted them on the back of jeeps.  Not sure what I am going to do with these, but I'm sure I will find something.  Maybe there is some room on the back of the searchlight truck for a couple of these.  I'll go ask Mark...

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 is transmitted into the light via heavy duty slip rings. 

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 70kw 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 blows 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 site 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 14 lights.  Although this is a significant downgrade, the AN VSS 14 is still quite powerful.  Rated at 150 million candlepower, these lights were mounted on the barrels of tanks and had about the same range as the guns, 2 or 3 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 14 is plenty bright enough for my purposes.  

The AN VSS 14 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 14 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."

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