KING-SEAGRAVE (1956-1985) HISTORY

While trucks were not produced under the King-Seagrave name until 1956, the rich history of this company can be traced back four decades earlier. In 1906, Robert S. Bickle (1882-1949) established the R.S. Bickle Company in Winnipeg, Manitoba. Previously, Bickle had worked as the Canadian representative for an unknown American fire equipment manufacturer. An accomplished tenor who toured Canada and the United States, Bickle's interest in fire equipment may be explained by the fact that his wife, Martha Powell, came from the family behind the Obenchain-Boyer Company of Logansport, Indiana. Over the next few years, Bickle sold several horse-drawn chemical carts and self-propelled fire apparatus to towns throughout western Canada.

In 1913, the operation was transferred to Woodstock, Ontario at the site of the defunct Woodstock Automobile Factory on the corner of Mill and Main Streets. Bickle decided to move to Chicago and left the firm in the hands of his brother W. Russell Bickle. At the same time, George H. King, Bickle's brother-in-law, joined the company as a sales representative. George also managed a company called Canadian Morehead Manufacturers, a builder of steam traps. During the First World War, the company built two-wheeled fire apparatus for the protection of military bases on contracts for the Canadian government.

George King succumbed to the 1919 influenza epidemic, leaving his wife Anna (Bickle's sister) with the Canadian Morehead Company and four children. R.S. Bickle returned from Chicago and took over operation of Canadian Morehead and the fire engine company he started, the latter in conjunction with his brothers W. Russell and Beverly Ingersoll Bickle. In 1922, the name of the company was changed to Bickle Fire Engines Ltd. In 1924, a new manufacturing facility was built across the street from the old one. That same year, Bickle entered into an agreement with the Ahrens-Fox Fire Engine Company of Cincinnati, Ohio to build Ahrens-Fox apparatus for the Canadian market.

In 1928, the Bickle brothers hired their nephew Vernon B. King (George & Anna's son), a recent engineering graduate from the University of Toronto. King designed a complete line of custom apparatus under the names "Volunteer," "Chieftain," "Woodstock" and "Canadian." This custom line enabled the conpany to market under the slogan "Strictly Canadian - Built by Canadians." Bickle also built trucks on a wide variety of commercial chassis. King later struck out on his own, starting a business building truck bodies and trailers.

Bickle continued to collaborate with other companies. German Magirus ladders were used to build a number of rear-mounted aerial trucks for Montréal and Québec City in the thirties. In addition, an agreement was made with Peter Pirsch & Sons to build Pirsch 85 ft. aerial ladder trucks under licence. Ahrens-Fox designs were built under licence as well. The most important alliance however, was with the Seagrave Corporation of Columbus, Ohio. In 1935, Bickle took over the production and sale of Seagrave fire apparatus in Canada and on 1 January 1936, the name of the company changed to Bickle-Seagrave Limited. This highly successful alliance allowed the company to supply fire departments with all types of apparatus and Bickle-Seagrave soon became the largest fire apparatus manufacturer in Canada. Most of these vehicles were built completely in Canada, although tractor-drawn aerials were built at the Seagrave plant in Columbus (Ohio) and shipped north.

Orders were few and far between during the lean depression years, but the company was able to survive. The Second World War brought many orders for hand drawn pumps, crash trucks and pumpers for the Canadian government. Additional space was built to meet demand.

After the war, the Bickle brothers retired due to ill health. In 1945, Bickle-Seagrave was sold to a Toronto holding company and business continued under the same name. The liaison with Seagrave continued and orders were received at a brisk pace. The company moved into a new facility in 1952. However, this new plant over-extended the financial resources of the company and it was sold again in 1954, this time to a Woodstock industrialist. The new owner tried to diversify the product line by adding road sanders and other equipment. However, financial difficulties continued. The final straw was a strike at General Motors that prevented the delivery of GM chassis. Bickle-Seagrave was unable to meet several orders and was forced into bankruptcy in February 1956. The new plant was closed and sold.

At this point, Vernon Bickle King stepped back into the picture. His truck and trailer business had done extremely well and was one of the largest employers in Woodstock. He purchased the manufacturing rights to Bickle-Seagrave (but not the building), renamed the company King-Seagrave and resumed production by May 1956. King also obtained the continued rights to build Seagrave apparatus; Seagrave would supply custom chassis components and aerial ladder assemblies and King-Seagrave the rest, all assembled in Woodstock. A new plant was opened in 1962, and in the mid-60's, the company began delivering elevating platforms built by Strato-Tower, a division of Paul Hardeman of Ohio. In 1969, King-Seagrave became the sole Canadian franchise for the Snorkel Fire Equipment Company, enabling it to sell Telesqurt-equipped apparatus. The company also continued to build salters, sand spreaders and street cleaners.

The purchase of Seagrave by FWD Corporation in the mid-seventies meant King-Seagrave lost the exclusive Canadian rights to market Seagrave products. The "Seagrave" was dropped from King-Seagrave apparatus nameplates in 1972 or 1973, although the company name remained the same. Vernon King managed the company until 1976, when he passed the torch to his son Bill. However, in August 1982, the company was placed in receivership at the request of creditors and production ceased. The following October, the company was resurrected again under new management, using the name King-Seagrave (1982) Ltd. It is believed that the assets of the company were acquired by Walter of Canada of Montréal. The reorganised company designed and built the revolutionary aluminum CM-1 custom chassis, of which twelve were sold to fire departments across Canada. However, the revival was short-lived. King-Seagrave went into receivership in November 1984, completed its remaining orders and closed its doors early in 1985.

Fire truck manufacture continued in Woodstock for a few more years after the plant was purchased by Belgian Standard in September 1985.  Belgian Standard changed its name to Amertek shortly after.  In 1987 and 1988, Amertek built 68 crash tenders for the Canadian Department of Transport. These trucks served at airports large and small across Canada.  Amertek was also chosen by the Canadian Commercial Corporation (CCC) to build hundreds of crash tenders for the United States Army and 118 crash trucks for the US Navy.  There was also a 1992 order for ten tenders for the Egyptian Air Force.  Amertek also tried to crack the municipal fire truck market, but was unsuccessful.  Only five units were sold, all in Ontario, from 1988 to 1990.  In 1993, Amertek shut down its emergency vehicles division due to heavy losses, ending the manufacture of fire trucks in Woodstock.

There is an interesting legal footnote to the Amertek story related to the American military trucks.  After the closure, Amertek sued the CCC over the US military contract.  They claimed that the CCC knew that the original contract was flawed financially and that it would be impossible for any company to realise a profit or break even on these rigs.  They said that the company lost thousands of dollars on each completed truck and was unable to remain in business after the contract was completed.  In 2003, the Ontario Superior Court of Justice ruled in favour of Amertek, ruling that the contract left the company in "financial tatters," leading to the 1993 closure.  The judge further indicated that CCC witheld information to the effect that the original bid was flawed, failed to verify Belgian Standard's finances or technical ability to complete the contract and actively tried to bankrupt what remained Amertek to prevent them from pursuing legal action against the Government. The judgement awarded Amertek, an investor and the estate of another investor several million dollars.  The judgement received considerable media coverage due to the size of the award and also the blunt and forceful criticism levelled against the CCC.

The judgement also said that the US military was a victim of this as well, as they were misled by CCC.  The Amertek rigs apparently had spotty service records and suffered from a lack of spare parts after Amertek's demise. Some remain in service, but many have been declared surplus. Some have ended up in municipal service in the US, while others have been donated or sold to other countries.  A 2003 accident resulted in the death of a US Army firefighter.

CCC appealed the decision and the judgement was overturned by the Ontario Couty of Appeal in 2005.  The Appeal Court ruled 3-0 that "that every one of the trial judge's liability findings were in error," stating that Amertek in fact lobbied the government for the contract, acknowledged that its bid was well below the next-lowest bidder and used its own financial analysis to conclude that the contract was profitable.  The judges concluded that CCC did not do "...anything with a view to harming Amertek."  

SERIAL NUMBERS

King serial numbers followed a fairly regular pattern and were assigned to the trucks early in the production process. The first two numbers indicate the year in which the order was received, followed by a sequential number for that year. For instance, 76001 would be the first rig on the books for 1976. The sequential numbers would begin anew each year. There were variations in the number of digits in each serial over the years. Up until 1961, the numbers were four digits long - 5901, 5922, etc. In 1961, they were five digits - 61001, 63102, 74001, etc. This pattern continued until 1980 when an extra digit was added - 800001, 810024, etc. This remained the case until the end. Some of the serial number and ULC plates on trucks built during King's last couple of years in business bear only four digit serial numbers. They still follow the system, but are missing the "decade" number of the year and one null digit - e.g. 840032 would be labelled 4032 on the truck itself. Company records still refer to the six-digit numbers, so these are used in the listings here .

A WORD ON SOURCES

Thanks to the foresight of a number of individuals, comprehensive records on King's production (and Bickle before it) have been preserved. Al Leslie, a former manager at the company, preserved several boxes of files after King ceased operations. There are individual files for most rigs. These include production notes, post-sale maintenance records, and in some cases, delivery photos. They are a veritable treasure trove of information and a real treat to examine. These records are currently held at the library of the Canada Science & Technology Museum in Ottawa. Again, their foresight has ensured that the records are preserved in proper archival condition and available for use by the public. Because of the availability of these records, the lists here are quite comprehensive and there are only a few trucks believed to be missing.

HISTORY SOURCES
McCall, Walt. The Bickle Story. Toronto: Ontario Fire Buffs Association, [1972].

Oxford County Museum. The Greatest Name in Fire Apparatus: A History of Fire Truck Manufacture in Woodstock, 1913-1984. Woodstock, ON.