The Museum of Fire is proud to have been shortlisted in the 2023 National Heritage Awards in the category of Conservation – Interiors and Objects for the restoration of the 1959 Commer Fire Engine.
The project saw an original 1959 Commer C5FT fire engine restored by our hard-working team of volunteers to a state of completeness unseen since 1983. The Commer C5FT is one of four in existence in NSW and is the only known one to have been restored to this degree.
The Commer has been a part of the Museum’s collection since January 1983, prior to the Museum moving to its current location in Penrith. The passage of time and relocation of the Museum from Sydney has meant that the vehicle became lost in amongst the others contained in the collection.
Time has taken its toll on the Commer, affecting not only its exterior but its mechanical capabilities as well. Therefore, the vehicle became the ideal project for our dedicated volunteers to restore to the vehicles former glory.
Over a period of just 15 months the exterior and interior were completely repainted, with the interior guttered and new upholstery installed (all work undertaken by the Museum’s volunteers). The vehicle was also made road worthy by the team with complete mechanical repairs done on site by the volunteer team. Between October 2021 and January 2023 it has been transformed from rusty and forgotten to centre stage, and is now on public display in the Museum.
From Forgotten to Centre Display: The Path of the Project
The restoration of the Commer began in October 2021 with minor mechanical fixes that were necessary to allow the vehicle to be more easily transported across the grounds of the Museum so it could move between our painting workshop and mechanical workshop.
To be able to complete the painting process, the original layer of paint had to be stripped back, exposing the engine body down to its bare metal layer. With a clear surface, the classic red paint was able to be reinstated as per historical accuracy to the body. The interior of the fire engine contains green painted trims which were also re-done in an effort to conserve the historical significance of the fire engine. The colour of the interior was unknown until later paint jobs were stripped back and the team had to refer to photographs from the Museum’s collection to ensure that the paintwork was restored to how the Commer would have been during its service with the NSWFB (New South Wales Fire Brigade). Altogether the painting process, which was affected by the pandemic, took 5 months to complete.
In April of 2022 the restoration of the interior furnishings of the fire engine cabin began. The leather lining and structure for the cabin seat were completely reconstructed and the floor to the cabin seat needed to be reproduced as it was discovered to be absent. This process involved the necessary action of new brackets to be installed to preserve the overall historical integrity of the seat in the fire engine cabin. The process also required the time-consuming effort of bending plywood to conform to the shape of the seat, a feat which requires the wood to be wet, slightly bent, dried, and repeated until the required shape is created. As a result, the upholstery process took over 3 months to complete illustrating the delicate and precise care required to restore and conserve the interior furnishings of the fire engine. Again, all this work was undertaken by the Museum’s volunteers.
Beginning in June 2022, the volunteers then moved onto mechanical repairs. The primary predicaments were its handbrake and brakes both being dysfunctional. Smaller issues that arose were wiring with the blinkers and the carburettor needing replacement. Due to the volume of projects occurring at the Museum, this process of mechanical maintenance was interrupted but would see its completion by December 2022. The effective work of our volunteers in repairing the mechanical faults has meant the vehicle could be operational once more, breathing life into the object allowing it to transcend from a static display to one that is moveable and functional, conserving the integrity of the fire engine’s purpose and increasing the historical significance.
The final detailing of the Commer included the painting of white, gold, and black line trims across the vehicle as well as the lettering of “NSW Fire Brigades” which re-introduces the Commer to its historically accurate presentation. The execution of this livery was hand painted, being completed in the same way in which it would have occurred in 1959 when this vehicle entered the NSWFB fleet.
Ultimately, the work conducted has seen a fire engine which had previously deteriorated due to aging, become reinvigorated. The restoration, reproduction and conservation techniques implemented by our team of volunteers, as overseen by the heritage team, has produced a historically accurate representation of our firefighting appliances from the past.
To read more on the history of the Commer check out the Heritage Team’s previous blog: Click Here