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The use of the Commercial Chassis – Commer Fire Engines in NSW


Manly fire Brigade c. 1921 with Commer-Simonis Pump [Museum of Fire Collection}
Manly Fire Brigade c.1916 with Commer-Simonis Pump [Museum of Fire Collection}

Commer first began in south London around 1904 as Commercial Cars Ltd, manufacturing a variety of vehicles with a forward control aiming to implement better petrol-electric transmissions that relieved drivers of needing to master the art of the “crash gear box’. Commer would participate in the fire engine industry as early as 1910, teaming up with Henry Simonis and Co of Watford. Simonis was an established fire engineering company and provided the firefighting equipment and bodywork in tandem with Commer who produced the chassis. The New South Wales Fire Brigade (NSWFB, now Fire and Rescue NSW, FRNSW) would purchase a Commer-Simonis fire engine in 1914 as a part of its trials to determine a suitable light pumper. It entered service at Manly until 1919, where it was transferred to Broken Hill, remaining there in service until 1930. As an experiment of its time, it remained a one-time wonder until the company would be considered as a possibility for new fire engines for the NSWFB fleet in 1949.


In the post-war era the cost of purpose-built Dennis fire engines and the likes had increased significantly. In an effort to drive down costs, the NSWFB began investigating commercial chassis in which they could build fire engine bodies in house. As a consequence of war time parts shortages the workshops of the NSWFB had made patterns and tools to repair old Dennis-Tamini pumps and to even create their own pumps from scratch at a cheap price. Therefore, the only question that remained was to find a suitable inexpensive chassis ideal for firefighting. Commer was successful in being selected as the ideal manufacturer with the first Commer chassis the S Model Mk 2 being ordered in 1950 and implemented across 4 brigades, those being Mosman, Hurstville, Campsie, and Ashfield from 1952 to 1954.

Commer Pumper attached to No.072 Merrylands Fire Station at an incident [Museum of Fire}
Commer Pumper attached to No.072 Merrylands Fire Station at an incident [Museum of Fire}

By late 1954, the S Model Mk 2 Commer whilst reliable, were limited to low output pumps of 300-350 gallons per minute (gpm, approximately 1,135-1,591 litres per minute) whilst other engines of this time could reach 500 gpm (1,893 to 2,273 litres per minute). Hence the R series began to be explored as an option, particularly the R5FT with its extended cab and PTO (power take-off) able to power a primary pump and additional “first aid” pump made it ideal for firefighting purposes. The R series in its brochures of the time highlighted how Commer had partnered with several specialised UK fire engine body builders such as Carmichael, Alfred Miles, Hampshire, Campion and Cuerdon. Whilst Commer may have originally been sought out for its chassis allowing the NSWFB workshop to build engines at a cheaper price, the idea of purchasing “complete fire engines” like the R series became of interest. Ultimately, the NSWFB would order four fire engines from Commer from its R series with the chassis from Commer and the body being made by Carmichael and Sons, all that remained for the workshop crew at Headquarters was to install a repurposed pump taken from the older Dennis model fire engines.

Commer fire engine outside the Fire Services Museum, Walsh Bay (now the Museum of Fire located in Penrith) 9 October 1984 [Museum of Fire Collection]
Commer fire engine outside the Fire Services Museum, Walsh Bay (now the Museum of Fire located in Penrith) 9 October 1984 [Museum of Fire Collection]

In 1955 the order was officially placed for four Commer R5FT’s, however, by this time it had already been superseded by the C5FT which the NSWFB received instead. The only difference between the R series and the C series was slight cosmetic differences in the cab and in the trim of the vehicle. The Commer C5FT had a 6-cylinder ohv (overhead valve) engine which was inclined at 66 degrees allowing for the engine to be place under the cab floor providing comfortable seating for 3 adults. With a bore of 3-3/4” and a stroke of 4-3/8”, its 4752cc in capacity gave 109 BHP (brake horsepower) at 3000 rpm (rotations per minute) and 230 lb/ft torque at 1200 rpm. The Commer C5FT boasted advanced customised features such as a supplementary cooling system where water from the fire pump could be directed to the heat exchangers for coolant and oil.

These engines took several years to outfit resulting in their slow implementation into service across 1957 to 1959, with the engines stationed at Tamworth, Katoomba, Orange, and the one that is in the Museum of Fire’s collection being from Hornsby.

ME 303 Commer C5FT a part of the Museum of Fire Collection, taken before final paintwork was completed for its restoration [Museum of Fire Collection}
ME 303 Commer C5FT a part of the Museum of Fire Collection, taken before final paintwork was completed for its restoration [Museum of Fire Collection}

The Commer C5FT in our collection would then make its way from Hornsby to Burwood in 1963, then to Gosford in 1967, Grafton in 1970, Coonamble in 1972, then stationed as a spare in the Country Fire District in 1976, being finally withdrawn from service in 1983. The vehicle is currently on display so definitely make sure you come and visit the Museum to see it in all its glory.


-Story written by the Curator

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