When a 1930 fire truck in Bangor’s Fourth of July parade caused an accident that fatally crushed a Holden man, suspicion immediately focused on the antique truck’s brakes and raised questions about its maintenance.
The incident also cast light on a state law that exempts antique vehicles from annual safety inspections.
Cars and trucks that are registered as antique vehicles, which in Maine means those older than 25 years, must meet basic safety criteria regarding their brakes, tires, windshield glass and mufflers, according to the state police inspections division.
But compliance with those safety requirements isn’t mandated. Maine is one of a minority of states that does not require annual inspections to make sure the vehicles meet those standards.
Antique vehicles, whether they are historic pieces of fire apparatus or classic hot rods, can be hard to find parts for, but they are not inherently difficult to maintain or dangerous, said Tim Stentiford. owner of Motorland Vintage America in Biddeford.
“Even with a 1930s fire truck, assuming it’s well cared for, it shouldn’t be any more risky than any other vehicle, but it needs that proper maintenance and attention and by somebody who understands that technology, to keep it running safely and properly,” Stentiford said.
Stentiford said classic car enthusiasts debate whether antique vehicles should be required to get annual inspections, since many of them are driven only on the weekends or are transported on trailers to car shows.
“Maine is in the minority that do not require annual inspections for antique automobiles or classic vehicles. Opponents say it’s not practical to have a single set of codified standards,” he said. “It’s almost impossible to take over 100 years across literally thousands of models and manufacturers and come up with a consistent standard.”
Of the 1.26 million vehicles registered in Maine, 19,000 are registered as antiques, meaning they are at least 25 years old, substantially in their original condition and not used as an owner’s primary vehicle, said Secretary of State Matt Dunlap.
The state does not track how many crashes antiques cars have been involved in over the years. Maine State Police spokesman Steve McCausland said he believes it to be a very small number, given how few of them there are.
Safety standards are not the same for cars and trucks of different eras, said Lt. Brian Scott, head of the state police inspections division.
Vehicles built prior to 1953 do not need to have turn signals, and cars built before 1966 don’t need to have seat belts.
“Tires, brakes, headlights, tail lights, window glazing … a muffler to prevent excessive noise — those equipment standards are for all vehicles in Maine regardless of how registered,” Scott said. “It’s like any other law. … It’s up to you to abide by it.”
Technically, the 1930 McCann pumper owned by the city of Bangor would not have had to meet even the basic safety standards, which apply to vehicles driven on a public way. For the period of a parade, the parade route is not considered a public way, said Scott.
“If a road is closed for a parade … vehicles wouldn’t need to be registered,” said Scott. “That’s why you can have monster trucks and Shriners’ go-carts at parades.”
Members of the inspection division were assigned Friday to help Bangor police examine the fire truck, which failed to stop at the intersection of Water and Main streets. The truck hit an antique tractor being driven by Wallace L. Fenlason, 63, of Holden, causing the tractor to tip over. The truck then ran over Fenlason, killing him.
Immediately after the crash, which was witnessed by scores of spectators along the parade route, including children, suspicion focused on a possible brake failure on the city-owned truck, which was used only in parades and other ceremonial functions.
The case remains under investigation and no cause has been identified, police said.
The Bangor Fire Department and Hose 5 Museum, the nonprofit group that runs the city’s fire history museum, have not said whose responsibility it was to maintain the vehicle or the last time it was serviced. They referred questions to the city attorney and city manager.
Following the crash, city attorney Norman Heitmann searched city archives for records about the truck and who is responsible for it. He found a 1983 document that indicates the truck will remain owned by the city but allows the “McCann Committee,” which was composed of current and former firefighters, to use the 83-year-old pumper in parades and other special events.
The document makes the McCann Committee responsible for maintenance of the pumper, which can be used only for ceremonial purposes and must be driven by a Bangor firefighter.
The city has given its information to its general liability insurance carrier, which is conducting its own investigation, Heitmann said .
Heitmann said he has not been able to find any other references in city records to the McCann Committee and he is not sure who has been responsible for the fire truck, though he said it appears to have been on loan to the museum.
The Portland Veteran Firemen’s Association owns a 1938 McCann fire truck that used to be brought out for parades, and the association hired someone with special expertise to maintain it. The truck is no longer driven, not because of safety concerns, but because the exhaust that comes out of it damages other valuable pieces of the collection, said Ed Marks, president of the association.
“Any time we have apparatus, old as it is, there can be mechanical failures. … It really is what it is, a tragedy,” Marks said.
Vintage vehicle enthusiasts say most collectors feel a strong affinity for their vehicles and keep them in very good condition.
“It’s pride,” said Thornton Ring, who served with fire departments in Freeport, Kingfield and Carrabassett Valley and now owns a 1969 Thibault fire truck, which he uses in parades and shows. When he bought it 12 years ago, it had 11,000 miles on it, he said.
“There are people within the fire service, particularly the volunteer part of the fire service, who are very dedicated to the history” of the fire service, he said.
Older vehicles are not necessarily more difficult to maintain because modern vehicles are loaded with electronics and older ones are strictly mechanical, said Stentiford.
“The average bill for servicing a classic car is significantly less than a modern computerized car,” he said. “You just need to go in for checkups a little more regularly.”
Stentiford said even when vintage vehicles are well-maintained and meet all their safety requirements, they still require the driver to maintain a different mind set when driving an antique, compared to a modern vehicle. Antiques often don’t handle as well and require more attention.
David Hench can be contacted at 791-6327 or at: