Andy Swift’s front lawn is filled with the skeletons of old fire trucks. Their rust-colored frames, ladders, and wheels lie tangled in tall grasses beside the old chicken barn that serves as his workshop. A yellow road sign with the silhouette of a fire truck on it hangs from the building’s side.
The 62-year-old emerges from his workshop wearing a leather jacket, a New York Fire Department baseball hat, and blue jeans so stained that the fronts are entirely brown. He sports a wiry white mustache that blends into his beard and extends down below his chin, and his fingernails are black from engine grease.
Swift’s company, Firefly Restorations, takes fire trucks that are often more than a century old and makes them look and run like new.
“That one is the first pumper that Brookline, Mass had,” Swift says, pointing out a rusty old thing that looks more like an old VW bus than something that could save a building.
“It might be the first one that pretty much anybody had,” he continues. “All the firemen were contained inside, so they wouldn’t be riding outside of the apparatus on a tailboard when they were going to a fire anymore. It was safer, they weren’t falling off and getting run over.”
He turns around suddenly.
““Hey, it’s Saturday afternoon. If we’re going to do this, I’m going to need a beer.”
So Swift climbs into his red pickup, passes several farms and ends up at the Hope General Store, which sits at the junction of two roads and serves as the small town’s center. He chats with the store clerk, whom he knows, as he buys a six-pack.
Back at home, inside his shop, Swift cracks open a bottle and walks around rattling off the year, make, and history of each engine or ladder truck in the shop, which come to him from all over the country. Swift is restoring at least six at any given time, and many more are waiting in the barn for necessary parts to arrive or for their owners to come up with enough money to pay him to finish the job.
While many of the antiques belong to individuals, fire truck companies or museums, the trucks that belong to fire departments mean the most to Swift. One such rig, originally designed to be drawn by two horses, is a steam engine that belongs to the Portsmouth, N.H. fire department.
It was brought down to Boston to help fight the great fire of 1872 and saved the Old South Church from burning to the ground, Swift says. He and his team have restored the truck almost fully. It sits gleaming in his shop, gold leaf popping against the bright red of its wooden wheels, copper fittings reflecting like mirrors.
“When you have the fire department that has owned this early piece all their life, this is a big deal for them,” he says. “It links them with their past.”
Swift and his wife, Cathy, have two grown children. He grew up all over the state of Maine and has performed all sorts of jobs, from working at a rehabilitation center for abused children to working as a roadie for the band Outer Space (“I’d wish that on anybody”). He still holds a summer concert at the shop every year that the band plays. Their “green room” is an old airstream trailer that never leaves the yard.
Swift first got into restoring fire trucks when he was working as a fireman in Alaska. In 1977, he and Cathy climbed onto his motorcycle—Swift’s other passion is “riding”—and drove from Maine up to Valdez (a 4,676 mile trip, according to Google Maps) to fix an old engine that needed restoring.
Swift, who’d previously worked at the Owl’s Head Transportation Museum in Owls Head, Maine, knew a thing or two about how to go about it. But the fire department was reluctant to let him touch their antique, since they weren’t convinced he knew what he was doing.
“A lot of people do jump into projects and have no business being there,” he says. “And they screw things up. But when they figured that I knew what I was talking about, they let me loose on it.”
The fire department needn’t have worried—Swift knocked his first restoration out of the park.
“It’s still one of our better fire engines,” he said. “It would compare to anything I’m doing today.”
After five years in Alaska, Cathy and Swift returned to Maine to be closer to Swift’s parents and start a family. By then, news of his successful Valdez restoration had traveled far enough that he started getting approached by private collectors and by American LaFrance, a fire engine company that’s over 175 years old. They wanted him to restore their collection for their own museum.
“You can’t get better than that, as far as I’m concerned,” Swift says. “Here I am, passionate about fire engines, and you’ve got one of the largest, oldest, fire engine manufacturers. And they want my services. So that was cool.”
From that point on, more trucks kept rolling in, and Swift was able to grow the business into what it is today. He’s one of a handful of other guys in the country who bring these old trucks back to life. They’re all buddies and help each other out when they need assistance or special parts that another one has, he says.
But for all of Swift’s passion, he still views his career as but one stop on his great motorcycle ride.
“It’s life,” he says. “I don’t know how it works, you know? It’s just one more thing that I’m doing. I guess I settled into this pretty heavy, but I guess you gotta at some point.”
He finishes his beer and looks over at a wall of his shop that’s plastered with pictures of his family, newspaper cuttings, and maps of national parks. A photo of Swift, Cathy, and the Valdez fire department in front of the truck he restored there hangs front and center.