Dennis – I want One Of My Own!

The 1930 Dennis Dart:  “I Want One of My Own…”

My interest in all things fire resulted in my tracking down and purchasing a vintage fire engine, a 1930 Dennis. It was quite a journey getting the vehicle home. Its upkeep and restoration is another story….

Initial Moves

I was a volunteer member of the Fire Section at the Museum of Transport  and Technology (MOTAT) in Auckland when, about 1970,  I decided that working with the Museum’s vintage appliances was all very well, but…I would like to have an one of my own. Preferably a Dennis. Fire Section Boss John Walker knew of a few that were “unaccounted for” by those who kept records, in particular a 1930 Dennis Dart, ex Dunedin Metropolitan Fire Board.

His contacts at the Dennis Brothers Guildford works in Surrey couldn’t shed much light, except to give chassis and engine numbers and… “as far as we can ascertain, Dunedin’s Dart was one of six ever manufactured – it’s a rarity!”.

The desire for a Dennis, and the chance for a rare one at that, provoked further enquries in Dunedin which showed that the Dart, fleet number DFB 14, (Dunedin Fire Board 14) had been stationed at Central Station from 1930 until 1936 and then transferred to Mosgiel Volunteer Brigade.

1930 Dennis outside Mosgiel Fire Station

It was Mosgiel’s first motorized appliance – up until this time (1936) firemen had responded to fires on foot dragging their manual hose reel. In January 1936 the brigade “came of age” with the opening of a new fire station and the arrival of the Dennis, known as “Motor 14”. As one officer at the time, Jim Wright, said “we thought we had a real fire engine when we got 14 with its huge and very efficient pump!”

Mosgiel Brigade members on the Dennis, “Motor 14”
“A Century of Fires and Fire Brigades in Dunedin” J. S. Little

The appliance was replaced at Mosgiel with a 1946 Ford V8 and returned  to Dunedin in 1957 where it transferred to Central Station and converted to a water tanker. It was stationed for a time at the suburban Look Out Point station. It was subsequently sold in 1961…it was thought “to a weed-spraying contractor”. (Incorrectly, when the facts became known). The Yellow Pages provided a source of research to follow up this lead, and I systematically telephoned every weed sprayer and supplier of agriculture chemicals in Otago, looking for the Dart or anyone who knew of an old fire engine. With no luck in Otago, the enquiries widened North and South.

This extended search located the then-owner.

DFB 14 found

Weed-spraying contractor and farmer Bevan Manson told me on the phone that the Dennis was in a barn on his property at Weston, just inland from Oamaru. On my next trip south I called to meet Bevan, to look over the vehicle and express my interest in buying it. The Dennis was in a barn shared with bales of hay and numerous farm implements. Hens had claimed the vehicle as their own roosting space.


The appliance was minus its pump, ladder gallows, ladder and hose-reel. Its deck had been removed (no doubt when it had been converted to a water tanker back in Dunedin). But everything else, including the spare wheel and leather seat squabs were intact, and the tyres were still semi-inflated. Bevan said that while he had started the engine from time to time, the vehicle had not had an outing for some years. And he would need some time to consider whether to part with it.

On a later visit Bevan used his tractor to drag the Dennis out of the barn so I could get a better look at it, and he offered to try to start it. Fuel was added to the tank and the radiator was filled. The tractor’s battery was connected and after the third or fourth turn, the engine roared into life for the first time in years.


Bevan tells the story of its immediate past.

“Its operational days in Dunedin ended, the Dennis was sold by the Fire Board in 1961 to Stan Rusbatch, a member of the Oamaru Fire Brigade. He took it over without a pump, hose-reel or ladder. The pump had been sold seperately to a pig farmer on the Taieri Plains. It was Stan Rusbatch’s idea to have a vintage appliance participate in Oamaru’s centennial celebrations over the summer of 1961-2. The Dennis played its part in the various events and was then parked at the local fire station”.

“I was a frequent visitor to the station in those days to fill water tanks for my weed spraying business”, Bevan continued, “until one day Stan Rusbatch suggested I buy the Dennis for my work, and so the appliance changed hands early in1972 and the barn on my property at Weston became its new home.”

“Naseby, in Central Otago, was about to celebrate its centenary in 1972, so a friend and I decided it would be a bit of fun to take the Dennis to join in celebrations there. We did, and it was an enjoyable run”.

That 330-kilometre round trip was the last journey the Dennis had made.

The Dunedin Fire Board had given the Dart the fleet number DFB 14 although it was actually the 13th motorised appliance since it commissioned its first horse-less fire engine, a Merryweather, in 1909. It was not considered the right thing to have a number 13 in the fleet! In Dunedin the appliance was known colloquially  as “Fire 14”.

The Dunedin Fire Board became the Dunedin Metropolitan Fire Board in January 1935, a name change reflecting its greater responsibility for fire protection after its amalgamation with several outlying brigades. DFB 14, then, became DMFB 14 with subsequent change in signwriting.

(DFB was retained after restoration).

DMFB 14 is purchased

After another visit, Bevan was persuaded to sell the Dennis. As I was not able to take delivery of it right away he agreed to store it in the barn until I found out how I would get it back to Hamilton, where I was living at the time. Quotes from the Railways to “rail it” were far higher than what I had paid for it, so it became obvious that the easiest way to get it North would be to drive it, using the roll-on-roll-off ferry from Lyttelton to Wellington for the Cook Strait crossing.

From Hamilton an “expedition” was planned so that my return trip from the South Island on my next visit would be behind the wheel of the Dennis.

In preparation, I had to upgrade my Driver’s Licence so that I could drive heavy trucks. I left this a bit late before my departure for the South, but managed to push in to the waiting list when I told the traffic officer of my circumstances. I hired a rental truck early one morning to practise handling heavy vehicles and by lunchtime I had passed the tests and received a new stamp in my Driver Licence. I arranged leave from my job in Hamilton for late April and the “expedition” was on.

It was pre-arranged that Bevan would take the Dennis to the local service station for a check up so that on my arrival in Weston all that remained was to change the ownership and re-register the vehicle at Oamaru Post Office.

That was on the 24th April, 1972 and, unbeknown to me at the time, it was the eve of the vehicle’s “birthday”. It had left Dennis Works at Guildford in England 42 years before.

It was when I saw the Dennis’s documents for the first time I realised it was not classed as a heavy truck. It was an “O” class rather than an “H”. My ordinary car licence covered “O” class vehicles so my crashing the queue back in Hamilton to get, urgently, a heavy traffic licence had not been necessary.

Getting Ready for the Delivery Run

Back at the farm the fire engine was dragged out of the barn for the last time and given a thorough dusting down to remove the accumulated chicken droppings, manure, and dust. The battery had been recharged, radiator topped up, oil levels checked, vital systems tested, the old number plates taken off (75_020) and new number plates fitted (DM7322). I had a trial drive around the paddock. I was a bit worried about a McWilliams wine bottle cork, used as a bung in the reservoir atop the radiator. If that leaked, or popped out under the pressure of hot water, I would be sunk. But it had obviously been there for years and seemed to be doing its job.

I estimated the journey to be about 1,000kms which would take 4 days if everything, including the McWilliams cork, held together.

All seemed to check out and it was time to depart for the first leg. I figured it would be a “bit breezy” on the open vehicle, even with a windscreen, so dressed accordingly with an extra layer of warm clothing, a close-fitting hat and wearing the fur-lined leather boots I had bought just hours before in Oamaru. My other purchase had been a plastic bucket, useful I thought in case the Dennis “needed a drink” along the way. Bevan contributed a large water bottle and filled it, giving me an on-board reserve. It was to be refilled many times over on the long trip because the water pump developed a steady leak. The bottle has stayed with the vehicle. It remains to this day for the same purpose.

Journey Home 1 –   “E” equals a red face

Bevan accompanied me to the Weston service station where the petrol tank was topped up, photos were taken to mark the changeover and after farewells I departed alone, mid-afternoon, for Geraldine. The Dennis was on the road again for the first time since its long drive to Naseby 10 years before!

Bevan Manson with the re-registered Dennis: set to depart

I arrived in Geraldine after dark… and yes, the lights which we had not thought to test in the daylight, all worked, including the dip switch. Next morning Ray Gillespie, longtime motor mechanic and vintage vehicle enthusiast, looked over the Dennis. He checked the spark plug gaps and made some other minor adjustments. I trusted Ray’s opinion as to whether I should continue on my long “delivery run”. Asked if he would be confident enough to attempt to drive it all the way to Hamilton he replied “I wish I could spare the time to accompany you, it will be a great run!”

That was good enough for me so mid-afternoon I departed for Christchurch, not sure how far North I would get before having to decide where to make a stop-over for the night. But this decision did not arise. The Dennis conked out after about 30 kilometers, soon after I joined State Highway 1 at Rangitata. The engine would just not restart. A patrolling traffic officer came across me and together we checked over all the likely causes and still no-go. My enforced stopping place was, fortunately off the carriageway. The officer offered to take me back to Geraldine and I gratefully accepted. Ray was surprised to see me, but immediately mounted a rescue operation.

By the time we reached the immobile Dennis it was dark, so it was ignominiously towed back to Rangitata where after the briefest inspections Ray came to a rapid conclusion, and no second opinion about the trouble was required. The Dennis had run out of petrol!

Red-faced, I realised two things for the first time. Just how thirsty the Dennis was and that without a petrol gauge I needed to be super careful about keeping the tank topped up. The Dennis was left at the Rangitata Service Station overnight and I returned, yet again to Geraldine.

Journey Home  2 –  Sleepless night and a reluctant passenger

Early next morning, armed with a spare can of petrol (just in case), I was dropped off at Rangitata and just after 7am the journey was resumed through the cool Autumn air towards Christchurch. By chance, the Dennis and I were spotted by a friend, Neville Tilsley, who was a passenger in a south-bound express train racing across the Canterbury Plains. The Dennis motored in the opposite direction at a much more leisurely pace. Even though, there were one or two fuel stops along the way, Christchurch was reached before 10.30am.

Ferry bookings were made for the following evening’s sailing to Wellington and a friend, Alan, decided he would join me on the ferry and for the North Island legs of the journey.

The drive through the Lyttelton tunnel and on to the ferry “Rangitira” was a breeze. I had a sleepless night in my cabin during the overnight crossing… worried that the Dennis would not start when it came time to disembark. I imagined angry drivers in vehicles behind me blocked by the immobile Dennis, preventing them leaving the ship. After early breakfast it was time to go to the vehicle deck, preparatory to disembarkation. I need not have worried. The Dennis started first time, we exited into Wellington’s cold morning air and set off up the steep Ngauranga Gorge and then on along the coast… destination Waiouru for the overnight stop. We arrived late afternoon.

Just one day’s drive left to hometown Hamilton, but Alan announced he did not want to continue and proceeded to find alternative transport back to Auckland. There was a train in the middle of the night, but he preferred air travel. This was not practical until the morrow, requiring a lengthy bus trip from Waiouru to the nearest airport.

Better to stay with the Dennis, I persuaded, and if we made good time I could have him home in Auckland that night. It was reluctantly agreed. Next morning we set off early. It was very cold before the sun warmed up… the heat from the engine through the fire-wall helped overcome the chill. But by the time we reached the Desert Road it clouded over and the further North we travelled, the more menacing the black clouds. Miraculously, we dodged heavy showers, which seemed to be all around us as we reached the high point and continued on towards Turangi.

Nevertheless, we were pleased we both had our waterproof clothing because we did encounter some rain, perhaps the fringes of heavy falls not far from us. On the open Dennis there was no shelter. We had dried out a bit by the time we got to Taupo for an early lunch, and then we continued on to Hamilton. We encountered heavy rain at Tokoroa so rested a while under the shelter of a drive-through wines and spirits shop. Once the shower passed we set out for the last leg… to Hamilton where I garaged the Dennis in a shed that I had pre-arranged with one of my colleagues, Len Lee. Then I was behind the wheel of my much more modern car for another hundred kilometers. As promised, I delivered Alan home to Auckland “the same day”.

Safe arrival in Hamilton

Restoration – first steps

Back in Hamilton I began checking the vehicle to see what the first steps towards restoration would be. And to find out about that McWilliams wine bottle cork which was being used as the stopper in the radiator. This was a makeshift bung in what I found out was formerly “the bypass”, an inlet for a pipe from the fire pump which brought cold water to help cool the engine while the appliance was stationary, pumping.  This stream of cold water, compensating for the cool air normally rushing in the radiator vanes when the vehicle is mobile, enters at the top of the radiator. Hot water, displaced by the incoming cold water, drains to waste, thus cooling the engine during pumping. I decided to leave the cork undisturbed and it was not removed for some years, until I again used the inlet for its proper purpose with a hose line connected from the main pump.

In the one photograph of the Dennis in service at Mosgiel, I noticed it did not have a windscreen. So the windscreen it currently had must have been retro-fitted, probably to shield firefighters from Dunedin’s cold, frosty Winter air. Wanting the Dennis to look original, I removed the windscreen and its wooden frame. This then allowed me to cover the dashboard and its surround in plywood, polish it and then seal it against the weather.

(A second photo was subsequently found of the Dennis while it was in service and this confirmed that originally there was no windscreen. Like the first photo, the second also lacks detail because proud fire fighters of the day, sitting and standing on the appliance, block any chance of seeing what equipment it carried. Only by electronic enlargement can be seen several hose branches on the deck and standpipes at the rear. (It has been impossible to acquire an Owner’s Manual or similar handbook).

I learned how to use floor cramps to rebuild the deck using tongue and groove heart Rimu timber which had to be strong enough to take the weight of people walking on it, plus fittings and equipment. I then bolted on the ladder gallows and the hose reel, all donated by MOTAT. The search was on for a 500gpm Dennis pump.

This took me to the South Island again… Invercargill Fire Board had a Dennis trailer pump for sale at its Bluff Fire Station. I only required the pump, so rather than dismantle the trailer pump, I came to an agreement with MOTAT.

War-time Dennis Trailer Pump
Newton Abbot Fire Station

If I purchased the trailer pump and donated it to the museum, it would in turn gift to me a 500-gpm pump surplus to its requirements. The deal was done and the trailer pump was flown to Auckland for MOTAT by the RNZAF, subsequently restored and put on display as a working exhibit.

All the time I was on the look out for equipment and articles that would be required to “dress” the fire engine once it was restored. Little did I know it, but this acquiring and storing was to span 30 years. One item the Dennis just had to have to look right was a 35 foot (10m) Ajax ladder, so there was a constant look-out for one, and frequent mentions to those who might know where to acquire a suitable ladder.

Len Lee was transferred out of Hamilton and the Dennis had new shelter in a big garage at the home of another colleague, Bill Francis. It was at this stage that I began restoring the brass work which at some stage in the Dennis’s life had all been painted over, red. Perhaps this had been done to save firefighters back in Dunedin the task of shining the brasswork! It took months of periodic work to strip the paint off and polish the trim, hinges, and pump.

The winter evenings in Hamilton were too cold to work in the garage so the whole bonnet was transported to my flat where I worked away at its surrounds, vents and handles. The long hours were well rewarded. The brass buffed up to a mirror-like shine.

On the move – to Auckland

In 1974 I was transferred from Hamilton… to Wellington. So it was decided to drive the Dennis to “live” in a new double garage specially built at my parents’ property at Kawakawa Bay, south east of Auckland. It was at this stage that, lest police stopped the Dennis en route to Auckland, I decided I better get a current Warrant of Fitness.

With the addition of a rear vision mirror, the warrant was obtained, Dennis was ready for the journey North, and accompanied by my parents in an escort car, the trip was uneventful.

Dennis has a new home at Kawakawa Bay, South Auckland

Almost immediately the pump from MOTAT was delivered and my father arranged with a blacksmith and engineer at Clevedon to make brackets and mount the pump, together with the drive shaft from the power take-off.

The pump was tested. We draughted from a freshwater stream near Kawakawa Bay and  the manufacturer’s specifications, set 45 years before, were exceeded. My father tinkered with various minor things on the Dennis, replaced some frayed wiring, adjusted the engine’s water pump, fixed the exhaust and replacing a rotten wooden panel at the rear. Brother-in-law Charles Smith re-welded the muffler and the exhaust manifold and repaired the scuttle. He also had an adaptor made up, enabling suction with modern “v” thread to be connected to the pump’s round thread.

Nothing mechanical had needed fixing and it was a tribute after all these years, especially since the Dennis had lain idle for so long at Weston, and then had such a long journey north, that nothing seemed to go wrong.

The local harness-maker made a wide leather strap to secure the spare wheel on the vehicle. The gauges on the back were removed, overhauled, restored and replaced.

They had been removed from the appliance to go to the technician’s workshop when they were inadvertently run over by the Dennis as it was being maneuvered. This added to the work that had to be done… rather than being merely restored, the gauges and copper tubing required complete reconstruction! Teletherm Instruments Ltd. in Newmarket did a great job.

Dennis’s Warrant of Fitness and Registration was kept up to date and it was regularly run around the flat coastal road between Kawakawa and Maori Bays.

Further move – back to a farm shed  

Just as well Dennis was kept in running order, because the property at Kawakawa Bay was to be sold and the appliance would have to be moved to a new home. A shed was prepared on a farm owned by my mother at Whiri Whiri, south of Waiuku.

The shed was just wide enough to carefully back the vehicle in and a cover would be required because the roof leaked.

Tight fit in the new “home”, a shed on the farm at Whiri Whiri

Not much was done on the Dennis for a few years, nor was it regularly started. It sat for a year or two or three. I had been posted overseas. Rats built their nests in the lockers. The leaks in the roof got worse. Anyone visiting the shed was asked to give the crank handle a wind or two, thus turning the motor over to keep it lubricated and prevent it seizing.  But this was easier said than done, it required quite some strength to crank Dennis’s big engine!.

A new hay barn was to be built on the property. Mother did not proceed with the work until Dennis was measured so that a purpose-built lean-to could be incorporated which would provide decent garaging with adequate space for, perhaps, workshop benches and storage. Once built, it was decided to concrete the floor, reinforced, so it could take the vehicle’s weight.

The time came to move the Dennis, all of five meters, from the small shed to the new “Fire Station”. But the engine would not start.

No Go

Sporadic “firing” was punctuated with backfires and other noises. It was plain that the engine was objecting to being turned over by the starter motor. Various systems were checked to see if something obvious was causing the trouble. Maybe fuel trouble, the petrol unable to get from the tank to the carburetor?  A bypass was put in using a petrol tin. Still no go. Our friend on the farm, Brett Robinson, added his mechanical expertise, and sometimes muscle to crank the engine over, but to no avail. All seemed to be in order, but as my brother Noel pointed out, some systems were probably feeling their age… and that maybe wear and tear, too, was showing up somewhere within the engine. Advice from an expert in old engines and vintage car owner, Max Adams, from down the Whiri Whiri road, confirmed this view… something was wrong inside the engine.

Noel and I have the bonnet off for work on the engine

Before long brother Noel discovered 2 broken rocker arms, perhaps the result of sudden tension when the engine was turned over after being left idle for so long.

No replacement parts were available, of course, so the broken ones were repaired and all the other rocker arms were x-rayed to ensure they had not been cracked, thus weakened. Noel, seeking thoroughness, decided it might be wise to look further within the aging engine to check that other parts had not similarly been affected by old age coupled with recent years of inaction.

The compression was tested and found to be uneven, so the valves were sent to an engineer in Newton to whom we were referred as one with the skills and machinery to do a good job on the old parts. We wanted new guide valves, the exhaust valves built up, refaced and hardened valve seats inserted.

This work took much, much, longer than anticipated. Despite frequent reminders, backed up with a couple of visits by Noel and phone calls from overseas from me, the engineer showed he was not one to be hurried! The weeks and months rolled by. I called on him while on a visit home. He promised to complete the job right away.

After more than a year Noel again visited him at his workshop, intending to pick up the precious parts and get the work done by another engineer, already organised. However, the slowcoach engineer began gathering up the parts there and then to finish the tasks “while you wait”, even though he said this would take some hours, longer with interruptions from other callers. Noel thought it would be worth the time to wait… at least he would walk out carrying the precious parts with him.

As this work progressed one part was found to be missing and it was a needle-in-a-haystack search in his small, cluttered tumbledown workshop to try to find it. Noel and wife Gill joined in the search of all the machinery, bric-a- brac and rubbish in the workshop. The missing part was eventually found by Noel…in the lathe, where the engineer had left it, probably many months before, when he last worked on the job and forgot it, doubtless interrupted by a visitor with another more pressing job. What good luck!  At last all the valve work was finished.

Back in the shed on the farm It was felt prudent to hone and clean the pistons, replace the rings and check the big ends for play. Most other components were looked over as this work progressed, but nothing of consequence needed replacement or adjustment.

The sump was taken off and the thick gooey oil clinging to the bottom was removed, the whole thing cleaned. The petrol tank, too, was found to be lined with 65 years of accumulated sludge. In the very bottom of the tank it looked like crude oil, a thick dark-brown wax-like substance. Noel had the “recipe” to clean it. He removed the tank from the appliance, took it home, filled it with water, heated it and then carefully tossed in a couple of kilograms of caustic soda. The contents fizzed, frothed and bubbled for a while, but after they were cooled, drained and flushed, the inside was as shiny as a new pin.

“Well Made, Dennis!”

While the “insides” of the engine were visible, a small cylinder mounted to the engine block was investigated. On the top it has what looks like a domestic tap handle, with an inscription inviting to “Auto-Klean, turn regularly”. It appeared oil flowed through the cylinder as part of the normal circulation. It was found to be an ingenious additional oil filter. From the engine the oil enters the filter at the top and flows down through a series of wafer-thin metal combs and then back into circulation.

“Auto-Klean” oil filter: ingenious design

The combs gather any impurities and when the “tap” on the top is turned the combs inside revolve, half a turn each time, gradually scraping any impurities off the combs, out of the flow and into a small sump below.

(Research has since shown that this principle, retaining the name “Auto-Klean” is still offered by a British Company, converted these days to purifying commercial quantities of liquids, including vegetable and other oils. De Havilland and Boeing built “Auto-Klean” filters into their aircraft engines. General Motors also used them and Thornycroft included “Auto-Klean” in the special engines they made to power the lifeboats on the liner “Queen Mary”. The system was found built in to a captured Second World War Italian Armoured Car (Autoblinda 40).

Autoblinda 40/41 AB made by FiatAnsaldo-Fossati

This version of “Auto-Klean” had the added innovation that, instead of periodically turning the ‘tap” manually, the system was connected to the clutch pedal. Every time it was depressed the combs moved around slightly. When we looked at the Dennis we found an eye on the clutch pedal lever, and saw how originally, this was probably designed as part of the linkage to the “Auto- Klean”. It had the same “automatic” cleansing procedure. It might be connected up again one day!)

Finding the “Auto-Klean” was yet another item in a series of observations and discoveries, which frequently moved us when we were “in the engine” to say “Well made, Dennis!”.

This included the standard of engineering within the engine, normally unseen, and the methodically stamped numbering of parts, which made re-assembly much easier. It was probable that ours was the first visit, 65 years since new, to these interior parts.

Other Works

The Tillotson carburetor was removed, overhauled by experts and replaced.

Same for the motor’s water pump, with work carried out by cousin Murray Palmer, though it still proved difficult to maintain with just the right amount of packing. (Subject to later overhaul). Noel checked out the radiator and replaced the rubber hoses.

The electrics were similarly gone over and Noel decided to replace the high-tension leads so he sourced suitable wire and made up new leads. There was considerable debate about what size spark plugs should be used. The magneto needed no attention at this stage.

After months of weekend work in the small, inhospitable shed, the Dennis rewarded us with quick starting and smooth running. It was transferred to the comparative luxury of the lean-to “Fire Station”

The Dennis at last in its spacious new home

Some time later the Dennis was serviced at Kemp’s Garage in Waiuku, with many small jobs and adjustments undertaken, including checks of the brakes etc so that a Warrant of Fitness could be issued.

Shortly afterwards, in January 2001, the Dennis was driven to the Pukekohe Vehicle Testing Station for re-registration inspection. Its registration had long since expired and in the meantime, the law had changed so the Dennis emerged with a new Vehicle Identification Number label riveted to the firewall, new papers and new number plates (ZT 4455).

Re-fuelling in Pukekohe after inspection at the testing Station

Noel provided the “escort” car for this trip, and on the outskirts of Waiuku he later reported that I had exceeded the 70kph speed limit! 

What is this?

It was while the Dennis was being refuelled at a service station in Pukekohe that I was reminded about how old or unusual the vehicle is. The teenaged pump attendant asked me what the vehicle was…and after a pause he belatedly hazarded a guess; “Is it an old fire engine?”

All the work restoring the brass work in Hamilton some decades before had been undone without regular polishing. During weekends over many weeks all that laborious work had to be repeated. Light sanding of the brass was resorted to, the polishing finished with numerous coats and rubbings of “Brasso”. But this time, as each item was restored to bright shiny brass, Noel sprayed it with clear lacquer, thus helping to maintain a sheen.

Items of equipment (circa 1930’s) that had been acquired over the decades were sorted and a decision made about which would be needed to appropriately “dress’ the appliance. The job of polishing the numerous brass and copper branches and waterway gear took weeks. These, too, were sprayed with lacquer in the hope they will retain their shine, needing less “elbow grease” with regular polishing.

The Ladder

The Dennis still lacked one major and vital piece of equipment- a ladder. A 35 foot (10m) wooden truss extension Ajax fire ladder was required to give the “original” look. After many unfulfilled promises, a spare ladder was located at Waiau Pa Fire Brigade, and was purchased late 2001.

It was transported to Waiuku by cartage contractors Knight and Dickey and picked up from their depot some time later, coinciding with a visit to Kemp’s Garage for a Warrant of Fitness check. Once placed in the gallows, the ladder instantly, completely and agreeably changed the look and the lines of the Dennis. Perhaps this was what was missing, a vital clue, so that the Pukekohe teenager would not have had to ask if it was a fire engine! And protruding as it does alongside and ahead of the driver, it also requires a whole new driving technique.

Dennis returns to the farm – for the first time with a ladder

It was not until I saw the ladder for the first time when it was picked up from the carrier’s depot that I realised it was made at the Gale works in Christchurch, so although it looks the part, it’s not quite the “original” Ajax. Maybe one day…

A few more bits and pieces

There were several outstanding items yet to be added.

Many years ago I had been given a Dennis hand throttle lever and fittings, and Noel undertook to refurbish and fit them. This lever sits alongside the fire pump at the rear, enabling the pump operator to control the speed of the engine, as required, to prime the pump and to maintain output pressure, while at the same time overseeing the pump itself.  Noel re-engineered the lever assembly to ensure that the desired setting is maintained and he researched, and then installed, the most appropriate type of cable which runs nearly the length of the vehicle and is fixed to an eyelet at the base of the accelerator pedal.

Another item I had purchased some years earlier, a brass spotlight, was fetched out of storage and polished. The quarter-inch-thick glass lens was cracked and had to be replaced, not so easy because of its bevelled edge around the rim. Sauvarins Glassworks, however, knew a craftsman and he did a superb job. Noel renewed the electrics and reported that it produces an amazing beam of light. Once we figure out the best type of bracket, it will be fitted in front of the Officer’s position. (It was subsequently decided that it was not original, so should not be fitted).

Somehow a way had to be found to secure the spare wheel in the well beside the driver. Early photos of Dennis were useless: this detail just cannot be seen. Until recently, wide leather straps made by the Clevedon saddle-maker 20 years before had held the wheel in place, but the leather had deteriorated and was removed. Looking at the 3 studs holding the lid of the battery box, we found they seemed to be specially strengthened, so we deduced these once doubled as fittings to hold the spare wheel. Noel drew up a pattern and then built a customised frame. This now sits over the lid of the battery box with an angled bracket to support and anchor the spare wheel. This was just finished in time to take Dennis to Waiuku Volunteer Fire Brigade’s 75th Anniversary Celebrations on Saturday 2nd November 2002, where it was a static display.

Prior to this outing, Dennis was given a new Warrant of Fitness, 3 new inner-tubes (no telling what age the old ones were!) and a new battery.   


The ideal was to have the make-over done locally in Waiuku if a suitable panelbeater, painter and engineer could be found. Lance Cleave was recommended and in January 2002 he looked at the task ahead and gave an estimate to complete the project: his intention was a complete ground-up restoration.

Lance took another, more detailed, look at the project in September and gave a formal quotation. His work would involve dismantling the vehicle taking off all parts, sand blasting, panel-beating, repairing the tears in the alloy sheathing, preparing and painting. Electroplating the bright work would be done at the same time, extra to his quotation. Lance explained that only the engine would be left as-is: everything else would be taken apart, including removal of the pump and the radiator. He thought it would take at least 6 weeks to complete the job and it was arranged the work should start in the first week of November 2002. This clashed with Waiuku Volunteer Fire Brigade’s 75th Anniversary celebrations.

Dennis (cheekily) in the bay at Waiuku Fire Station during celebrations 2002

Dennis took part and was subsequently delivered to Lance a week later on November 7, 2002. As it left the farm on its way to Lance’s workshop in Waiuku, it was difficult to envisage how the vehicle would look once restoration was complete.

It took almost a year to restore the Dennis, with Lance working on it between other more pressing jobs. We had stressed that we were in no hurry… Lance stripped it right down to the “bare bones”.

The vehicle was stripped back to the chassis

Some woodwork, originally Ash timber, had rotted and this was replaced with New Zealand native Rimu by a local carpenter. A dead rat’s skeleton was removed from the rear locker, the pump was taken off, along with the mud guards, bonnet and all other fittings.

Restoration montage

Lance then began to reassemble, replacing all the panels with new metal and gradually restoring the vehicle to as-new. Noel and I spent time in the workshop from time to time overhauling or cleaning parts now revealed by the removal of panels, etc. We took several hours to clean the radiator, inside and out. From between the fins and pipes we removed shreds of grass and straw, plus seeds which must have been there since Mosgiel days, 30 or more years before!

There was constant checking with Lance to try to ensure authenticity every step of the way. He readily took extra time or put in additional process to “maintain” the mission. He was the consummate craftsman throughout. It was a big job but we knew there was progress when Lance advised it was time to choose the shade of red paint. Soon after that the vehicle went off to the paint-shop and on its return to Lance’s workshop all the additional fittings were replaced.

Looking Like New Again

It was late 2003 when the fully-restored Dennis left Lance’s and had a brief spell at mechanic’s Murray Kemp’s garage.

Lance Cleave delivers the restored Dennis

The Dennis was then driven “home” to Whiri Whiri. The project had cost more than $20,000 but Dennis must have looked like it did the day it left the Dennis factory in 1930… and when, some months later, it was unloaded from the ship in Dunedin and taken over by a proud Dunedin Fire Brigade.

The lockers were sign-written, opportunity taken to revert to the original letters DFB, but in the same shadow-face font. Restoration was complete.

With the new livery “DFB”, restoration is complete

Dennis remained “at home” for the most part, but travelled to Karaka one summer to take part in the Vintage Day there. It was on static display and then took part in the Grand Parade where it was well received.

A special birthday party was planned for Dennis to mark its 80th birthday on 25th April 2010. Suitable invitations were sent out and there was a gathering on the lawn at Whiri Whiri attended by family and friends.

80 years old. Dennis was the focus of the celebrations

Anzac Day, the actual birthday… the day Dennis left the Guildford Works… is a public holiday in New Zealand. The 80 year old had its own birthday cake.

80th Birthday Cake

On November 5th 2011 the Dennis travelled to Pukekohe to participate in the local volunteer fire brigade’s centennial celebrations – a cavalcade of fire engines down-the-ages through the town’s main streets and then at a static display .

Dennis in Pukekohe main street

Opportunity was taken at Pukekohe Fire Station to use its facilities to exercise the fire pump. Apart from moistening the glands and the short pump session from a cattle trough on the farm, the pump had not been “tested” for many years. A hydrant in the station yard was used, Hoses were connected to the Dennis’ pump and a delivery run out. The transmission was engaged, the engine revs increased. The outlet valve was opened and within seconds a powerful jet was shot out across the yard. The gauges showed the pump was ”drawing” on the water mains and we concluded, having looked up the specifications, that the 80 year old Dennis was again not just meeting, but exceeding expectations.

Pump test at Pukekohe Fire Station

Just as good as ever!  It was a good outing for the Dennis. In deference to its age, a route from Whiri Whiri to Pukekohe was carefully plotted to avoid steep hills wherever possible. Mechanically, the vehicle behaved perfectly.

Running Repairs

Two parts required attention, however, and opportunity was taken to overhaul them.

The magneto had been giving trouble and we decided to look at the cause. There were several experts available to overhaul this old-fashioned equipment but Noel decided he would have a go at it, assisted by some drawings and specifications found on the internet.

Noel’s work of art – the parts of the magneto on the workshop bench

Noel dismantled the magneto, replaced some vital parts (he made some bits himself) and reassembled.

The other part was the water pump which we long had problems with. (This is the water pump to circulate water within the engine, not the fire pump at the rear of the appliance).

It leaked no matter what type of packing we used, nor how tight we dared tighten it without doing damage. Sometimes the leak was reduced to a tolerable seep, only over time, or during a trip, to deteriorate to an unacceptable fast-drip. Through Auckland’s branch of the Vintage Car Club I heard of an expert tradesman who knew old water pumps.

I took Dennis’s pump to him and he reconstructed worn parts and then recommended that the inside receive a special coating to prevent corrosion. This was done by another “old boy” who knew water pumps. Refitted, the pump works perfectly… better than before…. and without any leaks.

Restored water pump – pristine!

Another Move

Consequent to the farm at Whiri Whiri being sold In 2016, Dennis had to leave its home of many years and was moved to storage in Waiuku at Knight and Dickey’s premises. Grahame Dickey made a suggestion that the Dennis might be an exhibit in a museum he was opening in the converted former supermarket in Waiuku. Grahame had a large collection of tractors, stationery engines and vehicles in storage and the old supermarket, which he had purchased, was to make an ideal home for them in a museum. He hoped it would be popular with visitors, situated as it was at the end of the Glenbrook Vintage Railway. There was a plan for a combined train/museum ticket encouraging visitors to enjoy both attractions. It was agreed to place Dennis, on loan, in the Museum.

Dennis was stored in the huge shed at Knight and Dickey until Graeme and John Dickey converted the old supermarket. In November 2017 the Dennis was moved into the converted supermarket, by then fitted out as a motor museum and which was already receiving first vehicles for display.

Dennis at Dickey’s Museum: contemporary number plate added

Dennis took its place awaiting the museum’s opening, opportunity to give it a good clean, to brighten up jaded brass and chrome fittings, to blacken the tyres and rubber decking: in other words to get it to exhibition-quality for public display.  A new number plate, date-correct, was fitted and the vehicle jacked up to protect the tyres. Suitable labelling and information is provided.

Flashback… to Guildford

I visited the Dennis Guildford works in 1979 during a trip to England, seeking information about the Dart. I was welcomed by Mr John Dennis who kindly had the archives searched. Copies of the chassis drawing and Works Sheet were produced, the latter providing some details of what the appliance had been fitted with to meet the order placed by the Dunedin Fire Board.

It also contained many specifications and part models and numbers which would be useful when it came to looking for Manuals and information about servicing the vehicle, its engine and pump.

That one piece of paper, to me, was a great link between the appliance’s “birth” in 1930 and the machine now in the Museum in New Zealand. I realised, too, that I was lucky to own a vehicle with such a sound British pedigree, made by a company which obviously took great care in the fire engines it had been producing since the first model in 1908.

In London, before travelling to Guildford, I had purchased one of the few books available on the history of the Dennis Brothers and their vehicles. I got John Dennis to autograph the book.

In hindsight it was absolutely the right thing to do because later the business was sold and the name “Dennis” no longer appeared on new vehicles. (It did, however, make a very successful comeback in later years… on fire engines and buses again… after new owners realised that a well-known, and trusted, name promotes sales).

Another document John Dennis gave me was the “final check” before the Dennis left the works en route for New Zealand.

Original Dennis Brothers “final check” document for the Dennis 

Where Are The Other Darts?

It may be recalled that when I was first searching for this appliance prior to acquiring it, Dennis Brothers reported that others had been exported to New Zealand around about the same time in 1930 and that, in total, there were 6 made.

During my visit to Guildford to find out about DFB 14 I afterwards regretted that in my quest for information about my Dennis, I had not thought to ask about other Darts. Now, 20 years later, I set about finding them.

The first one was easily located since it’s photographed in several publications. It was purchased new by the Nelson Fire Board, served there many years and then went to the Christchurch Brigade. It was fitted with a  Wheeled Escape. After retirement, it was sold to private ownership and is presently exhibited at the Ferrymead Hall of Flame.

What had become of the others?

In 2000 Jennifer Carlyon, my niece, was on an extended visit to England and she was persuaded to journey to the Surrey Record Office, which had inherited the entire Dennis Brothers’ archives, to seek information about Darts.

Jennifer received a telephoned and written briefing from New Zealand before she journeyed to Surrey to avoid a needle-in-the-haystack type search.

Jennifer made an exhaustive hunt but could find records for only three 1930 Darts and all came to New Zealand… to Dunedin, Nelson and Christchurch. She took some photographs of the original Order Book, hand-copied the purchase orders for all 3 appliances and took photocopies of the same Works Sheet I had obtained during my visit to Dennis but which, now 20 years later, was fading.

Three, Not Six

Jennifer’s visit added invaluable information about the Darts.

It must now be assumed that the advice from Dennis Brothers in 1970 was wrong. There were only 3 Dart fire engines made in 1930, not six. Two of them, Dunedin and Nelson appliances, could be accounted for, leaving one, the Christchurch machine, “missing”.

It was not until 2002 that it was traced, in the private ownership of David Cable at Prebbleton, Canterbury.

The appliance (Car/Chassis Number 7357) had been sold by Christchurch Fire Board to interests at Cust in Canterbury where it had been converted to an emergency vehicle fit for ambulance duties. After that service it went to the Ferrymead Hall of Flame and was later purchased by David Cable who has restored it as it appeared during its Christchurch Fire Board days, using a photograph of the appliance hard at work during the tragic Ballantynes’ Department Store fire in 1947. This Dart is, thus, not original.

Privately-owned 1930 Dennis ex Christchurch Fire Board

Nor is the ex-Nelson appliance, (Car/Chassis Number 7358) with its wheeled escape added much later in its fire service life.


Nelson’s 1930 Dennis Dart in action before alteration

Ex-Nelson Dennis with Wheeled Escape fitted

Provided no more original 1930 Darts emerge, DFB 14 (Car/Chassis Number 7359) is unique! Messages seeking information on appropriate web-sites on the internet over many years have, to date, resulted in no more being discovered. The other Darts mentioned may have been buses and made, perhaps, a little later – smaller models became popular with some bus companies, including London Transport, in the face of the economic depression.

The Details

In March 2002 certain research had to be undertaken to enable the Dennis to be entered in the Register of Vintage Vehicles. The superficial listing of all the components required for the application led to intriguing research, finding out the exact pedigree of the parts on the Dennis. I have written this up in greater detail elsewhere. Being a 1930 model, about the time the motor industry was rapidly expanding, much of the equipment can be traced directly to those who invented and pioneered various automotive products.

More details about these components can be found under Dennis on this website. Some of the stories about the pioneering founders/inventors of are intriguing…

For instance the Simms magneto was the brainchild of Frederick Richard Simms, (“The father of the British Motor Industry”), who in addition to electrics had devised various engines, including the first overhead valve design, and made his own car, the Simms-Welbeck.

Arthur Champion (the AC petrol pump, given his initials) had invented various equipment, including a more efficient spark plug and went on, through association with General Motors, to become AC Delco.

benjaminphawkins/whiteandpoppe website

White and Poppe designed and built engines from the time of the earliest motor cars in Britain… their products powered many emerging vehicle makes, including the first Morris cars. W&P was taken over by Dennis Bros.

MCL Repetition Company introduced a revolutionary, more efficient, dynamo using a patent by inventor A. H. Midgley, its robustness acknowledged by the defence authorities and the India Office.

The servo-assist braking system, Clayton-Dewandre, derives from the Clayton and Shuttleworth Company, 19th Century pioneers in farm machinery, steam rollers and, years later after amalgamating with other interests, railway rolling stock. Through their expertise with braking systems they also tied up with Westinghouse in the U.S.A,

The Auto-Klean oil filter was also an invention fitted to many early cars and trucks, the principle now applied to purifying bulk vegetable oils.

The steering wheel was manufactured by Bluemels, a Wolston, Coventry, company which was established in 1860 by the Bluemel brothers, originally in London.  They first specialised in mudguards for bicycles and then extended to accessories including bicycle pumps, reflectors and lights. Steering wheels were added to their inventory when they perfected processes for Bakelite and plastics. The Wolston Works had its own fire brigade.

Finally, Dennis Brothers themselves must be added to the list of pioneer developers their patent worm drive, turbine fire pump (both of which were Dennis patents), superior braking system, under-slung torque drive shaft and single-unit engine/gearbox.

Looking back over old newspapers, trade journals and Works documents, it’s clear Dennis Brothers had always been sharp marketers of their vehicles, from the days of their first bicycles and cars (late 1800s, early 1900s), their self-propelled motor-mowers, their commercial vehicles, not to mention their fire engines!

Patent Pump based on Tamini designs

They held several patents, which they trumpeted in advertisements along with the Royal Appointment in 1928 (Supplier to King George the Fifth) which they were very proud of, frequently mentioning this in the literature. This pride extended to the Coat of Arms being worked into an elaborate enamelled badge and attached to some vehicles of the time. The company also boasted patronage by hapless Grand Duke Michael Alexandrovich of Russia.

“By Appointment” Coat of Arms


“By Appointment” radiator emblem


Another style of the “By Appointment” radiator badge


Special appointment to Russian Royalty




The DFB14 Clock
                                                        Crafted by Jennifer Carlyon



RCC 29/09/02, 21/10/02, 3/11/02, 8/11/02, 2/11/18, 21/06/19