SUPERIOR EMERGENCY VEHICLES (1973-2006) HISTORY
From a modest beginning in the early 70s, Superior Emergency Vehicles grew to become Canada's largest fire apparatus manufacturer, before and after its purchase by Emergency One, the world's largest fire truck company. Superior was also an important part of a historic shift of Canadian apparatus manufacture from its traditional base in Ontario and Québec to western Canada.
Superior was founded in Red Deer, Alberta in 1973 by partners Bob Mather, Butch Barthel and Barry Skinner. Mather and Barthel had previously worked for Saskatoon Fire Engines, a fire truck manufacturer based in Calgary. As an aside, Saskatoon was founded in 1924 or 1925 in the Saskatchewan city of the same name but moved to Alberta in 1962. Little information on the history of the company is available, but Saskatoon built trucks for many fire departments in western Canada until they ceased operations in 1978. Superior started operations in a small building in downtown Red Deer before moving to a new 25,000 square foot manufacturing facility in the industrial northwest section of the city. Superior occupied a portion of the building, renting out the remainder, until they took it over completely in 1985.
The first truck ordered was a GMC pumper for High Prairie, Alberta and the first delivered was a pumper on an International chassis for Syncrude Ltd. (Canadian Bechtel) in Fort McMurray, Alberta. The company gained a foothold with its "Streamlined Plain Jane" model of pumpers, a basic standard pumper suitable for small communities. Initially, these trucks were built for Superior by the American Fire Pump Company, but Superior produced their own version as they built up their production capacity. The company also cracked the big-city market early on with a 1975 order for three urban pumpers on Hendrickson chassis for Calgary.
Orders continued to roll in from departments large and small throughout Alberta, British Columbia, Saskatchewan and Manitoba during the 70s. In 1978, the company looked south of the border to expansion in the American market. Can-Am Fire Apparatus was formed as a marketing arm for Superior apparatus in the United States. The name Superior was already in use by a Montana-based fire apparatus company, hence the Can-Am moniker. The Can-Am name was used until sometime in 1983.
The company also had an eye on eastern Canada. Other than one truck sold to the small township of Nakina, Ontario, all sales had been in the west. In 1980, Superior Fire Trucks was founded as a new division and a manufacturing plant opened in Kingston, Ontario. Some 20-30 trucks were built in Kingston - exact numbers are unavailable. The Kingston plant was closed in 1982 due to the difficulties encountered in operating two separate plants. After the closure, Superior served the entire Canadian market from Red Deer and started shipping trucks directly to Ontario customers (starting with Sandwich West, Ontario) in 1982.
Superior also undertook a number of technical innovations during this time. In 1978, Superior started using formed aluminum to build its trucks instead of steel. This was a bold decision, as only Florida-based Emergency One was using this new technology. In 1980, the company also developed a new "extruded body construction" design using aluminum extrusions to create "tongue and groove" fits for body panels and compartments.
Things really picked up in the mid-1980s with the closure of King-Seagrave and Pierreville Fire Trucks. The loss of these central Canadian companies gave Superior an opportunity to fill a much larger share of the Canadian market, an opportunity which the company pursued with vigour, selling many trucks to fire departments in Ontario and the Maritime provinces. In 1987, Superior entered into agreements with Pierce Manufacturing, Smeal Incorporated and Snorkel Products Incorporated, giving the company exclusive rights to market these companies' products in Canada. Superior built and delivered over 130 trucks using Pierce chassis across Canada. Smeal provided aerials for 30 Superior-built apparatus and Snorkel devices for three, enabling the company to market and build apparatus with aerial devices. Superior also acted as a dealer for Smeal and sold a number of Smeal-built pumpers to Canadian departments.
By 1989, Superior was delivering over 100 trucks each year and had become Canada's largest apparatus builder. This attracted the attention of Florida's Emergency One, the world's largest fire apparatus manufacturer. E-One had been working with dealers to gain a share in the Canadian market and managed to sell a number of trucks in British Columbia and Ontario in the late 1980s. In late 1991, E-One offered to purchase 100% of Superior from the original owners. Mather, Barthel and Skinner agreed, and Superior Emergency Vehicles became a subsidiary of E-One on January 1, 1992. The familiar Superior nameplate changed to a version of the oval E-One logo and the company continued to sell trucks across Canada with E-One chassis and aerial devices as Superior served the Canadian market for E-One. By the mid-1990s, E-One started to rationalise their production and Superior was tasked with building initial attack units, brush trucks and light rescues for the E-One family of companies. These rigs were delivered to fire departments around the world, generally with E-One nameplates. Gradually, more and more trucks built for Canadian departments, starting with custom rigs and aerials, were built at E-One's main facilities in Florida and shipped north.
After 30 years of operation, Superior's name changed to E-One Canada Corp. in 2003. However, in 2006, E-One announced that it was shutting down the Red Deer plant and the Superior brand name. Factors cited in the decision included the rising value of the Canadian dollar relative to the US dollar and higher labour costs driven partly by competition for skilled trades in Alberta's oil boom. The plant wound down production and shut down by the end of the year, resulting in a loss of 85 jobs. All production was shifted to E-One facilities in Florida and came just two years after the closure of E-One's Saulsbury plant in Tully, New York. E-One continues to sell fire apparatus in Canada through a dealer network but does not build trucks here.
All in all, Superior built over 3600 trucks. About a third of these were built before the company was purchased by E-One and the remaining two-thirds after. Before the purchase, Superior delivered trucks across Canada to departments large and small. Most of Canada's major cities were customers, including Calgary, Edmonton, Regina, Saskatoon, Vancouver and Toronto. Under the Can-Am name, Superior also delivered to American departments in Alaska, Colorado, North Dakota, Oregon, South Dakota, Utah and Washington state. As noted, E-One sold Red Deer-built trucks across Canada and the United States and to countries as far afield as Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Argentina, and the Philippines. A small venture started by three men grew into an impressive operation with a worldwide reach and a legacy continued by fire departments worldwide.
Superior serial numbers consist of a sequential number following the company's initials (SE for Superior Emergency). For reasons unknown, the series started at SE 20 and increased from there. SE numbers were also assigned to some refurbishments and sales of used trucks. A few were allocated to trucks ordered but later cancelled. However, most of the numbers refer to the actual construction of a truck. Trucks built at the short-lived Kingston plant bore serial numbers starting with SF for Superior Fire Trucks.
This list consists of trucks built before and immediately after the takeover of Superior by E-One in late 1991. The changeover to E-One chassis was gradual, so the list goes up to mid-1992 or so.
A WORD ON SOURCES
Thanks to the foresight of a number of fire buffs and the kind assistance of company personnel over the years, it was possible to get a basic but complete delivery list of trucks built by Superior prior to the purchase by E-One. This list formed the basis of the list given on this site, although many details are missing on earlier trucks (specifically chassis makes). In addition, several rigs were ordered by provincial governments (particularly the Government of Alberta) and distributed to individual fire departments, but in many cases, the details on where the truck was sent are not known.
Archived historical information from Superior's former website.
Dubbert, Bob, Shane MacKichan and Joel Gebet. Encyclopedia of Canadian Fire Apparatus. Hudson, WI: Iconografix, 2004.