Oshkosh Phoenix Fights Fire on 60 Percent Grades

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From the April 1997 issue of Car and Driver.

Right where you’d nor­mally rest your left foot atop a dead pedal, this firetruck is equipped with a 10-by-11-inch glass window. “The hell’s that?” I inquired, pointing at the floor.

“Well, a person would look through that,” said Ted Henson, the director of sales of ARFF vehicles (Aircraft Rescue and Firefighting) at Oshkosh Truck Corporation in Wisconsin.

“But at what? Anything you see in that window you’ll have already run over. It’s a porthole, right? When you ford a stream, you can view striped bass?”

“Maybe,” he replied patiently. “But actually, this truck can climb a 60-percent grade. When you crest hills at that angle, you’ll be searching for the horizon. And you’ll find it by looking at the floor­—that’ll become your windshield.”

Oh, as if, I thought. A human being must crawl on hands and knees to sur­mount a 60-percent grade. So an off-road firetruck, full of water, weighing 64,500 pounds? “You’ll need God’s own winch, plus the pope,” I explained to Henson.

We required neither.

The Oshkosh Truck Corporation, founded in 1917, specializes in “severe duty” all-wheel-drive vehicles. If you watch CNN, you’ve already seen its giant HEMTTs (“Heavy Expanded Mobility Tactical Truck”) pulling Patriot mis­siles, and you’ve probably also seen its 230,000-pound HETs (“Heavy Equipment Transporter”) humping M1 tanks over Kuwaiti dunes. Last year, Oshkosh built 2400 trucks, mostly for combat but also for New York City’s sanitation department, which, Henson says, “is roughly the same thing.”

Having perfected the vagaries of eight­-wheel-drive jumbotrons, Oshkosh created the Phoenix, the $350,000 off-road firetruck you see here. The U.S. Bureau of Land Management will buy Phoenix trucks to quell wild­fires. And so will airports whose firemen sporadically invade inhospitable terrain—­”like a plane that goes down in the Everglades,” Hensen ex­plains, diplomatically avoiding brand names.

Brandishing two water can­nons, the Phoenix lays down a wall of flame suppression, at least until it depletes the 2500 gallons stored in its stainless­-steel tank. And that might not take long. With both nozzles at full aperture, plus three under­belly sprays that inhibit the truck’s tires from turning into black torches as they rest atop scorched earth, the Phoenix can hose itself empty in only 3 minutes and 30 seconds.

Naturally, we attempted this in the Wis­consin woods. The roof turret erupted with enough force to peel the bark off four ash trees. If more pressure is required, Oshkosh sells an optional cannon suffi­ciently vicious to pierce the alloy fuselage of a Boeing 737.

“Course, for a wildfire, you wouldn’t spray at max flow,” Henson elucidates. “You’d spray compressed-air foam. It’s like Dawn dishwashing detergent mixed with water. Lands on the ground like a soggy quilt.” Two separate tanks hold 70 gallons of foam concentrate, which can quintuple the Phoenix’s on-fire time. Smother a house with this syrupy cocktail, Henson says, and a wildfire could lick at its foundation for two hours before flames would manifest.

Once aboard the Phoenix, locating the conflagration is as much fun as extinguishing it. Each of the eight driven wheels (weighing 535 pounds apiece) can travel through 16 inches of deflec­tion—seven inches of droop, nine of compression. We were able to cruise at 20 mph, sans disruption, over dozens of one-foot-high moguls at the company’s soggy off-road test track. You can watch each Michelin buckle as it absorbs the blows before there’s percep­tible suspension impact. When we buried the truck’s nose in a stream, the forward-most tires lost grip and began flinging buckets of muck. Yet the truck never lost momentum, because four other wheels—which, you know, were not even in the same area code as the water beneath the cockpit—­were still agitating dry earth.

The Phoenix’s 736-cubic-inch Detroit Diesel produces 445 horse­power at 2100 rpm, flowing not very smoothly through a four-speed Allison automatic. During acceleration runs, the only tire we could smoke was the one parked in the brush fire. The Phoenix eventually plodded through the quarter­-mile in, ah, 32.0 seconds—that works out, in a protracted way, to one second per ton—at a speed of 43 mph. Later, we somehow surpassed the vehicle’s advertised top speed, attaining a giddy 62 mph before panicky pedestrians and paralyzing fear reined us in.

For no good reason, we drove the Phoenix through downtown Oshkosh, halting for photos in front of bars: Herbie’s Acee Deucie and the 919 Club, Pinky Harvath, proprietor. I was twice restrained from activating the truck’s siren and red strobes—a Dairy State misdemeanor—although the truck’s Flaming Lemon paint (photographer official Kiley called it “phlegm”) was by itself separating Pinky’s patrons from their pints.

Cockpit noise includes colossal tread roar and turbine-like whine from all four differentials. It sounds like a Beechcraft at rotation. Above 25 mph, you shout to be heard. The steering is light but as numb as day-old birthday cake. And it’s bizarre to have the steered wheels articulating behind your back. The driver feels like a tether­ball, observing directional changes more than initiating them.

The Phoenix’s eight-foot width ensures that the passenger hovers above the gutter, witnessing the ruination of rural mail­boxes. Even over such impediments, the ride is Town Car smooth. Potholes don’t even register. The brake pedal modulates nicely, although during panic stops, the stored water tends to migrate where it shouldn’t, creating an interesting weight transfer that induces lockup. Hard to tell which wheel; one of eight was my guess. After compacting considerable foliage around the off-road course, we braved the aforementioned 60-percent grade, which, at least when we began, was covered in loose sod. First, the Phoenix’s nose gouged a hole in the cliff face, then its rear bumper buried itself in an avalanche of sediment, this despite the truck’s 43- and 45-degree angles of approach and departure. Just before we crested the hill, with the truck reposing at an angle that would starve most engines of all lubricant, I noticed that the window on the floor was perfectly aligned with the horizon. Had I stepped out the door, I would have plunged 35 feet down the hillside. A groundbreaking truck, this. We know. We broke acres of the stuff.

If your local fire department has col­lected 20 grand in code fines, it can equip the Phoenix with entertaining options. Our favorite was NightSight—forward-look­ing infrared radar, which enables the Phoenix to navigate dense, noxious smoke and sneak up on neighbors whose barbe­cued cube steaks are unattended.

In 1997, Oshkosh Truck Corporation expects to build 30 to 40 Phoenix fire­trucks. We want one. With both water can­nons gushing, the Phoenix would work miracles as a crowd-control agent at Michigan–versus–Ohio State games. Or drive it to a domed stadium and watch it clean Bigfoot’s clock. Also Bigfoot’s tires, Bigfoot’s shock absorbers, and Pinky Har­vath in row 98.

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1997 Oshkosh Phoenix
Vehicle Type: mid-engine, eight-wheel-drive, 2-passenger, 2-door firetruck


Base/As Tested: $265,000/$350,000

supercharged, turbocharged, and intercooled SOHC 16-valve 2-stroke diesel V-8, iron block and heads, direct fuel injection
Displacement: 736 in3, 12,054 cm3
Power: 445 hp @ 2100 rpm
Torque: 1250 lb-ft @ 1200 rpm 

4-speed automatic 


Wheelbase: 270.0 in
Length: 412.5 in
Curb Weight (with full water tanks): 64,500 lb

50 mph: 42.4 sec
1/4-Mile: 32.0 sec @ 43 mph
Top Speed (drag ltd): 62 mph


Estimated: 2 mpg


Source: Reviews -


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