Walking into Pfahl’s Mack and Antique Truck Restorations garage on East Street in Bethlehem is akin to stepping back in time. Inside the garage are several vintage fire trucks, a marvelous 60-year-old Greyhound bus, and other old vehicles in various states of restoration.
Matt Pfahl and his crew of seven are busy meticulously bringing these majestic behemoths of the American roadways back to life. Indeed, work on the mammoth bus, a 1954 GMC Scenic Cruiser, has been going on for over five years and is finally nearing completion. Owned by a private person who came to Pfahl to have it put back together like when it was prowling the highways, the finished product will cost well into the hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Also sitting proudly inside the 5,400-square-foot garage is a 1951 Mack Model 75-A pumper fire engine, its red paint gleaming under the florescent lighting and looking as it did when it rolled off the assembly line. The vehicle was sitting in a Vermont barn when it was bought by the Packanack (N.Y.) Lake Fire Company Number Five. It was once used by the company before seeing service as a fire brigade pumper for the General Electric plant in Lynn, Massachusetts, a sawmill, and another volunteer fire company before being retired. The Packanack Lake Fire Company raised money to buy the truck and contacted Pfahl to restore it, which he and his crew have done, making it look perhaps even better than when it was commissioned. Once restored, beauties such as this fire engine become the center of attention and pride at parades and other events.
“We have developed a reputation for fine work and we have restored fire engines and other vehicles for departments in Connecticut, New Jersey, New York and elsewhere,” says Pfahl. “We have done a lot of restoration work for the Mack Truck company, other firms and private individuals. It’s time consuming and exacting, but enjoyable at the same time.”
All the restoration work is done in house, save for chrome work, which is done by a Pennsylvania company, as well as detailing of the vehicles. All other labor, from the smallest bolt and screw, is handled by Pfahl and his crew, parts sourced from antique truck shows, private individuals and shops, and many from Mack Trucks. Restoration includes engine and transmission work, interiors, custom sheet metal fabrication, sandblasting, wiring, plating and body finishing and brake work. It’s an exhausting task and a restoration can take many months, indeed years, to complete to Pfahl’s standards. The goal is to produce a vehicle that is in “factory-new condition,” he says.
Pfahl’s restorations are stunning and quite historic, each vehicle carrying with it loads of sentimental value and provenance. Pfahl’s has restored everything from a 1932 Mack BG fire engine for the Weston (Connecticut) Volunteer Fire Department and a 1964 Mack B-53 trash hauler for the Allied Waste Company to a 1926 Mack AC and a 1926 Mack AB for private owners. The company has also restored construction equipment and big rigs that that have been moving the nation’s goods to market for decades.
Many of the vehicles restored were produced by Mack Trucks, considered by many to be the gold standard of the industry. After being founded in Brooklyn, New York, the company's headquarters were in Allentown, Pennsylvania, from 1905 to 2009, when they moved to Greensboro, North Carolina. The entire line of Mack products is still produced in Macungie, Pennsylvania, with additional assembly plants in Pennsylvania, Maryland, Australia and Venezuela. The company maintains a small museum in Allentown.
Pfahl is a fan of anything Mack. He leads a visitor to an upstairs room he has turned into a shrine of Mack artifacts, most notably dozens of the company’s signature bulldog hood ornament. There are miniature Mack trucks, signs and even a golf bag emblazoned with the Mack logo, all gathered during Pfahl’s travels, mainly to truck shows.
“The curator of the Mack museum said that I have more items than they have at their place,” says Pfahl with a smile. “It’s just a fun hobby. We go to four shows a year, including the world’s largest car show in Hershey, Pa. We will bring some of the trucks to the shows and it’s a way to display what we do firsthand to people.”
Pfahl has been at this for some 20 years, getting the restoration bug from his brother, who bought and restored a 1930 Model A Ford.
“I watched and helped him a bit with the restoration and really enjoyed it,” Pfahl says. “I was later working in construction and I started dabbling with restoring trucks, my first one a 1955 B Model Mack. I started with an 800-square-foot garage at my parents’ home in Weston, increased to a 2,400-square-foot garage, and then when I moved here to the present 5,600-square-foot space we work in. I have a fondness for restoring fire engines. My father (Charles) was in the Georgetown, Connecticut Volunteer Fire Department for 54 years.”
He adds with a chuckle, “I built my first garage at my parents’ home right over where my sandbox once was. I say that I’m still playing in my sandbox.”
Pfahl has been successful because of his dedication to precision restoration and deep knowledge of how to source parts and bring an old vehicle to like-new status. Only after a complete restoration and Pfahl’s system of checks and re-checks to ensure authenticity is the vehicle delivered to the owner.
“If it was easy, then everybody would do it,” he explains. “There is so much time and effort that goes into stripping a vehicle down to its shell and then putting it back together. There are thousands of car restorers, but not a lot of guys who do truck restorations. It’s very rewarding when you see the finished product. I like to think we are keeping history alive and visible for all ages to enjoy.”
The 47-year-old Pfahl, who lives near to his garage, says he won’t touch any model truck that is too late.
“I would say the newest truck we have worked on is maybe 1984 or 1985,” he says. “Actually, the older vehicles are much easier to work with. There is less of everything to put together. The newer trucks are boxy, while the older ones had style and design and are really beautiful to look at.”
Pfahl takes pride in being a part of the Bethlehem community. He conducts an annual Christmas party that collects toys for needy children and raises money for local charities and causes. For more details, visit www.macktruckrestoration.com.