For National EMS Week: A Look at Yesterday’s Ambulances

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May 21 to 27 is National EMS Week. In 1974, President Gerald Ford authorized EMS Week which celebrated Emergency Medical Services practitioners and the critical work they do in our communities.

It’s amazing to consider, but prior to 1965, there was little to no regulation or standardization for ambulance operations. In 1966, President Lyndon Johnson received the report, “Accidental Death and Disability: The Neglected Disease of Modern Society,” which identified accidental injury as the “leading cause of death in the first half of life’s span.”

One of the most key criticisms in the report was the fact that ambulance services were provided very little training, and adhered to few — if any — standards of care and operation. “This standardization led to the first nationally recognized curriculum for EMS—emergency medical technician–ambulance (EMT-A)—which was published in 1969. Many consider this document to be the birth of modern EMS,” according to Paramedic Education Coordinator Dennis Edgerly in the Journal of Emergency Medical Services.

In the years that followed, ambulances would become much more standardized, and be required to carry much more equipment than ever before. In earlier days, it was a novelty for an ambulance to even carry oxygen, as evidenced by “Oxygen Equipped” lettering you’d see on some ambulances of the day.

That shift to equipping ambulances like rolling emergency rooms meant that by the late 1970s, ambulances would almost exclusively be built on either van or medium-duty truck chassis, with custom bodies that allowed for an EMT to stand.

Prior to that, though, ambulances were typically built on modified sedan platforms, with professional car bodies from several custom coachbuilders:

Miller-Meteor

If there was a 400 pound gorilla in the professional car market, it was Miller-Meteor. This Bellfontaine, Ohio-based giant — a divsion of Divco-Wayne that build a wide range of delivery trucks — was most famous for building hearses or “funeral coaches,” exclusively on Cadillac chassis.

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The ECTO-1 ambulance that appeared in the movie Ghostbusters, for example, was a Miller-Meteor:

Miller-Meteor ambulances were the…well…Cadillac of coach-built ambulances. Several other coachbuilders existed that would convert cars from other manufacturers to provide less-expensive options, or vehicles that could fit into smaller areas.

Shop of Siebert (S.O.S.)

Shop of Siebert — or S.O.S for short — coach-built buggies, carriages and wagons in Waterville, Ohio, about 15 miles south of Toledo.

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By the 1920s, it had formed a sales office known as the National Hearse and Ambulance Company, and it converted mostly Ford products for hearse and ambulance duty. For most of its history, S.O.S. would have a relationship with Ford Motor Company, but in 1951, it also offered “America’s most versatile, low cost ambulance” in the Willys Jeep Station Wagon.

Superior

In 1925, Superior Coach began producing a line of hearse and ambulance bodies on Studebaker chassis. Over the years, it produced ambulances that rode on underpinnings from Pierce-Arrow, Cadillac, LaSalle and — fairly commonly — Pontiac.

A Superior ambulance on a Pontiac Bonneville chassis had the grim duty of transporting President John F. Kennedy’s body to Bethesda Naval Hospital from Andrews Air Force Base for an autopsy following his assassination.

Rather famously, a Pontiac Ambulance was featured in a Barrett-Jackson auction as the authentic ambulance shown in the picture above, but through some pretty amazing work from the Professional Car Society, members determined that the car that sold at Barrett-Jackson for $120,000 was indeed a fake.

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It even produced a photo of the original car being crushed, which came directly from the Kennedy Museum in Boston. The ambulance had been destroyed at the request of the Kennedy family.

Superior Coaches is still in business, providing funeral coaches and limousines based on the Cadillac XTS and the Lincoln MKT.

Stageway Coaches

It’s rare to find a Stageway ambulance, because the company really built its reputation on airport limousines. Yet, because the company was so adept at stretching out a range of cars from Plymouth, Chrysler, Checker and even International, it branched into the ambulance business.

S&S Coach Company

S&S Coach Company was founded in 1876 as the Sayers and Scovill Company in Cincinnati by William Sayers and A. R. Scovill. It was primarily known as a funeral coach company — as it still is today, under the ownership of Superior Coaches — but it built ambulances, as well. S&S ambulances exclusively used Cadillac chassis.

Cotner-Bevington

Cotner-Bevington was based in Blytheville, Arkansas, and had been building professional cars under the Comet Coach Company name in Memphis until 1959. It specialized in building budget-friendly ambulances based on the cowl and chassis of the Oldsmobile 88 and 98.

Hess & Eisenhardt

There were a lot of one-off ambulances created, but you’ll be hard-pressed to find many of these. The Para Medic GMC was created by Hess & Eisenhardt, which is mostly known as the preferred purveyor of presidential limousines.

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The Para Medic GMC was built on GMC’s innovative motorhome platform, which utilized the 455-cu.in. V-8 and TH425, front wheel drive transmission from the Oldsmobile Toronado. This example went to the Norwood, Ohio fire department, and another to Valley Stream, New York. There aren’t many other examples around.

The only other one we could find was this one, in a photo from New York Presbyterian Hospital.

It was in use by the New York Hospital’s “High Risk Infant Transport” team, in conjunction with the Cadillac Fleetwood that it’s hiding behind.

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Craig Fitzgerald

Craig Fitzgerald

Writer, editor, lousy guitar player, dad. Content Marketing and Publication Manager at BestRide.com.