Have you ever wanted to drive an ambulance, lights blazing and sirens wailing in rush after glorious rush to rip people from the jaws of death and take them to the hospital? It can be pretty cool, but usually, driving an ambulance is all about getting a patient to the proper care with the least amount of patient-upsetting craziness possible. After all, you don't want someone to die of a heart attack after you've already saved them from dying of a heart attack.
I used to drive ambulances for the Virginia Beach Volunteer Rescue Squad – known around town as Rescue 14 – but the ones I piloted were basically vans with huge, gear filled boxes mounted on the back. In the old days, fire emergency service departments drove ambulances that looked like the one the Ghostbusters used to rid New York City of fiendish ghouls back in the '80s.
Although it's been years since I've flipped on the lights and sirens and watched traffic before me part like the Red Sea before Moses (but usually only when I laid on the air horn), I've always had a hankering to get behind the wheel of the '72 Miller Meteor Cadillac ambulance Rescue 14 has had sitting in one of its back bays since Ecto-1's glory days.
Full disclosure: I wanted to drive this old ambulance so bad, I pestered its crew chief and (now) only qualified driver, Charlie Gurley, until he relented. Although I'd started it up during a night duty when no one was around, there has always been a rule around Rescue 14 that the car is Charlie's baby, so his permission is needed to take it for a spin.
This rig hails from the days when people called ambulances meatwagons. Gurley – who was a Virginia Beach firefighter from 1963 to 1998 and has been a member of Rescue 14 for 33 years –said that when the squad first purchased the Cadillac the better part of three decades ago, someone had already been using it as a hearse. So the squad reversed its role, so to speak, painted it in Rescue 14's catchy white and green livery, and put it into service saving lives. But a Cadillac ambulance, while undoubtedly the classiest looking rescue vehicle money can buy, just isn't as easy to use as a van or box truck. It wasn't long before the '72 was shifted to the back burner of the squad's fleet as newer, more capacious Ford vans stole the lifesaving limelight.
These days, the old Miller Meteor has been relegated to parade duty and classic car shows. Just a few years ago, the squad's administration decided not to renew its certification as a state-licensed emergency vehicle. Although it had been grandfathered in before, the loss of EV stature is permanent. Unless the Commonwealth of Virginia is taken over by a renegade group of compound dwelling libertarians and/or extraterrestrials, it will never again carry a patient to the hospital. It could, however be put into service as a ghost removal car. Hmmm...
Any Cadillac from the company's founding until the mid/late-'70s is bound to be a classy looking machine, and Miller Meteor's ambulance and hearse bodies are no exception. Neither as roomy inside as a van nor as ostentatious as the '59 Cadillac service chassis Ghostbusters made famous, the '72 Cadillac ambulance/hearse is a tasteful collection of elegant lines and characteristic Cadillac éclat. Looking at the thing in profile, it's easy to see how much more actual patient space it would have if the driver's seat was over the engine. But that long Caddy snout just looks so cool.
The original Miller Meteor customers could get these in practically any color, but VBVRS's uncomplicated white and green livery shows off the unit's array of lights in a way darker colors never would. If it had a crew, they would be wearing white uniforms, which I can tell you are great fun when various fluids are splattering about.
The cockpit isn't much to speak of. Plain vinyl bench seats, a black dash, manual window cranks, a two-way radio, and a huge Federal Interceptor siren switch console. The seats are comfy enough, and the windows are huge, giving excellent forward visibility. Compared with today's ambulance cockpits – small spaces to begin with that are crammed with communications equipment and boxes of nitrile gloves – this one is cavernous.
But the back, man, the back is where it's at! The rear passenger compartment has everything you'd need to keep one severely ill or injured patient alive for a while, including onboard oxygen, first aid supplies, spine boards, and a special radio for communicating with the ER doctors. This particular ambulance has a special feature, too; hooks in the ceiling that drop down to hold two extra stretchers. With two stretchers hanging from the ceiling and two on the floor, you can fit four patients in this rig (although taking care of them in the tight space left over would be damn near impossible). Back before the powers that be decided to take away the old unit's EV certification, it also had a defibrillator and a full complement of resuscitation drugs.
Even though this ambulance weighs more than three tons, it's a Cadillac with a gasoline-burning 472 V8. It's got some punch. In direct comparison with new rigs powered by state of the art turbo diesel mills, the Miller Meteor Caddy might seem a little stodgy. But staring down the long nose feels like sighting an artillery piece, particularly at night when the eerie flash of red and white lights bounces off the hood as you hurtle down the road with the sirens wailing. With 365 ft-lbs of torque at 2400 rpm, the big block has plenty of power to get all that gear and unfortunate humanity moving in a relative hurry.
But acceleration and top speed is beside the point where emergency vehicles are concerned. What most people don't realize is that when you're driving an ambulance, you can only go so fast anyway. At best, putting the pedal to the metal is going to do is scare the crap out of the person in the back, who's already having the worst day of their lives. At worst... Well, you don't want to create more patients.
Cars of this era aren't known for having fantastic brakes, but this one is in the running for the distinct honor of having mediocre brakes. I'll attribute some of their softness to age, but I'm willing to bet that they were never all that great. What can I say; the brakes stopped the ambulance, and it's really heavy. There's something to be said for that.
Compared with riding in modern full-size ambulances, which are sprung like dump trucks (because basically, they are dump trucks with ambulance bodies where the dump beds would normally be), riding in an old Cadillac ambulance is (as it should be) like floating on a cloud. Active air suspension mitigates the heavy load it carries, and in typical classic Cadillac style, soaks up road bumps like the ultra-absorbent gauze the EMT in the back uses to control severe bleeding.
As with all Detroit behemoths, handling is not this one's forte. The soft suspension that makes driving in a straight line so pleasant causes the car to dive into turns. This isn't helped by the high roofline and complement of heavy equipment on board. But the handling isn't so terrible as to make the thing undriveable. Honestly, the driver's concern over whatever's happening in the back will (should) call for slower turns anyway. Ever been yelled at by an angry patient/paramedic combo for driving like an asshat? Unless you have no conscience, it's not a good feeling.
Cadillac's engines and transmissions were amazing during Detroit's glory days. It's difficult to find fault with a well built 472, and the same can be said for the beefy automatic transmission that handles all that big block power. When you're underway, you can't even tell the transmission is there, and that's a plus where ambulances are concerned.
In a magical place where emergency calls are few and far between (like, say, some remote corner of the Shenandoah Valley), a Cadillac is an ideal platform for ambulance duty. It's big enough inside to fit a patient and a care provider, and has the power to get the suffering victim to help quickly. But if the calls are neverending, the Cadillac ambulance would be a pain in the ass to negotiate all day. First, you'd be hunched over trying to move around in the back, and second, diving around turns would make it difficult to work. Also, without real truck mirrors (it has those lame little cadillac ones that probably weren't even big enough for a paisley upholstered Fleetwood limo of the same era) rearward visibility is almost nil when you're backing up.
But if you were in some lovely rural hamlet with a heatstroke case in the summer, one or two chainsaw amputations every fall, ice fishing frostbite in winter, and a handful of severe hayfever sufferers each spring, Miller Meteor's Cadillac ambulance would be a grand conveyance. It's a Cadillac, not an old manky van, so it looks smooth. Most of the time, you'd be sitting in the local Dairy Queen parking lot waiting for the next disaster to happen and chatting up the waitresses (I'm totally superimposing '70s truck stop onto rural Diary Queen scene here). Not too many better places to be doing that than in a big ol' Caddy.
Does this thing have character? Let's see, Cadillac panache with station wagon utility, red and white flashy lights and a loud siren, a number of transported dead people to its credit, and, oh yeah, ECTO-1. That question just answered itself. Basically, Cadillac took something beautiful – a Series 75 limo chassis – and gave it to someone else to make it useful. The new people made it beautiful and useful, and had the foresight to ensure that the exhaust still vented off enough 472 V8 burble to sound cool.
A Cadillac ambulance's collectibility really depends upon its year and condition. A '72 isn't the rarest thing in the world, and the fact that this one started life as a hearse (hahaha!) doesn't really add to its credentials. But they're getting rarer by the year. So let's say you pick up an old hearse or ambulance with lights and sirens that still work. Your town's parade organizers will love you and in ten or 20 years you might have something valuable. If you can say that a famous rockstar died of a coke overdose in the back of your meatwagon, you've got it made in the shade, my friend.
- Engine: 472 cid (7.7-liter) gasoline V8
- Power: 345 HP @ 4,400 rpm / 365 LB-FT @ 2,400 rpm
- Transmission: 3-speed automatic
- 0-60 Time: Half a set of patient vital signs
- Top Speed: If you went faster than 80, you'd end up in jail
- Drivetrain: Rear wheel drive
- Curb Weight: More than 6,000 LBS
- Seating: 2 in the front, 2-4 in the back
- MPG: 7-8 MPG, downhill in a tailwind
- MSRP: crappy ones are a few grand, but the restored ones can cost upwards of $20,000
Photo credit: Benjamin Preston