Ambulance, Hearse or Both?

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“Now and Then”

Dr David E Marcinko MBABy Dr. David Edward Marcinko MBA


I was recently at a car show and could not help but snap a photo of the beautiful black 1955 vehicle; below.

Ambulance Defined [Wikipedia]

An ambulance is a vehicle for transportation of sick or injured people to, from or between places of treatment for an illness or injury, and in some instances will also provide out of hospital medical care to the patient. The word is often associated with road going emergency ambulances which form part of an emergency medical service, administering emergency care to those with acute medical problems.

The term ambulance does, however, extend to a wider range of vehicles other than those with flashing warning lights and sirens. The term also includes a large number of non-urgent ambulances which are for transport of patients without an urgent acute condition (see functional types, below) and a wide range of urgent and non-urgent vehicles including trucks, vans, bicycles, motorbikes, station wagons, buses, helicopters, fixed-wing aircraft, boats, and even hospital ships (see vehicle types, also below).

The term ambulance comes from the Latin word ambulare, meaning to walk or move about which is a reference to early medical care where patients were moved by lifting or wheeling. The word originally meant a moving hospital, which follows an army in its movements. During the American Civil War vehicles for conveying the wounded off the field of battle were called ambulance wagons. Field hospitals were still called ambulances during the Franco-Prussian War of 1870 and in the Serbo-Turkish war of 1876 even though the wagons were first referred to as ambulances about 1854 during the Crimean War.

There are other types of ambulance, with the most common being the patient transport ambulance (sometimes called an ambulette). These vehicles are not usually (although there are exceptions) equipped with life-support equipment, and are usually crewed by staff with fewer qualifications than the crew of emergency ambulances. Their purpose is simply to transport patients to, from or between places of treatment. In most countries, these are not equipped with flashing lights or sirens. In some jurisdictions there is a modified form of the ambulance used, that only carries one member of ambulance crew to the scene to provide care, but is not used to transport the patient. Such vehicles are called fly-cars. In these cases a patient who requires transportation to hospital will require a patient-carrying ambulance to attend in addition to the fast responder.


Ambulance DEM

[The Editor in Marquette, MI]

Hearse Defined [Wikipedia]

Originally, a hearse was an elaborate framework that was erected over a coffin or tomb to which memorial verses or epitaphs were attached. It was then put on the top of horse-drawn carriages, looking much like a luggage rack. Today, the original hearse remains acknowledged by the bit of scroll work or stretched-out “S” on the side of a funeral coach, called Landau bars.

Hearses were originally horse-drawn, but silent electric motorized carts were introduced as horses began to be phased out as transportation. Examples that were used in Paris were reported in the pages of Scientific American May 1907 and petrol-driven hearses began to be produced from 1909 in the United States.  Motorized hearses became more widely accepted in the 1920s.

The vast majority of hearses since then have been based on larger, more powerful car chassis, generally retaining the front end up to and possibly including the front doors but with custom bodywork to the rear to contain the coffin. Some early hearses also served as ambulances, owing to the large cargo capacity in the rear of the vehicle. A few cities experimented with funeral trolley cars and/or subway cars to carry both the casket and mourners to cemeteries, but these were not popular.

The only exception was Chicago, IL which operated 3 different funeral trolley cars over the elevated tracks in downtown Chicago to outlying cemeteries in the western suburbs. A special funeral bureau handled the funeral trains which sometimes operated 3-4 funeral trains a week over the ‘L’.



2013-05-18 14.21.19

[Courtesy Rucker Funeral Homes, Lawrenceville, GA. © iMBA, Inc.]

Combination Utility

Back in 1955, this Cadillac performed double-duty for a small town in North East Georgia. Both as ambulance for the still living, as well as hearse for the newly deceased. Notice the dual red [“cherry”] light and siren on the roof  A very utilitarian approach to both functions, don’t you think?

History [Wikipedia]

A combination car was a vehicle built upon a (usually Cadillac) “professional car” chassis which could be employed either as a hearse or as an ambulance, and had the capability of being swapped between those roles without much difficulty. These vehicles were upgraded by coachbuilders such as Superior, Miller-Meteor, and Cotner-Bevington, and were typical of the era when funeral homes offered emergency ambulance service in addition to their primary trade.

Even if a “combo” has no flashing lights (mounted or concealed), siren, or two-way radio installed, an experienced vehicle collector can recognize it as such by it having systems to carry either a gurney or a casket, one or more foldable seats on one side in the rear compartment where a first-aid person can sit while looking after a patient on their way to the hospital, and a cabinet where first-aid supplies can be stored.

Also, the presence of ambulance technology made combos useful in the first call role, as a gurney is also used in that function.

Some combos were equipped with rotating roof beacons that could flash either yellow lights in processional mode, or both red and yellow lights in emergency response mode. Alternately, a hole on the roof was often supplied where a beacon could be bolted on an intermittent basis, a wire passing through to the driver’s compartment where it could be plugged in when needed.

Combos employed more often or exclusively as ambulances were often fitted with ambulance markings and additional lighting. However, usage of passenger car or station wagon derived vehicles as ambulances became impractical in the US after c. 1980 due to upgraded equipment and interior measurement requirements imposed by US government regulators. Many such vehicles were donated or otherwise found their way to developing nations.

The Cadillac combination unit was made famous in Ghostbusters as the Ecto-1, a modified 1959 Miller-Meteor coach.

Note: The Hess & Eisenhardt company also produced luxury Jaguar automobiles; my favorites.



[My vintage 2000 Jaguar XJ-V8L Touring Sedan]



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One Response

  1. A Nisson Caravan Ambulance?

    Dr. David Edward Marcinko MBA


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