by Jack Harrison, photos by Brad Bowling

Today, we understand that the term “ambulance” means any specialized vehicle (truck, car, boat, or even airplane) that transports the sick and injured to a place for definitive care—typically a hospital. The ambulance, however, has a dark past.

The Corriher Car Society

Tony Corriher is one of the owners of Landis Plumbing Supply in Landis, North Carolina. While Corriher’s business has enjoyed great success over the years, his passion has always been emergency services vehicles. Corriher owns a dozen retired fire trucks that once served local towns. He also maintains a fleet of 12 unique ambulances that span several decades.

There is one thing you should know about this firefighting enthusiast: he does not do anything halfway! Corriher spent nearly 40 years volunteering with several local fire departments. He even has his own incorporated fire department. When called, he will respond with his 75-foot, 1957 Seagrave ladder truck or his Heil tractor/trailer tanker, which can hold 6,400 gallons of water.

Corriher became interested in ambulances and professional cars (such as limousines, flower cars, and hearses) when he was 14 years old. He would hang around the local funeral home, which also provided ambulance services, and get rides in the flower van and the hearse. As time went on, funeral homes stopped providing ambulance services, and Corriher recalls that two local gentlemen started C&M Ambulance Service. Funeral homes would donate their old hearses to the countywide service. When Corriher turned 16, he began driving the ambulance to calls and started volunteering for the Landis Fire Dept. In college, Corriher got a job working for a local funeral home that still provided ambulance service.

Corriher’s timing was such that he experienced the transition from the combined ambulance/hearse duties to dedicated ambulance service. The history of the ambulance, however, extends much farther back into the past.

 

Porter to Horsepower

“Ambulance” was derived from a French term coined in the late 1700s that loosely translates to “walking hospital.” In this context, the term refers to military field hospitals, which could be moved with the army during a war. The term also harkens to 13th century Florence, Italy, and the Brothers of Mercy. In times before the Brothers of Mercy, soldiers wounded on the battlefield (or plague victims) were removed on a stretcher made from wooden poles suspended between two horses. The stricken were then dragged (sometimes by force) to a surgeon or sanitarium for treatment by any available Samaritan.

According to Ryan Bell, author of A History, The Ambulance, the Brothers of Mercy was founded by volunteer porters who carried wool and other textiles around Florence as it was processed into finished fabric. The “brothers” penitently dressed in long red cloaks with masks to anonymously perform their acts of mercy. Alerted by the peal of an iron bell, the guild would assemble and go to the sick or injured. Their vow of anonymity barred them from speaking. They carried the infirm to their home, hospital, or church to be treated or interned. The scene of a group of men cloaked all in red (later black) silently carrying a lidless coffin on their shoulders through the cobbled streets of Florence must have chilled observers to the bone. The Brothers of Mercy have enjoyed the charity of the city as well as the bequest of the people they have helped for more than 700 years.

The carnage of war drove further improvements in the concept of emergency medicine and the development of the ambulance. Sometime around 1476, Queen Isabella of Spain ordered that covered, bedded wagons accompany the Spanish soldiers as they drove the Moors out of her country. While this was the first recorded use of a dedicated vehicle for transporting the injured to surgeons and definitive care, it was a far cry from adequate. The wagons had to wait until fighting ceased before retrieving the injured.

During the Napoleonic Wars, ambulances had to remain one league (roughly 3.5 miles) away from the field of battle. If a wounded soldier could not walk to a field hospital, transport and treatment could take more than 24 hours. Dominique-Jean Larrey, surgeon for the Grand Army of the Republic, realized that most wounded soldiers could not afford the delay. He observed that the army had developed “flying artillery” that could move light artillery pieces around the battlefield to cope with the rapidly changing environment of the battle. Larrey proposed a “flying squad.” His plan involved sending a surgeon and an attendant onto the battlefield in a light wagon while the fighting was still raging. They would provide immediate lifesaving treatment and transport the wounded to the nearest field hospital. These were the first true ambulances, as we know them today.

The military ambulance continued to develop and improve with every wave of armed conflict that swept across Europe and America. The development of a civilian ambulance service, however, lagged far behind that of the military. It was not until the 1831 Cholera outbreak in the United Kingdom that the need for a civilian ambulance service became obvious. In the first year of the sweeping epidemic, Britain lost 50,000 people to Cholera. London instituted an ambulance service to transport the stricken horizontally to receive treatment and to segregate them from the rest of the population to stem the spread of the disease. War and disease made clear the need for the ambulance in the modern world, but it would take the speed of a vehicle with an internal combustion engine to truly help the infirm.

 

Garford to Superior

Like many businesses that sprang up around the turn of the century, Garford Motor Truck Co. had an unlikely entrepreneur. Arthur Lovett Garford began his career as a bank teller in Elyria, Ohio. He made the bicycle seat bearable by padding it. Called the “Garford Saddle,” its success allowed Garford to move into manufacturing car and cycle parts. In 1909, he formed the Garford Motor Truck Co. with the aid of Studebaker. Garford produced medium- and heavy-duty trucks for business and the United States government, including military and postal trucks for the latter.

In 1925, Garford and a group of Lima, Ohio, businessmen formed Superior Body Co. Garford initially supplied chassis to Superior, who would then manufacture custom bodies for hearses, ambulances, and school buses. Garford Motor Truck Co. would later move to Lima and produce bodies under the name Superior Motor Co. In 1940, Superior changed its name to Superior Motor Coach to reflect its concentration on “professional car” and bus body manufacturing. Superior would also switch from Studebaker chassis to General Motors chassis, adding Dodge products later.

Superior still exists, building hearse bodies under the Accubuilt name at its Lima plant. Superior’s success allowed it to expand and buy out most competition, such as S&S Coach and Miller-Meteor, both of which also built hearse and ambulance bodies.

 

“First in Features… Foremost in Fashion for ’56”

So says a 1956 advertising brochure for Superior. Cadillac was a popular chassis choice for many builders of professional cars. At 22 feet, the chassis for that year was long enough to comfortably accommodate a recumbent patient and a driver’s compartment. At a time when emergency medicine had yet to go mainstream, the Cadillac could deliver a heavy dose of lights and sirens, thanks to its powerful 365ci V-8 engine. Its 285 horsepower was delivered to the rear axle thanks to a new Hydramatic transmission. Exhaust was cleverly vented to the atmosphere through pipes built into the rear bumper. The powertrain needed to be powerful enough to propel the nearly 7,000-pound loaded behemoth down the road at a good clip.

The 1956 Cadillac professional chassis had all the classic design elements of its civilian counterpart. The voluptuous front end included an iconic Dagmar bumper. The ’56 retained some of the gold trim first seen on Cadillac’s 1952 50th anniversary, most notably on the wheel’s center caps and V emblems. The ambulance package from Superior included a dizzying array of lights and sirens to clear way for this stylish vehicle of mercy. Both front fenders were topped off with matching Mars lights. The roof sported a Federal C6 Traffik-King siren as well as a rotating beacon. Tucked in behind the grille is another Federal Q siren, just in case daydreaming drivers did not hear the first one.

The business end of the Superior ambulance had few features to aid in taking care of the injured person. Two built-in jump seats sat astride a locked-in stretcher. Hooks hung down from the ceiling to allow for the hanging of intravenous solution bottles.

 

Mysterious Past

Corriher found the retired lifesaver on eBay about five years ago. His was the highest bid, but the reserve was not met. According the Corriher, the ambulance was owned by a preacher from Georgia who dealt in professional cars. Corriher contacted the preacher to try to negotiate a sale. The preacher stated he was going out of the country for two years, but he said the Cadillac would be stored until his return.

Time went by.

Corriher discovered the ambulance had been sold to a doctor and mortician in Brazil, Indiana. The previous owner had been stricken with a heart attack and stroke and was looking to sell the ambulance. The doctor had repainted the rig and reupholstered the front seat. Corriher is quick to mention that the reupholstered front seat was done with the correct material and in the correct pattern.

Shortly after Corriher paid the $34,000 asking price, the ambulance was featured on the cover of The Professional Car magazine. Corriher has maintained the beauty of the classic transport. The long-term goal is to outfit the patient care area of the ambulance with period-correct lifesaving equipment. Corriher was able to get a stretcher from a closed local textile mill.

While the history of where the ambulance originally served and details of the calamities it might have seen are lost, its value as a time capsule remains. Corriher takes his ambulance to car shows, fire musters, and hospitals to show off his view into the past—and to get some Brunswick stew. Corriher has been known to drive through town with sirens blaring and emergency lights flashing.

VFT&E would like to thank Tony Corriher, who took time to show us his impressive collection of fire trucks and ambulances. He was also gracious enough to drive our feature car to Charlotte Motor Speedway to be photographed.

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