by Doug Mitchel
Some call it synergy when the sum seems greater than the parts. Chocolate and peanut butter combined are better than either of them alone. Laurel and Hardy together are funnier than either would be on his own. Likewise, in an example more pertinent to Vintage Fire Truck & Equipment magazine, when A.J. Miller Co., Meteor Motor Car Co., and the Cadillac Motor Car Division of General Motors got together to make ambulances in the early 1950s, the result was pure synergy.
It all began in 1954 when bus builder Wayne Works of Richmond, Indiana, bought out Meteor—a “professional car” company based in Piqua, Ohio—and then two years later added Miller, located in Bellefontaine, Ohio, to its stable. The parent company had a long history of fabrication and coach production, having started in 1837 as Wayne Agricultural Works in Dublin, Indiana, and incorporating as The Wayne Works in 1868. In 1914, Wayne started a successful school bus line that continued through 1993. (In other words, Wayne knew something about coach building!) Eventually, Wayne established its Miller-Meteor division at Meteor’s facility at 125 Clark Ave. in Piqua.
The attraction between Miller-Meteor and Cadillac was a natural one. Cadillac was a long-established icon of American industry, having produced its first cars in 1902. Known initially for its innovative parts interchangeability, Cadillac stayed at the forefront of the luxury car field by introducing the first electric starter, mass-produced V-8 engine, fastback design, thermostat engine control… we do not have time for the whole list of Cadillac “firsts” here. Like competitor Packard, Cadillac began offering long-wheelbase commercial chassis to coachbuilders in 1935 for conversion to ambulances, hearses, flower cars, and special-purpose limousines. By the mid 1950s, Cadillac’s long-running “Standard of the World” advertising claim was accepted, without question, as fact, and it was the most popular platform for coachbuilders.
Miller-Meteor ambulances and hearses debuted their 1957 models, and the company offered 84 different models across its Futura, Classic, and Crestwood lines, all of which were based on Cadillac. By 1962, Miller-Meteor held a 50 percent share of the professional car market and was breaking sales records. (Through its final days in 1979, Miller-Meteor built exclusively on Cadillac’s commercial chassis.)
Our featured 1970 Cadillac Miller-Meteor ambulance travelled a long path to the immaculate restoration seen in these photos. It was built on the Series 86 Commercial Chassis. It featured a 472ci V-8 engine that delivered 375 horsepower. In the 1970 Cadillac lineup, only the Eldorado model had a higher power output. The long, 156-inch-wheelbase chassis wore the front clip taken directly from the Cadillac catalog as well as its instrument panel. Everything from the firewall back, with the exception of the dashboard, was provided by Miller-Meteor and was chosen for the buyer’s needs.
The four categories of ambulance that year included the Guardian (with 42 inches of headroom), Volunteer (48 inches), Interceptor (50 inches), and Lifeliner (54 inches). Our featured Volunteer was commissioned by the Chicago Fire Dept., but for reasons lost to history was never put into active service. It wound up a thousand miles away on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota. Beaten up and missing all its glass, the Volunteer had obviously been left to rot. Nonetheless, Bruce Biancalana and Gil Bliznick considered it solid enough for restoration.
Biancalana and Bliznick spent five years returning the car to its factory condition. Their efforts required the use of CFD-specified lighting and equipment from the period. For instance, the passenger-side front, roof-mounted beacon has a green lens consistent with all CFD rigs since the late 1920s. The driver’s compartment features a bench seat swaddled in red vinyl and a complete Cadillac instrument panel, including the factory air conditioning controls. On the transmission hump sits a Motorola Motran FM Radio unit for contacting concerned parties. Just above the rearview mirror is a small panel with switches to control the siren and flashing lights, mounted on the exterior. In its day, lighting from the Mars Signal Light Co. was selected for the best visibility. A pair of Mars 888 “Traffic Breaker” lights was used on the front fenders, and to make the ambulance’s approach even more obvious to others on the road, the lenses within the chrome housings oscillated.
To further the visibility of the high-speed Miller-Meteor ambulance, a Mars Co. Aurora Borealis light bar with five separate swiveling lights was posted on the roof. Each corner of the roof was adorned with a rare Miller-Meteor light complete with unique mounting pillion. (These lights proved to be particularly difficult to track down, but Biancalana and Bliznick knew it was just a matter of time before they would find them.) Each A-pillar also sports a spotlight for easier reading of addresses when on a night call. Just behind the front grille is a Mars Model G-1 siren, loud enough to let people blocks away know the Volunteer was coming.
Both the side and rear doors provide access to the rolling emergency room inside the ambulance. To ensure privacy, each side door window has a pull-up shade. For the time period, this was as good it got when you were being rushed to the hospital. Space for a roll-on gurney included several fold-down seats for the medical attendants, along with dispensary cabinets for all manner of medical needs. Additional storage was found in the area above the driver’s compartment based on the high roofline of the design. The floor is covered with easy-to-clean linoleum. For patients with breathing problems, a pair of oxygen tanks was also on board, as was an ashtray for everyone else. (What, no lighter?) Ventilation was more than adequate—an essential feature for a patient and medics traveling in a closed compartment.
In the ceiling of this Volunteer’s rear section are optional chrome hooks that can be folded down to suspend more portable cots. (Carrying up to four “passengers” in this tightly stacked manner suggests the occasional need to transport those who were beyond medical assistance. Miller-Meteor ambulances were often pressed into hearse duty, so this feature was a natural extension for the company’s skill set.)
Biancalana tells us the cockpit roof is high enough to permit the driver to wear a top hat, which might be a bit inappropriate during ambulance service. He claims the ride is far smoother than most of today’s ambulances, but in all fairness, modern lifesavers are built on truck chassis. Despite the added bulk of the extended and reinforced chassis and all of the related hardware, Biancalana says the car still feels powerful. We are certain the 525 foot pounds of torque has something to do with that.
Although its Cadillac-based ambulances sold very well, Miller-Meteor would close its doors before the end of the 1970s. Two events had dealt a deadly 1-2 punch to their product: the 1973 OAPEC oil embargo and the Emergency Medical Services Systems Act of 1973. The oil embargo and resulting fuel shortages would force American automakers, including GM and Cadillac, to downsize all model lines between 1977 and 1979 for better gas mileage. For 1977, the Cadillac Commercial Chassis wheelbase dropped from 157.5 inches to 144.3 inches, which greatly reduced the demand for car-based emergency vehicles. Among its many mandates, the EMS Systems Act provided financial support for community EMS systems only if they met 15 standard requirements, one of which directly addressed ambulance specifications. Those vehicles meeting Federal standards bore a certification mark called the “Star of Life.”
The changes brought about by the EMS Systems Act can be traced to lessons learned in Vietnam: American soldiers whose wounds were treated during transit to field hospitals had higher survival rates than did accident victims in the United States. Study after study recommended that civilian ambulances grow larger and be better equipped in order to provide immediate trauma care during transport. Unfortunately for Miller-Meteor and other similar brands, the Star-of-Life standards recognized only Type I, II, and III ambulances, all of which were based on truck and van chassis.
Thus, the working ambulance-hearse disappeared from our roads. This meticulous restoration by Biancalana and Bliznick takes us back to a time when functionality was also beautiful.