EMS Classics is a feature column I write for Canadian Paramedicine.

It is my attempt at giving the younger generation who work in EMS today, a snapshot into the history of ambulance service.

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Column 00D

Those S&S Suburbans

(This article was published in the Professional Car magazine issue #146)

In 2004 Richard Litton of Moorestown N.J. came across a photo of a 1972 Chevrolet extended roof Suburban ambulance with design features of an S&S Cadillac ambulance (The Professional Car issue 114). Everyone knows that Hess & Eisenhardt did not build truck-type ambulances so the question is who built this Suburban? For me, the mystery was frustrating - I could not match the exterior features of this unique vehicle to any known Suburban modifier and reluctantly added the vehicle to my Unknown Builders list.

A few years later I attempted to solve the mystery by visiting the West Chicago Fire Protecton District (the squad to whom the Suburban had belonged) but had no luck in solving the mystery. Later, I began corresponding with Robert Hodge, the current West Chicago fire chief, who had worked in these rigs (they had two identical Suburbans) earlier in his career but did not remember seeing a manufacturers mark on them. As to the fire department's archival files for these vehicles - they had gone missing! With my ongoing encouragement (pestering) Chief Hodge canvassed some old-timers from his district who recalled these ambulances had been ordered through a dealer in Chicago and had been manufactured in Ohio. The mystery intensified - which Ohio Suburban modifier would have copied an S&S Cadillac?

A search at the West Chicago City Museum turned up some photos as well as a June 29, 1972 newspaper article from the West Chicago Press stating that one of the new ambulances had been paid for by State funds, but again no clues as to the builder.

Then, several months later, Chief Hodge located the misplaced Suburban files. In them were the original ambulance proposal submitted by Reitmeier S&S Coach Sales of 2620 North Carolina Avenue in Chicago; the dealer's S&S New Professional Car Order form; the dealer's delivery invoice for two Suburban ambulances complete with medical equipment and Motorola radios; and a copy of the West Chicago Fire Protection District cheque payable to Reitmeier S&S in the amount of $27,561. Although there were no documents from the Hess & Eisenhardt factory I now felt confident that they indeed were the builders of these mystery Suburbans.

It is interesting to note that Reitmeier S&S issued their new car order to the factory on May 18, 1972 with a required delivery of the finished products to Chicago by May 31, 1972. It would have been impossible for Hess & Eisenhardt to find two suitable stock Suburbans, design and modify them (for the very first time) into ambulances and deliver them to Chicago all within 13 days, so I assume these Suburban ambulances were already built (perhaps as prototypes) at time of order.

But why would Hess & Eisenhardt have built Suburban ambulance prototypes? Perhaps it was part of the process of determining if they should enter the rapidly growing truck segment of the ambulance market. New recommendations for ambulance design by the Federal Government's National Academy of Engineering had come at a time when GM, Ford and Chrysler were introducing a new generation of light-duty truck chassis that were more suitable for ambulance modification. These combined events had begun a nationwide trend among ambulance buyers of choosing truck-type ambulances. Hess & Eisenhardt's major competitors, Superior and Wayne Corporation, were already both building van ambulances and Wayne was also building on the Suburban platform. In addition, numerous new competitors had suddenly entered the ambulance manufacturing industry, among them Braun, Collins, Horton, Modular, National, Southern, Springfield, Stratus, Wheeled Coach and Yankee. These market and competitive pressures may have forced Hess & Eisenhardt executives to answer the question "Should we build them too"? Building prototypes would have allowed for a proper assessment of these vehicles from a visual standpoint - did the Suburbans look like they belonged in the S&S lineup? Even if they did, would they be damaging the S&S brand among those customers who still wanted the highest quality Cadillac ambulances available and were willing to pay premium prices to get them? They may also have built the prototypes in order to determine cost competitiveness. Hess & Eisenhardt had a long established history of building high quality professional vehicles even if it took more man-hours to do so. To suddenly begin doing "quick builds" on Suburbans and compete on price against the upstart competitors would have been extremely difficult. And unlike the car-based ambulance market, there was not a segment of the truck-type ambulance market that was willing to pay premium prices for a higher quality product - the reason ambulance services were buying truck-type ambulances was to obtain the lowest possible price.

Of course, most of the "why" surrounding these Suburban ambulances is conjecture on my part. We are, however, left with the assumption that The Hess & Eisenhardt Company did build at least two ambulances on truck-type chassis.

(To view photos and documents regarding these S&S Suburbans see images 13274 to 13274g)

Copyright 2012 Peter Adsten