Bought for use on the scene of some of Brew City’s biggest fires, Milwaukee Fire Department Ambulance No. 1 could handle the heat – even the heat of the Texas sun, under which it spent its retirement. But it belonged back in Milwaukee, and to Milwaukee it has recently returned, where, refurbished, it will go on display in this summer’s Milwaukee Masterpiece.
Though it’s hard to imagine today, ambulances with life-support equipment are a relatively modern phenomenon (born from combat medical experience in Korea and Vietnam), as is the idea of a centralized emergency response number like 911. In the Milwaukee of 1947, ambulances were typically owned by private firms, and used to transport stabilized patients to and from care facilities. The Milwaukee Police Department owned a few ambulance vehicles, but, as retired Milwaukee Fire Department deputy chief Warren Skonieczny explained, “the Milwaukee Police Department didn’t view itself as an ambulance service.”
An early shot of the ambulance, showing the roof in white.
Given the risk associated with fighting fires, having an ambulance on scene at multi-alarm fires seemed like the prudent thing to do, and in 1947 the Milwaukee Fire Bell Club raised the funds necessary to purchase a Cadillac Sayers & Scovill ambulance (built by Hess and Eisenhardt, which had acquired the Sayers & Scovill brand in 1942) for use by the Milwaukee Fire Department. As a fire department vehicle, it was painted in a traditional red instead of the expected white, and to be clear, the ambulance was not for civilian use. Instead, it was dispatched to every multi-alarm incident the Milwaukee Fire Department responded to, in the event that a member of the department required expedient medical treatment.
The Cadillac entered service in 1947, labeled as Ambulance No. 1, and for three decades responded to every significant fire within the city of Milwaukee. As delivered from Hess and Eisenhardt, the Cadillac wore red paint on its body and white paint on its roof, but an overzealous attempt at scrubbing the roof clean with oakite (a chemical typically used for cleaning bare metals) necessitated a repaint in solid red.
As the 1970s transitioned into the 1980s, the Cadillac was still in use as a backup ambulance, called upon to support more modern equipment as the need arose. By 1979, however, the vehicle no longer met the minimum standards for ambulances set by state and federal agencies, and thus was officially retired by the Milwaukee Fire Department.
In service during the late 1960s.
Upon decommissioning, the Cadillac was returned to the Milwaukee Fire Bell Club, which maintained a modest fleet of vehicles to provide support services (such as food and drinks) to first responders on incident scenes. An ambulance is hardly a practical vehicle for such purposes, particularly one that measured 22 feet in length and came equipped with a single side view mirror on the driver’s side. After retaining possession of the Cadillac as long as it could, the Milwaukee Fire Bell Club sold the rig to a local collector of professional cars.
The Cadillac’s new owner didn’t keep it long, as the bulk of his collection consisted of funerary vehicles. Next, it was sold to an ambulance collector in New Braunfels, Texas, who kept the car for a few years before selling it to another collector in Dallas, Texas, who maintained it mechanically for display and parade use, but stored it outdoors.
Around the same time, Skonieczny, now retired and with the Milwaukee Fire Museum, began to search for the Cadillac in earnest. Though he’d occasionally come across a lead, each one turned out to be a dead end, until one day in 2012 the phone rang at the museum. “I have one of your old ambulances,” the caller said, “and it’s yours if you come to Dallas and pick it up.”
Thankful for the generous donation, Skonieczny prepared himself for the worst. When the car arrived, however, those on hand to receive it were astonished at the rig’s overall condition; though the sun had faded its once-pristine red paint and gold lettering, the inside was in remarkably good condition, and exactly as the car had left the Milwaukee Fire Department decades earlier. A coat of paint and new (hand-painted) gold lettering were all it took to bring Ambulance No. 1 back to life, and today the Milwaukee Fire Museum has the ambulance on display.
Incredibly, it’s seen just 19,265 miles pass beneath its wheels, and the 346-cu.in. flathead V-8 has never been apart. It’s equipped with a Hydra-Matic four-speed automatic transmission, and Skonieczny is clear that only changes made to the vehicle after leaving the Hess and Eisenhardt assembly line were those made by the Milwaukee Fire Department. As such, it’s a true time capsule car, a reminder of both the department’s history and a step on the evolutionary ladder of the modern ambulance.
It’s fitting, then, that plans are under way to make the Cadillac available for firefighter funerals in Milwaukee; for those of a generation, could there be a better way to respond to the final scene than in the back of a 1947 Sayers & Scovill Cadillac ambulance?
The 2014 Milwaukee Masterpiece weekend will take place on August 23 and 24 at Veteran’s Park in Milwaukee, Wisconsin