How vintage ambulances completely transformed during the 20th century

Ambulances from the 1950s Vintage rescue vehicles

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When we think about emergency healthcare, it’s hard not to imagine the wailing sirens and flashing lights of an ambulance. However, the ambulance as we know it today, with its sophisticated medical equipment, has a history rooted in far simpler designs — and something of a morbid vibe.

Let’s explore the evolution of the vintage ambulance, from its initial role as a basic transport service (provided by funeral homes!) to its modern function as a mobile emergency care unit — and understand how ambulances played a vital role in the evolution of medical services.

Military ambulances from the Vietnam War (1969)
Military ambulances from the Vietnam War (1969) – From the Edwin Mark Trawczynski Collection (AFC/2001/001/76819), Veterans History Project, American Folklife Center, Library of Congress

Circa 1900: The first motorized vintage ambulances on the scene

The vintage ambulance, a staple in classic movies and a symbol of medical assistance in times past, has an intriguing history that may just surprise you. No, these weren’t always the gleaming, high-tech life-savers we’re accustomed to today.

The history of ambulances dates back as far as warfare itself, with the term “ambulance” coming from the Latin word ambulare, meaning “to walk or move about” — ironic, considering an ambulance’s job is to transport those who, in most cases, cannot move themselves.

Horse-drawn ambulance wagon on the battlefield of Bull Run (1861)
Horse-drawn ambulance wagon on the battlefield of Bull Run (1861)

The first ambulances were horse-drawn wagons used in wars, but it wasn’t until the late 19th century — with the invention of the automobile, of course — that the concept of a motorized ambulance came into existence.

The first motor-powered ambulance was launched in February 1899 by the Michael Reese Hospital in Chicago, and its design was a far cry from today’s comparatively aerodynamic models.

Picture a boxy, horseless carriage equipped with the bare minimum: a stretcher, first-aid supplies, and a driver doubling as a medical attendant. That early ambulance weighed 1600 pounds, and its electric motor helped it move along at 16 miles per hour.

Pan American Exposition ambulance auto (1901)

Pan American Exposition ambulance automobile (1901)


Old Red Cross ambulance around 1915

Old Red Cross ambulance around 1915


1930s & 1940s: When vintage ambulances looked like hearses

As decades passed, the design of ambulances evolved. By the 1930s, they began to resemble hearses (a perception that some argue we’ve never fully shaken off). Interestingly, many ambulance services were operated by funeral homes as both required similar vehicle designs and funeral directors had some training in providing emergency first aid.

Ambulance in Lancaster, Pennsylvania from 1933

Ambulance in Lancaster, Pennsylvania from 1933


Vintage ambulance car from 1940
Vintage ambulance car from 1940
Vintage ambulance from the Consolidation Coal Company collection, National Museum of American History (Smithsonian Institution)

Old-fashioned white ambulance car (1947)

Old-fashioned white ambulance car (1947)


1950s: Ambulance function evolves

By the 1950s and 1960s, the need for specially designed emergency vehicles led to the ambulances we more commonly recognize in vintage films and photos. This era saw the addition of more advanced medical equipment and gave birth to the “modular” design — which included a separate compartment for patient care. During this time, ambulances were also functioning as mobile clinics, often servicing rural communities.

(But as far as form… the vintage ambulance still largely still looked like — and was built to the same general specifications as — hearses. Not surprising, because well into the 60s, there were still some funeral directors providing ambulance services to their communities.)

An old Dodge ambulance station wagon (1956)

1956 Dodge Ambulance


Chrysler ambulance from the 1950s (1953)

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1953 Chrysler Ambulance


Cadillac ambulances (1958)

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DON’T MISS THIS: See 55 of the earliest automobiles ever manufactured

1958 Cadillac Ambulances

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'Emergency!' TV show paramedics John Gage & Roy DeSoto zapped millions of hearts in the '70s

The S&S Cadillac Superline Kensington vintage ambulance (1958)

1958 Cadillac Superline Kensington Ambulance


Old ambulances from the fifties: Rushing to the hospital

Ambulance and passenger from 1956 (2)

Ambulance and passenger from 1956 (1)


Willys 4-wheel drive vintage ambulance (1954)

The Willys ambulance: Designed for a dual purpose: As an ambulance to reach patients over bad roads or across country, and bring them back to hospitals & as a mobile unit serving outlying communities without hospital facilities. Body easily converted for special clinical work.

Has cargo and working space permitting its use as a mobile clinic — with engine power end 4-wheel drive traction to get to remote back country. Gets patients to hospitals or other medical aid centers with speed and comfort.

1954 Willys Jeep Ambulance


For safety in emergencies: Rescue cars (1956)

Oct 8, 1956 ambulance

MORE: See 35 vintage car wrecks from the days before seat belts & airbags


The 1954 Envoy – Limousine ambulance by Meteor

1954 Cadillac Ambulance car models


Ambulance intern on 2-way radio (1966)

Ambulance intern on 2-way radio (1966)


Ambulance from 1968

Craig Utley drives a private ambulance in West Hartford and Bloomfield, Connecticut. (Vintage ad for Mutual of New York insurance)

Ambulance from 1968


Ambulance from 1969 seen through the front

Ambulance from 1969 seen through the front


1970s: Game-changer for vintage ambulances

The ambulance experienced a significant turning point in its evolution during the 1970s, a time when the understanding of emergency medical services underwent a major shift.

Prior to this era, ambulances functioned mainly as transport vehicles, staffed by attendants with minimal medical training. The goal was simple: get patients to hospitals as quickly as possible. However, the landscape of emergency medical care was about to transform.

1970s ambulance tech equipment transferring patient health data to the hospital (1972)
1970s ambulance tech equipment transferring patient health data to the hospital (1972)

The Emergency Medical Services (EMS) systems were introduced in the 1970s, marking a crucial shift in perspective. Now, the emphasis was not just on swift transportation but also on providing immediate medical treatment at the scene and en route to the hospital. The idea was that an ambulance should essentially be an extension of the emergency room, a mobile treatment facility equipped to save lives on the go.

ALSO SEE: ‘Emergency!’ TV show paramedics John Gage & Roy DeSoto zapped millions of hearts in the 70s

Vintage 70s ambulance medical and tech equipment (1971)
Vintage 70s ambulance medical and tech equipment (1971)

This shift was heavily influenced by the Highway Traffic Safety Act of 1966, which pushed for national standards in EMS systems and recognized the vital role they play in public health. The Act resulted in more formalized training for ambulance staff and greater federal oversight, driving innovation and progress in ambulance design and technology.

Forgotten paramedic history: Freedom House EMT

Prior to the 1970s, the response to a medical emergency could range from police intervention to services provided by the local funeral home. The quality of emergency care was hit or miss, and survival rates for severe medical events were tragically low. This dire scenario began to change with the pioneering work of the Freedom House in Pittsburgh.

Pittsburgh Pennsylvania Freedom House ambulance (1974)
Pittsburgh Pennsylvania Freedom House ambulance (1974)

Freedom House was a remarkable institution staffed by a team of African American men who would go on to set new standards in emergency medical care. These unsung heroes were among America’s first paramedics and their revolutionary practices would drastically change the future of emergency medicine.

In a time when emergency medical services were limited and often discriminatory, Freedom House stood as an inclusive beacon, providing top-tier medical care to all, regardless of race or socio-economic status. Their groundbreaking approach to pre-hospital care and emergency transportation laid the groundwork for the sophisticated EMS systems we are familiar with today.

Freedom House ambulance in the 1970s
Freedom House ambulance in the 1970s

Unfortunately, despite their significant contributions, the legacy of Freedom House and its team was largely overlooked for decades. However, their impact on emergency medicine is undeniable and continues to be recognized today, ensuring that the story of Freedom House EMS is not erased, but celebrated as a vital part of medical history.

Vintage ambulance from Cleveland, Ohio circa 1970s-1980s

Vintage Ohio ambulance from around the 1970s-1980s


Inside a vintage 1971 ambulance

Inside a vintage 1971 ambulance


Retro ambulance van from 1980

Retro ambulance van from 1980


EMTs with a patient on a stretcher in the back of an ambulance (1980)

EMTs with a patient on a stretcher in the back of an ambulance (1980)


Vintage ambulance at Emergency Room/ER entrance (1980)

Vintage ambulance at a hospital Emergency Room (ER) entrance (1980)

The legacy of these transformations is apparent in today’s advanced ambulances. Each vehicle is stocked with life-saving equipment such as defibrillators, oxygen, and a range of medications. Ambulance personnel are highly trained professionals, able to provide a high level of medical care even under high-stress conditions. Looking back on vintage ambulances, we recognize the tremendous strides that have been made in the field of emergency medical services, all with the goal of saving lives.

ALSO SEE: Before 911 existed, you could just dial 0 for the operator to get help

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