A young Tim Prieur would always stand transfixed at the emergency entrances of the Holy Cross and General Hospitals as ambulances came and went with lights flashing and sirens wailing. Prieur’s father was a Calgary-based physician. On Saturdays, the doctor took Tim to the hospitals as he made his weekend rounds.
“I remember being fascinated by these ambulances of the 1950s and 60s,” Prieur says. “Not only by their appearance, but also by their ability to ‘clear traffic’ on a busy Saturday afternoon on Macleod Trail, on route to a medical emergency or hospital.” Prieur appreciates ambulances to such a degree he now maintains a collection of six, including a 1952 National Pontiac, 1957 Superior Pontiac, 1963 Miller Meteor Combination, 1965 Superior Pontiac, 1975 Superior 51 Cadillac and 1976 Superior 54 XL.
In the world of ambulances, the coachbuilder is named first, followed by the chassis maker. From the chassis supplier, the vehicle was complete from the firewall forward, including fenders, grille and hood. The ambulance maker was responsible for constructing everything else.
While Prieur now has those six cars, it took him almost a lifetime to find them. When training to become a doctor himself, in the early 1970s Prieur spent two summers with the then-new City of Calgary Ambulance Service. Senior paramedic Ron McManus mentored him, and Prieur rode with the ambulances that had earlier captured his imagination.
Prieur is a cardiologist, and has spent the bulk of his life never far away from ambulances – although not the stretched out car-based emergency vehicles of his youth.
Nostalgia can be difficult to shake, and one Sunday evening in 2004 or 2005 Prieur found himself at a computer Googling his favourite ambulance of the 1960s, a 1965 Superior Pontiac. Through his search, Prieur became aware of the Professional Car Society (PCS), a group devoted to the preservation of working vehicles, including hearses and – most importantly to Prieur – ambulances.
“My interest in old ambulances was always there; it had never left,” Prieur explains. “But it was so eclectic, I didn’t even think it would be possible to find an ambulance like the ones I’d earlier admired, let alone find a group of like-minded people.”
Prieur was wrong. The cars were out there, but none of the emergency medical vehicles that served with any of Calgary’s private ambulance services survived. As Prieur says, they were driven hard, and driven literally into the ground.
Here’s some quick background on local ambulance services. In Calgary up until the late 1960s, companies such as Starr’s Ambulance Service, originally owned and operated by Calgary alderman Ernie Starr, provided the service. When the City took over and organized its own ambulance service in the early 1970s, Prieur says Calgary was one of the first North American cities to provide “advanced level” pre-hospital care.
“While there wasn’t anything left of Calgary’s ambulances, the majority of ambulances that did survive are the ones that saw small-volume use, where they attended a couple of calls a week, were used, washed and put away,” Prieur says. “And that means cars that were used in small-town North America.” Just like Prieur’s 1965 Superior Pontiac, an ambulance with 60,000 miles on it that was originally used by the volunteer fire department in The Dalles, Oregon. The ambulance had been moved to a museum in southern Ontario, but was privately owned. After a conversation with the owner, Prieur was able to buy the car in 2010. One of two known to exist, the Superior Pontiac is an identical vehicle to one that was used by Starr’s in Calgary.
“Everything down to the Band-Aids are correct for 1965,” Prieur says. “It’s all original, from the lighting to the blankets.”
Another of Prieur’s ambulances is a 1952 National Pontiac. It’s a near identical sister car to a 1950 National Pontiac that was also used by Starr’s. In homage to the Starr’s cars, Prieur has outfitted all his vehicles with era-appropriate Starr’s markings.
“By the mid-1970s, there was a push away from car-based ambulances to truck-based vehicles because more equipment could be carried and it was a move towards advanced pre-hospital care with defibrillators and other gear on board,” Prieur explains.
In Prieur’s collection, an example of one of the last car-based ambulances to be built is the 1975 Superior Cadillac. With only 3,000 miles on the odometer, the vehicle was never put into service. It came from American Ambulance in Detroit, and Prieur says it not only drives like a brand-new Cadillac, it smells like one, too.
Prieur enjoys driving all of his ambulances, but says he’s not out on Deerfoot Trail at 3 o’clock in the afternoon. He doesn’t attend show and shines, either. Rather, as a board member with the Emergency Medical Services Foundation in Calgary, he uses his cars to help promote their public awareness events.
“I have also been fortunate enough to be invited to an annual spring event where ambulance attendants of the pre-paramedic care days in Calgary come together to share old memories and friendship,” Prieur adds. “Through their assistance I have attempted to bring together documentation and artifacts of this piece of Calgary medical history and preserve them for the future.
“I am always on the lookout for one more piece to add to the puzzle,” he admits.