In hot pursuit of emergency vehicles at Woodward

One of the cool things about the Woodward Dream Cruise, held every year in mid-August in Detroit, is that other popular events have been established or rescheduled at complementary times. The day after the Dream Cruise, more than 1000 Mustangs gather at the Mustang Owners of Southeastern Michigan’s Mustang Memories show on the grounds of Ford headquarters in Dearborn. Simultaneously, not that far away in Livonia, the Great Lakes Classic AMC Club hosts its annual “all AMC family” show.

Those are for folks who extend their stay beyond the Woodward cruise. For those who get to Detroit early, Ferndale closes off a section of Nine Mile Road just off of Woodward to host the Emergency Vehicle Show. It’s an understatement to say that it’s a very diverse show. It has a split personality, almost two shows in one, with separate areas for the police-related vehicles and fire trucks/ambulances.

Within those broader classes, there was also a considerable variety. As far as the cop cars are concerned, there were actual, currently-in-service police cruisers from Ferndale and a handful of area police departments, as well as from the Michigan State Police. There were also some vintage police cars, both survivors and restored historic models like the MSP’s “Old 361” semi-marked Plymouth Fury interstate pursuit car. Vintage state trooper vehicles showed up from Ohio, Montana, and even the Ontario Provincial Police, accompanied by two fully kitted and armed OPP officers from Canada.

Ford doesn’t offer a police package on the current Mustang, but for agencies could once order a pursuit ’Stang, and there was a brace of them in the side lot.

Joining the real police cars were a variety of replicas, like Adam-12 and The Andy Griffith Show tribute cars, along with a rather mundane ’79 Chrysler Newport whose owner, oddly, decided to turn it into an unmarked police car, although oddly enough he mounted bull-bars on the front bumper. So much for being unmarked.

2019 Ferndale Emergency Vehicle Lights & Sirens Cruse
Matt Lewis

Perhaps because this was a Detroit event, there were a number of cars that came out of the factory equipped as police pursuit models but were never in actual police service. Instead, they were factory demonstrators used to sell police cars to government agencies. They’re still fully equipped with graphics and lights, so the guy who owns the late-model Dodge Charger Pursuit carries an obvious “Not In Service” sign on the car to avoid accusations of impersonating an officer.

Among the real police vehicles was a small display from the Cleveland Police Museum, which brought what has to be a very rare car—a 1973 American Motors Ambassador with a factory police package, in very bright Citron Green. Back in the ’70s, the automakers would have called that a “high impact” color, and ironically, the car was used for Cleveland’s anti-crime “Impact Unit.”

The folks from the Cleveland Police Museum also brought one of the International panel trucks that Eliot Ness implemented as ambulances while he was Cleveland’s safety director after leaving the Justice Department. That title sounds a bit weak, but in reality, it meant Ness was both police and fire chief for the city. Ness set up what I was told was the first municipal EMT response team in the United States. At the time, police vehicles were usually painted black. As a matter of fact, the same panel trucks, when used as paddy-wagon police vans, were nicknamed Black Mariahs. Instead, for visibility, Ness had the trucks painted red and blue, just like police emergency lights are colored today.

Police cars are a subset of car culture and worthy of inclusion in a big car event, but I’m still struck by some irony. The Woodward Dream Cruise is now 25 years old. It was started in 1994 by middle-aged (and older) car enthusiasts, by then responsible adults who remembered what cruising Woodward was like when they were teenagers—before local ordinances and police departments put an end to cruising in the 1970s.

As for the emergency vehicles on display, they were family friendly—at least their owners were. Kids were encouraged to sit behind the steering wheels of the fire trucks and clamber all over them. One owner of a 1930 Model A pickup that he had converted to a fire truck replica was giving plastic firefighter’s hats to the kids. The owner of an open-cab American LaFrance fire pumper told me he chooses his insurance based on which companies will let him give rides to children.

2019 Ferndale Emergency Vehicle Lights & Sirens Cruse
Matt Lewis

Nearby was perhaps my favorite vehicle in the show, a 1962 FC150 Jeep pickup that had been converted to volunteer fire department use by the Noble Township (Michigan) VFD. A forward-control Jeep is as cute as a bug and a capable utility vehicle, but there’s no protective crush space in front of your knees. As the guy from Noble Township slyly said, you’ll be the first at an accident in one of those.

Superior Ambulance Service brought out a 1967 Cadillac-based ambulance powered by Cadillac’s 500-cubic-inch V-8. The ambulance company’s rep said it drives like a dream. It is one of two vintage ambulances in the company’s collection. The other is an Edsel-based vehicle, which would have been great to see but it had mechanical difficulties. The rep also mentioned that the company is hiring. If you think about it, an emergency vehicle show isn’t a bad place to recruit EMTs.

Today, most ambulances are box trucks built on chassis trucks. They are filled with all sorts of special life-saving equipment. A half-century ago, if a patient was lucky, an ambulance might have had an oxygen tank. Ambulances were more suited for stabilizing and transporting people to the hospital, where they could be treated, than for providing immediate medical treatment. As a result, since they were built by the same conversion companies, ambulances would sometimes get double duty as hearses, particularly in small towns. Operators would just cover up the rear side windows of the “dual-use professional cars” with vinyl-covered panels mounted with landau bars.

The owner of a 1971 Cadillac-based dual-use ambulance/hearse told me that he knew an elderly woman who’d broken her ankle and needed transportation back home from the hospital after getting her leg set with a cast. While the driver was putting her in the dual-use ambulance, he bemoaned the fact that he was going to have to make a return trip to the hospital as soon as he dropped her off,  “To pick up Mr. Davis.” The lady said that it was silly for him to make two trips and that she certainly wouldn’t mind riding with Mr. Davis. 

“I’m not so sure about that,” the driver said. “Mr. Davis is dead.”

“That won’t bother me,” she said, saving the driver a trip.

It did, however, bother his employer, who was exceedingly careful to not mix up the Cadillac’s two roles in the eyes of potential passengers.

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