Dying in Style: Chicago’s Cadillac Fire Ambulances

Chicago Fire Commissioner Robert Quinn was opposed to switching from Cadillac ambulances to the newer boxy, modular EMT design apparently on the theory that “a Chicagoan would rather die in style than be saved in the back of a panel truck.” He thought people wanted to go out in style! 

Actually, Cadillac never made an ambulance, but rather suppling three major coach builders S&S,  Miller Meteor and Superior . The first Cadillac purchased by the Chicago fire Department was a modified 1940 limousine model which went into the service on January 25, 1943, assigned as an upgrade to Ambulance 1. Then between 1953 and 1973 most Cadillac ambulances were conversions from Miller Meteor of Ohio on incomplete Cadillac chassis from 1961.

Since 1928 Chicago fire Department has purchased over 178 ambulance vehicles, some 70 of those were Cadillacs. There were also three 1942 Packard’s converted by Henney in Freeport Illinois, ten 1946 Mercury’s and nine Pontiacs purchased 1970. There was just one 1941 Dodge purchased for Civil Defense between 1943 in 1947.. In 1973 the EMS systems act was written establishing federal guidelines for the newer design modular ambulances,  the department purchased over 70 of these  on Ford and Chevrolet chassis still in use today.

But the story of Chicago ambulances begins in 1889 with its first city ambulance, a horse driven police ambulance #1 quartered at the Armory police station. In the basement station where stalls for nine horses two teams assigned to the ambulance and two teams for the “blue wagon” a ninth horse was called a fast trotter for the commanding officer of the precinct captain Koch.

One ambulance team was always kept constantly in harness ready for “instant service”. The crew two police officers and a driver would wait for the electric gong. One horse team worked the day shift 7 AM to 6 PM the other team worked the night shift 6 PM to 7 AM.

The horse-drawn Chicago Police ambulance circa 1890 was very basic. There was a wicker basket, leather mattress and rubber air pillows. There was carbolic acid for disinfecting and ammonia to revive the unconscious. Each ambulance carried extra blankets for cold weather, an emergency splint, tourniquet, cotton bandages, adhesive plaster, scissors, and safety pins in a tin box. There was an emetic or poison, a sponge, a rubber ice can for sunstroke and best of all, a bottle of brandy for those patients needing relief from pain. In one of those early years there were 4000 calls for the only six police ambulances for the entire city.

.On June 30, 1895 Chicago Tribune did a great article entitled “Day In the Police Ambulance”. There were ambulances quartered at E. Chicago Ave., W. Chicago Ave., the Armory, Des Plaines St., the stockyards, Hyde Park, and Harrison Street station.  These horse-drawn police ambulances were emblazoned with the Red Cross of Geneva insignia and gilt letters “CHICAGO POLICE AMBULANCE” to distinguish them from the hospital horse driven ambulances of the day. They were described as low hung dark bodied ambulances dashing through the streets with horses galloping and their gong clanging. Painted in somber black, they had rear doors and front curtains, the wheels would fit into the (steam or cable) car tracks “making it easier for the poor souls without having been shook to pieces in the bargain”. They were not allowed to complete some calls without first obtaining a doctor’s certificate of illness stating a disease like typhoid, measles, scarlet fever or smallpox. One of the worst illnesses was galloping consumption which was often fatal.

As the Chicago Tribune spent a day observing ambulance work, they interviewed the police officers assigned to the horse-drawn ambulance. There was David Barry, Ryan, Harrington, and Kollock. The majority of ambulance calls back in the day were railroad accidents where someone was losing a leg or arm. Elevator accidents were also very common someone falling down the shaft having a foot caught between the floor in the elevator. In the summertime sunstroke was common so the ambulance carried ice packed rubber skullcaps.

David Barry said “If we get a fellow that’s been run over by a steam car or cable, he as like as not to have a leg off him and bleeding rapid. We will just slap the tourniquet on above the wound, twist it and there you are. The blood stopped and we can put the arm or leg in the splint easy like til we get to the hospital”


In 1896 Dr. J. T Binkley Junior Invented a cycle ambulance built for the Chicago Hospital at Cottage Grove and 49th St. He felt that his invention would be much faster than the hospital sick wagons quartered in nearby stables. The cycle ambulance could travel over longer distances, claimed a top speed of 17 miles per hour, much faster than a horse ambulance.

It was built of whitewood weighing 148 pounds, 28 inches wide, 36 inches high, 7 foot long with a glass ventilating window and a Red Cross symbol above the words “CHICAGO HOSPITAL AMBULANCE”. The body of the cycle ambulance was suspended between two tandem bicycles riding on pneumatic tires. First trial was on July 30 1896 and on the very next day it was used for participants injured in a bicycle road race. It was said that patients preferred the cycle ambulance over horse drawn ambulances.

In 1897 there was a report that horse-drawn ambulances had become woefully inadequate and improvements would be in ” humanities interest”. They rattled over pavements on steel tires and were simply not useful.


In 1899 the very first motorized ambulance was donated to Michael Reese hospital. In 1907 Cook County had its first motorized ambulance, described as a “hospital on wheels”.

The Sayer and Scoville’s   catalog for 1912 featuring both horse-drawn ambulances and motorized ambulances which well highlighted the turning point to motorized ambulances.  In January 1914 at  Schiller and Clark the horse driven police ambulance lost out on a call to the “grey ghost“ motorized ambulance. It was a telling sign the motorized ambulance would soon obsolete the horse-drawn ambulances

Before November 1, 1928 there were no Chicago fire Department ambulances in Chicago. so if you needed to get your relative to the hospital you either drove the person yourself or relied on that “black maria” police patrol wagon


You had one more choice,  your friendly undertaker . They were already on call 24 hours a day, and they had a bit of medical knowledge such as it was. When motorized vehicles first began appearing on Chicago’s streets, funeral homes began using large specially designed and expensive cars to transport the caskets of the dead in what is called a “combination hearse”. It made sense that undertakers could also use their vehicles as ambulances when not carrying the dead. They were faster and way more efficient than a horse-drawn hearse/ambulance especially in bad weather. The equipment in the early hearse /ambulance was often sparse – a stretcher, a blanket, a first aid kit or a tackle box filled with gauze and bandages.


The first six motorized fire department ambulances were built in 1928 by A.J Miller on an International S26 chassis. described again as “hospitals on wheels”. They were initially intended to primarily transport injured firefighters but later for anyone calling FIRE 1313. They were staffed by three attendants, two of them uniformed firemen, and the third attendant a fourth year medical student.  These first six ambulances tended to the injured at fires & explosions, serious accidents, and mass-casualty incidents.

Five of those six ambulances were taken out of service in 1937 due to budget cuts during the depression. Ambulance 3 and Ambulance 4 were transferred to the Chicago Board of Health at the Chicago Contagious Disease Hospital, and once again CFD ambulance service was only for injured firefighters. Only Ambulance 1 at Engine 1 at 214 loomis  remained in front-line service.

In April 1942 Two ambulances, both Packards, were placed back into front-line service during WWII operated by the Civil Defense and staffed by civilians. (One of the Packard Civil Defense ambulances from WWII would later be the first Ambulance  at O’Hare Field in 1955)

In June 1942 there were still only six fire department ambulances for the entire city. With the Chicago police handling the balance of all medical calls. After the war in November 1945, ambulances were once again staffed by firefighters and ambulance service was once again extended to civilians injured at fires & explosions, serious accidents, and mass-casualty incidents,. Private ambulance companies  complained that the fire department was cutting into their business and there was an odd  order issued that a CFD ambulance can only be dispatched with the authority of the division Marshal. Since there were so very few CFD ambulances, police had to handle 35,551 medical calls.

The city proposed a dedicated ambulance telephone number to be AMbulance 1313 but never implemented.

On June 26, 1947 it was announced that 10 new ambulances built on a Mercury chassis was purchased from Hub Motors 2473 Milwaukee. These would be added to the four existing to augment all the police patrol wagons. Fire Capt. Joseph J McCarthy announced that they would be equipped with two-way radios

1949 was the first year that Chicago began shifting all calls for ambulance to the fire department, In 1951 there were 12 ambulances responding to 9658 calls. All but one ambulance responded to a terrible 5-11 fire at 320 N. LaSalle on January 12 1951

1953 was the beginning of the Cadillac era with the purchase of the first 1953 Cadillac Fleetwood.

in 1955 there were 13 ambulances responding to 20,000 calls of which 12,332 were inhalator calls. Those 13 ambulances drove 105,000 miles. Curiously on June 29, 1955 fire Commissioner Mullaney ordered that all ambulance sirens be removed and he directed bells to be used sparingly. In 1956 the city placed an order for 10 new Cadillac ambulances bringing the total to 17 which handled 25,402 calls of which 17,134 of those calls were inhalator. one of the Packard Civil Defense ambulances from WWII was the first Ambulance assigned to O’Hare Field


Robert J. Quinn, was named Fire Commissioner by Mayor Daley in 1957.  Born 1905, he began his career in the 1928 Chicago Fire Department candidate class. He proudly wore a battered helmet serving just shy of 50 years with the Chicago Fire Department.

Between 1953 and 1973 CFD had purchased some 69 Cadillac ambulances, of course not all were in use at the same time as some replaced older ambulances, and some were spares.. In 1958 17 ambulances responded to 28,854 calls. Almost 20,000 of those for inhalator. 8453 of them were for auto accidents.

In 1970  the Federal government funded 11 Model Cities ambulances,  inexpensive Ford club wagons that performed poorly. The firefighters assigned to these ambulance were paid $7500-$8500 a year. The program lasted only one year but the CFD had a new record of 81956 runs.

Cadillacs and the other limousine style ambulances became obsolete when the federal government set new standards for ambulances, the EMT box style designed to provide extra interior space and the need to accommodate more life-saving equipment..

Beginning in 1973, the department purchased over 70 of this newer design modular ambulances on Ford and Chevrolet chassis and with many design changes and improvements are still on the street today. Compared to the old limousine style some called these newer modular ambulances “ER’s on wheels”. These were the death knell of Quinn’s beloved Cadillacs.

Quinn said “I have always leaned toward the ambulances (Cadillacs) that we have. There is nothing better than that unit. It is faster and rides better.”

In 1978, Robert J. Quinn retired after leading the department for 21 years. He died at 73 years old, on jan 18, 1979 in Naples Florida while on vacation . He now rests in Holy Sepulchre Cemetery Lot 14 Block 2 Section 3.

Flash forward to 1987 which saw 54 ambulances, 1997 saw the new ALS fire engine program . In 2020 because of Covid were running almost 24/7. Response times were troublesome. At times there was no ambulance available for a call.

Currently there are over 80 ALS (advanced life support)  ambulances, six mass casualty triage units and five additional support units for Chicago’s EMS service. These ambulances respond to over 200,000 calls a year, some 16,000 runs per month . By the math each ambulance averages 6 to 7 calls per day, but some way more.

Today if you ride in a Chicago ALS ambulance you will receive a bill $3227 plus $28 for oxygen plus $19 a mile.

but the good news is the Chicago fire Department offers some of the finest emergency ambulance service in the country (even if not in one of Commissioner Robert Quinn’s Cadillacs).

2 thoughts on “Dying in Style: Chicago’s Cadillac Fire Ambulances”

  1. Barry, I really enjoyed this article, especially since I had an Uncle & 2 cousins in the CFD, & my sister Amy & Bill had an ambulance service when we first got together! Chuck III

    Sent from my iPad



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