By Brian Earnest
Phil Harrison isn’t quite ready to mention his big, white Chevrolet in the same breath as death and taxes. But it’s close.
No matter where he goes, the Cedar Springs, Mich., resident can be pretty secure in knowing that he will be the only one to show up in an ultra-rare 1955 Chevrolet One-Fifty ambulance.
“There is not another ’55 Chevy [One-Fifty] ambulance in existence that we know of,” says Harrison. “There are a few ’56 and ’57 Chevys. But we’ve been to Carlisle and all the big meets… It’s been to Springfield, Ill., Minneapolis, Charlotte, Nashville a couple of times … We’ve been all over with it. We’ve looked for one, and I’m thinking that if somebody out there had one, they would have notified me. I would, if I had one!”
Phil and his wife, Sue, were just looking for a conversation piece to take to car shows when he came across the unusual stretched Chevrolet back in 1989. Phil didn’t know at the time quite how rare the car was, but he knew he’d never seen another one, and might never get a chance to buy one again.
“I subscribe to Old Cars Weekly and this was advertised in the magazine. It was out in Littleton, Colo.,” Harrison said. “I think I called the guy and told him I was seriously interested and I wanted some pictures and wanted an honest description. You know, I’m 1,200 miles away, so I couldn’t just come and look at it … Then I think the day after Thanksgiving I got a Polaroid picture of it in the mail. So when my son got his Christmas break, I took the trailer out and we drove out to see it.
When I crawled underneath it, the inside of the ’55 Chevy fenders was just as nice as the outside. The paint job was probably an Earl Scheib paint job — I think he said that to my son — but underneath it was in very good condition. So we brought it home on a trailer. We could have drove it. It was very well represented.”
There are a few gaps in the history of the beautiful ambulance, but it clearly led an unusual life after rolling off the assembly line at the St. Louis assembly plant back in 1955. At the time, the car was a “Plain Jane” One-Fifty four-door sedan — not exactly your typical candidate to become a hearse, ambulance or other professional car variant. But a funeral home somewhere in Utah apparently had other ideas and sent the sedan to Barnett Coach Company in Memphis to be transformed into an ambulance. Barnett was one of several smaller coach-building operations in Memphis in 1950s and did many conversions on GM chassis. From what the Harrisons were able to find out, though, not many involved 1955 Chevrolets.
“We actually found a guy who had worked at the original Barnett company,” Harrison said. “It had gone out of business in 1959 and he was pretty old at the time, but he said in the years they had worked there, the Chevys were called “the poor man’s ambulance” because most of them were Cadillacs or Oldsmobiles or something like that. He said in those years there may have been as many as 24 Chevys altogether — not 24 ’55s, but 24 total from ’55, ’56 and ’57.”
The conversion involved stretching the sedan by two feet and fitting it with a thick steel roof that features frenched flashing red lights on the front edge. The rear door on the driver’s side was welded shut and a large side-opening door added in back. The bed of the ambulance is linoleum over a wood deck with a fold-down single jumpseat on the passenger side for someone to attend to a patient. A rack holds a simple cloth stretcher. On top is a single clear flashing light. Two more spotlights are positioned in the front grille and spotlights are mounted on each “A” pillar. And, of course, there is a siren.
With its Indian Ivory white color and flashing lights, the Chevrolet was clearly outfitted more as an ambulance than a hearse, but it belonged to a funeral home and was large enough to transport a casket. “A lot of people will call it a hearse. I say, ‘It’s not a hearse. Did you ever see a white hearse?’” Harrison remarked.
Harrison wasn’t sure he wanted to stick a bunch of money into restoring the ambulance, but those plans hit a four-legged snag not long after he dragged the car home. “We got it home a week before Christmas and we took it out and hit a deer the first night we had it out,” he recalled. “It got the grille and everything else in front, but it didn’t do any fender damage. It needed to be painted when I bought it, so hitting the deer just speeded up the process.
“Then when you put on new paint, those 35-year-old bumpers on a new paint job wouldn’t look decent, so we had to do the bumpers. Of course, it’s a One-Fifty so the only chrome is the hood and bumper. There’s no side chrome, so there was no expense with that. Then we decided the original brown interior had to go. We went with ’55 red and white and, of course, had to go with all custom-made stuff. They don’t make a headliner or anything like that for it.”
The ambulance still carried its original 265-cid V-8 — which debuted in 1955 Chevrolets — with a three-speed and overdrive when the Harrisons got it, but the engine was a casualty during one of the couple’s many road trips in the car. “We were going to Charlotte, N.C., and I blew the engine up,” Phil said. “I had it trailered home and decided to put a crate motor in it. I put a 350 in it, but I kept the old 265. It’s still in my garage. I will not sell that V-8. If somebody ever buys my car, it’s rebuildable I think.
“At the time, the crate motor was the same price estimate as a rebuild, and it’s not a stock vehicle anyway, so it didn’t bother me. It goes in the special interest class when we show it. It’s the same with the interior. It was brown, but it needed to be re-done and I decided it was easier to do the red and white vinyl. The dash was gray, just like it is now. I haven’t done anything with that. The dash hasn’t been touched and the armrests where you put your arm out the window, that has not been painted.”
Underneath, the car’s driveshaft has a center carrier bearing like those used on trucks. Altogether, the conversion added a half a ton to the One-Fifty sedan, which now squashes the scales at more than 4,200 lbs.
The odometer on the ambulance shows about 89,000 miles, but the Harrisons aren’t sure how accurate that figure is, or if the car’s clock has ever turned over. “In my case, I looked at the condition of it more [than the miles],” Phil said. The couple added roughly 1,000 miles a year to that total for many years, but voyages have have been less frequent recently after they bought a black 1957 Bel Air convertible for some weekend fun. “Yeah, I’ve got another baby now,” he joked. “That’s the car I’ve always wanted, and I finally got it.”
“But we bought the ambulance to drive it. It will run down the road 75, 80 [mph] with all the sports cars of the world. If it had power steering, it would probably run as good as my new diesel truck, as far as comfort to drive. I bought it to drive and enjoy. The only time it was on a trailer was when it was broke down. I have a sticker on the inside on the edge of the dash that says, ‘If you see this on a trailer, call 911.’”
Harrison admits the stunning 1955 ambulance has given him everything he bargained for and more when it comes to starting conversations at hobby gatherings. Lots of people have something to say when they see it, and most, whether they realize it or not, have never seen anything like it. “One thing is, people don’t believe it was a four-door sedan” Harrison said. “And people love to argue. I say, ‘Crawl underneath the car and you can still see the weld.’
“And with the red lights on and sirens, you draw 100 percent attention. It’s a lot of fun that way.”
The couple actually made a brief effort to sell the ambulance at one point, but Phil figures after 24 years, he’ll have some definite seller’s remorse when he finally parts with it. “Yeah, that’s what I’m afraid of. It’s like a hunter, once you get a nice, big buck, you think, ‘It’s mine. This one’s mine.’ I pay insurance on it and it doesn’t cost much to keep it. And I’d hate to sell it and see somebody tub it or do something to wreck it.
“I’d sell it cheaper to a guy in California than I would to a guy in Michigan. Then I’d never have to see it!”
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