Car of the Week: 1957 Pontiac Ambulance

Certainly, as 1957 Pontiacs go, it would be hard to find one much more unique than Dennis Statz's eye-popping Star Chief ambulance. Not only is the car big and beautiful, it is a very low-mileage survivor, with a meager 13,500 ticks showing on the speedometer.
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Car of the Week 2020
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The “wow” factor is what attracted Dennis Statz to his huge, blue Pontiac ambulance in the first place three decades ago. And it’s that same attention-grabbing quality that makes the big rescue rig such an adventure to drive even today.

“One thing I learned long ago is that, on the highway, you have to drive pretty much as fast as all the other traffic is going, because it is such a curious vehicle,” noted Statz, a resident of Sturgeon Bay, Wis. “So many people tend to gather around it, it gets dangerous, literally. There gets to be a bottleneck.

Certainly, as 1957 Pontiacs go, it would be hard to find one much more unique than this eye-popping rescue rig. Not only is the car big and beautiful, it is a very low-mileage survivor, with a meager 13,500 ticks showing on the speedometer. The car started out life as a Star Chief four-door sedan and was turned into an ambulance by Superior Coachworks. It was ordered by the Detroit Diesel Allison Division to be a company ambulance, but it rarely saw use, and was eventually sold to an Indianapolis man in 1973 with only about 1,800 miles of use.

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That owner had the car until 1979, when Statz spotted it for sale along the road during one of his frequent work trips between Indianapolis, where he lived at the time, and Louisville. “I saw it out of the corner of my eye sitting in a cul de sac as I was heading to Louisville,” Statz said. “It was this big, blue Pontiac, and I thought, ‘Wow, what’s this thing doing out here?’

“I had some time that day, so I drove around to look at it and saw 6,043 miles when I looked through the window. I was thinking to myself, ‘Why would anybody restore it with 106,043 miles? Somebody really put a lot of work into this car.”

Turns out the car wasn’t restored at all, just underused during its working days. “The way the story was told to me from some folks at the [Detroit Allison] plant at the time is that they needed to buy an ambulance as a backup — they had already had Cadillac at the time, but couldn’t buy another one, because 1957 was sort of the start of a recession, and they had to cut costs… Well, the guy who ordered it wanted a Cadillac, and wasn’t allowed to get one, so he really loaded this one up. It cost almost $7,800 new, which was a boatload of money back then.”

Statz said he wasn’t even shopping for a hobby car when he first spotted the ambulance, but as a Pontiac buff, he couldn’t help himself. “I chatted with the guy who owned it, but I wasn’t interested in buying it at first,” he said. “But I talked to my wife about it and we went and looked at it and decided to buy it, and it’s just been a hoot.”

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There was a lot to like about 1957 Pontiacs, even without the unique ambulance accouterments. Pontiac introduced new "Star Flight" styling for that model year that included missile-shaped side trim, flatter tailfins, extended rear fenders with V-shaped tips, lower hoods, a more massive bumper grille, longer horizontal taillights and 14-inch wheels.

Star Chiefs were identified by front fender scripts, four stars on the rear fenders, chrome semi-cylindrical trim at the back of missile-shaped inserts and full wheel discs.

Under the hood was a 244-horsepower, 347-cubic inch V-8 fed by a four-barrel Rochester carburetor.

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To accommodate the ambulance’s size and weight, Superior Coachworks replaced the standard 1957 14-inch wheels with 15-inchers, which had actually been standard up through 1956. The wheel covers are also 1956 issue, which Statz says can confuse people trying to peg the car’s birth year.

Statz’s car got a 30-inch stretch from Superior and was fitted with bigger doors. “It’s really just like a big four-door station wagon,” he said. Above the windshield, the car was fitted with a federal C6-B siren that has a light that revolves, called a Propello Ray Light. The light is controlled by a dash switch and the siren has an interior button with a brake to squelch the sound quickly. There is no radio, but the rest of the cockpit area has standard Star Chief amenities.

In the back are two small jump seats for emergency personnel, and a large flat space for a gurney, which could be held in place by aluminum hardware. Statz noted that the Detroit Diesel factory had to remove both the siren and gurney equipment before the car could be sold, but he has since found replacements.

Throw in the privacy curtains in back, stunning two-tone paint scheme, etched glass in the back side windows, two big spotlights and four huge corner lights on the roof, and you have an impressive and unusual rig that Statz has been able to keep largely intact. He did repaint the roof about 10 years ago when the paint began to deteriorate around the tunnel lights. “The quality of the paint and finish back then just wasn’t that good,” he said. “It was cracking so badly that I just thought, ‘This is ridiculous,’ so I basically took everything off the roof and had it painted and now the top just looks fabulous.

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“There is a spot in the back on the wall that I think was for a medical kit, and I’ve never found one of those,” he added. “Other than that, the only thing that I’ve really ever done to it is replace the exhaust system — it’s a really long exhaust system. And I’ve put correct original tires back on it.”

Statz said he has had a lot of Pontiacs come and go from his garage over the years, but has never been tempted to part with his beautiful blue ambulance. He has a splendid red and black ’56 Pontiac convertible that he also babies, and two restoration candidates — a ’55 two-door station wagon and ’56 Safari — but none of them have stolen any affection for the ambulance.

“I’ve had a number of people over the years ask me about it, and I’ve had some pretty healthy offers on it,” Statz said. “It’s just a real nifty vehicle and a lot of fun. It would be hard to part with … and both my kids, who will be getting out of high school soon, have said, ‘Dad don’t sell that thing!’

“I’m going to do everything I can to hang onto it.”

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