A lot can change over the course of a century, especially when it comes to automobiles. In the early part of the 20th century, automobiles were becoming more widely available, and police, fire, and other public services went to work, experimenting with how to develop and use this form of transport to their benefit. Of course, progress isn’t a straight line, and there were many ideas that quickly became outdated. A horse-drawn horse ambulance, Cadillac funeral coach-ambulance combination car, and a GM delivery truck that resembles a Swiss train are just a few of the odd vehicles you’re about to see.
Search Lights Were Added to this 1900 NYC Fire Car
This image was taken on October 10, 1900, during New York’s Fire Prevention Day Parade. During this time, the vehicles used by the fire department could be called a Chief Unit, Fly Car, Fly Vehicle, or Fire Car, among other names.
In the year 1900, United States fire departments had just begun using automobiles instead of horse-drawn buggies and were driven by the Fire Chief’s assistance, Deputy Chief, or someone specifically hired to the department as Chief’s Driver. This Fire Car shows off the newly-introduced searchlights.
1925 New York Police Truck
You’d never see a police vehicle like this patrolling the streets these days, but this is how a group of New York police officers were transported in the 1920s. Manufactured by White Motor Company, based in Ohio, this top-less police vehicle didn’t give officers a lot of protection on the road and only offered 30hp.
However, it did the job against the vehicles and suspects they were competing against. White Motor Company also made vehicles for fire departments and mail trucks during this time.
1953 Police Van In England
Pictured here is a police van in 1953 transporting a criminal from the courthouse to the prison in England. Also referred to as a paddy wagon, patrol van, or police carrier, the vehicle was designed to transport multiple prisoners with a specialized cell designed inside.
Although it took a while to perfect the design, Frank Fowler Loomis created the first motorized police patrol wagon that could ensure that the prisoners remained captive while a fixed steel cage protected the police officers in the front.
1962 New York City Traffic Patrol Vehicle
This is what a traffic patrol vehicle looked like in New York City in the 1960s. The design is not much different than the small traffic vehicles that you see on streets today slipping parking tickets under windshield wipers.
The 60s saw a huge increase in family vehicles and commuters on the roads, as the nation’s highways and roads were improved. During this decade, traffic incidents, illegal parking, and car accidents at an all-time high.
1934 Police Ambulance in Madison, Wisconsin
Prior to World War II, ambulances were generally available in bigger cities, helping to get people treated quicker and transport them to the hospital safely, as many American households didn’t have a hospital nearby.
Once the war began, it became too difficult for many hospitals to maintain their ambulance service, and so they turned their vehicles over to the police. However, those operating the ambulance had little to no medical training, oftentimes knowing nothing more than basic first aid. This image shows two police officers with a new ambulance in front of the Madison, Wisconsin police station in 1934.
A 1930 Milk Delivery Truck in Washington, D.C.
Founded in 1881 by John Thompson, Thompson’s Dairy Farm would bring milk from a farm outside of Washington D.C into the city to sell. However, Thompson had trouble finding distributors for his milk and decided to become his own distributor to get the business off the ground.
By 1927 the operation produced 5,000 gallons of milk a day and used delivery trucks to bring the product to the door of its customers. What started as a temporary solution developed into a large fleet of motor trucks and horse-drawn milk delivery wagons.
1961 Traffic Accident Car in London
This here is what they called a SETAC, or Specially Equipped Traffic Accident Car. Photographed in Battersea, London in 1961, you can see the officer has pulled up to the site of an automobile accident and has done his job alerting oncoming traffic of the incident.
This Humber estate car is custom-designed to carry everything from flashing signals to lifting jacks, traffic cones to floodlighting. The London Metropolitan Police relied on these vehicles to help ease traffic jams after an accident in the busy city.
1960 Cadillac Ambulance
Pictured here is a Cadillac built on a Cadillac Commercial Chassis. This vehicle was produced from 1931 until 1979 and was designed to be used as a funeral coach, ambulance, or both, which were referred to as “combination cars.”
Typically, combination cars would include mounted flashing lights, a two-way radio, foldable seats in the back for those administering care, and either a gurney or a casket, depending on who the Cadillac was transporting.
1940s Horse Ambulance Manufactured by the ASPCA
This photo taken in 1940 shows an ill horse being transported to the veterinarian from the corner of Broadway and 66th street in New York City. During the first half of the 20th century, horses were very important, as they played a major role in transportation.
This horse-drawn ambulance carriage was specifically designed by the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals to safely transport horses through the busy streets. The horse ambulance was one of the first efforts of the ASPCA, to help treat injured horses.
1906 Police Ambulance in London
Patient transport carriages in London date back to 1832 when the city needed to find a solution for safely transporting cholera patients. The vehicle was designed with enough room for the patient to lay down and begin being treated during transport, which was advanced for the time.
This police ambulance is pictured in London in 1906. By this time, ambulances were better equipped for the safety of the patient, as well as higher speed and faster stopping time.
1929 Police Car and Motorbike in New York
This picture shows four police officers in front of the New York Police Department, County of Nassau, 5th Precinct, with a police motorcycle and motorcar. This was during what’s considered the formative years of the New York police. In 1918, the police recognized the importance of having access to automobiles and added Model T Fords to their departments.
In 1922, Superintendent Chandler wrote in the Department’s Annual Report, “When the automobile appeared, the horse was considered and laws were made to protect him. Now they are obsolete in their turn. The horse has capitulated and the gasoline car has won.”
1920s Vertical Steam Engine
From 1840 until 1920, fire departments utilized steam pumpers to pump water onto burning buildings, which at the time, were mostly comprised of wood and would quickly go up in flames. The steam pumper was hauled by horses, which were accompanied by dalmatians, to help calm and guide them.
After 1920 the horses were retired from duty and the fire department used gas-powered tractors to haul the steam pumps to the scene of the fire.
1913 Leyland Fire Engine in Great Britain
Pictured here in 1913 is a group of firemen sitting aboard their fire engine in the United Kingdom. The vehicle was made by Leyland Motors, a British vehicle manufacturer that also made buses and trolleys. The company was founded in 1896 and stayed in business until 1968.
You can see that this vehicle was steam-powered, which required constant repairs to the boilers, as the vehicle needed to maintain between 80-100 lbs of pressure by gas to operate. They would later move to petrol-driven fire engines.
1933 Early Police Car
In 1932, Ford introduced the Ford flathead V8 in its Model B. This captured the attention of police departments looking to beef up their fleet of automobiles and Ford saw it as an opportunity to gain the loyalty of the police department’s automobile needs.
In the 1940s, Ford, General Motors, and Chrysler all offered special packages for police automobiles and by 1969, Plymouth became the favored automaker for police vehicles in America.
1928 Ambulance for Dogs and Cats
The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals has a long-standing history of aiding dogs, cats, horses, and other animals in need. Pictured here is an ambulance designed to transport dogs and cats in 1928.
Households were spread out without close access to hospitals, and ambulance services like this one would help families in rural areas to get their pets treated quickly. During the 20s and early 30s, the organization handled nearly 300,000 animals per year, according to Heritage of Care: The American Society for the Prevent of Cruelty to Animals, as many Americans faced hardship during the Great Depression and were unable to care for their animals.
Fire Brigade of Guilin, Photographed in 1982
This photo was taken in 1982, showing an old fire brigade car that’s still in service in Guilin, China. This region of China is filled with lush mountains and rivers and is a popular tourist destination.
The humid subtropical climate means there aren’t many fires to attend to in the area, so this fire truck probably hasn’t seen much action since it was introduced to the local fire department decades ago in Guilin. Still, it’s pleasing to look at.
1951 Shaefer’s Ambulance Service
J. Walter Schaefer started one of the most popular ambulance services of the mid-20th century in the U.S. As you see the slogan on the side of the car, “In the air… or the ground,” Schaefer also founded the first air ambulance service in 1947 in Los Angeles.
However, this was before paramedicine was widely practiced, so during this time, the ambulances were used to transport patients, but not treat them along the way. Still, the ambulance service helped a great deal with transporting patients who might not otherwise have access to a car.
1929 Coca-Cola Delivery Truck in New Orleans
Imagine seeing a soda distributor with all of the bottles exposed driving down the road today. Pictured here is a driver in New Orleans with his Coca-Cola delivery truck packed with cases of pop.
Coca-Cola first began delivering its product in 1909, with the first delivery arriving in Knoxville. By the 1930s, the brand had all sorts of unique vehicles to catch the attention of consumers as they delivered the goods across town. Judging by the sign on this vehicle, “every bottle Coca-Cola Sterilized,” cleanliness and safety were just as important to the public as flavor.
1941 General Motors Delivery Truck
During the 1930s and 40s, General Motors created several caravan and delivery truck models that they referred to as “Futurliners.” General Motors would send a fleet of twelve of these liners around the country, promoting their “Parade of Progress” to show off their innovation in automobile designs.
The parade of liners would arrive in small towns across America, creating one of the most exciting local events of the year for everyone to see the future of transportation.
1936 London Fire Engine
London has suffered many horrific fires in its history, with the 1666 Great Fire of London being the worst. There were 1,600 local fire brigades in operation in London in 1936, all volunteers. Then the Fire Brigades Act of 1938 required all municipal boroughs, urban, and rural districts to form their own fire departments, with paid positions.
Before World War II, there was no standardization of fire fighting equipment, including the diameter of hydrant valves, meaning that this truck of fire hose might not be able to connect to the fire hydrant on the block of the fire.