Chasing Ambulances: Swiss Mystery Solved
In 1969 Checker Motors introduced the Medicar with a raised roof and 170 degree opening doors to serve as ambulances. A full five years earlier, however, several Checker cars were shipped to Switzerland and customized to serve the same purpose in the city of Zurich.
The photo of one of these ambulances is well known to Checker fans. Unfortunately, very little else has been known about these custom Checkers. Until now, that is.
Being the curious type, the writer of this article decided to become a forensic ambulance chaser. Thinking that someone in Zurich must know something about these vehicles, I took the little information I had and started searching the Internet.
It seemed logical that ambulances were most likely associated with local hospitals, the police and/or fire department and the city in general. This naturally lead me to the City of Zurich web site which conveniently provides on-line forms for submitting questions.
Posing the same question to several City agencies, I was pleasantly surprised to receive a reply from the city archives (Stadtarchiv). A search through their records revealed that the City Council (Stadtrad) approved the purchase of two ambulances requested by the Board of Health (Sanitaetskorps) in November 1965 and March 1966 via a competitive bidding process.
Two Checker 6-passenger Aerobus chassies, front body parts and engine/drivetrain were purchased from Checker and imported by the local Checker dealer, Settelen AG of Basel. These were then delivered to the firm of H. Brunner of Zurich for customization as an ambulance based on specifications from the city.
The Brunner name immediately raised a question about the maker of the ambulance that is known to Checker fans (see photo above) as having been built by the firm of De Giorgi. As it turns out from the records of the Zurich City Council, two Checker ambulances were ordered earlier in the 1963/1964 time-frame. It is these earlier vehicles that were built by De Giorgi.
The City records go on to explain that since the Checker ambulances purchased earlier were performing so well, there was no need to look for another manufacturer of the next two ambulances. This, however, did not apply to the coach builders. For this, the companies of De Giorgi and H. Brunner submitted competitive bids with Brunner coming in with the lower price.
The decision was made to buy two Checkers with Chevy V8 engines from Settelen at a total price of Swiss Franks 50,100 and have Brunner perform the customizations at a total price of Swiss Franks 97,000. The total cost of each ambulance was thus CHF 73,550. [Note: In 1966 a 6-door Aerobus cost $6,000 in the USA; or 25,860 Swiss Franks.]
With the deal completed in late March of 1966, the City expected the two new ambulances to be delivered by the end of that year. It was their intention to replace two Cadillac ambulances that had been in service from 1938 and 1939, respectively. Between them, the Cadillac ambulances had covered 773,000 km (464,000 miles) over a 28 year period. With this new purchase, the City had 13 ambulances in service, four of them being Checkers. The two new ambulances were used to serve the city hospital Statdtspital Weid, an outlying area of Zurich.
Photo showing 1930's ambulances in Zurich - Courtesy City of Zurich web site
But what about the Checkers purchased in 1964? A few days after the Zurich Archives correspondence, an email arrived from the Protection & Rescue (Schutz & Rettung) department of Zurich. This email revealed that two Checker ambulances were purchased from Settelen and customized by De Giorgi. No information about the price of these vehicles has been found except it is known that the chassies cost CHF 2,450 less in 1964 than in 1966.
Surprisingly, I was also informed that two Checker limousines were also purchased; one for use by patients who could sit normally and another for Sanitaetskorps management. The fate of these two vehicles in not known. Last, but not least, it was revealed that the ambulance shown in the first photo still exists!
This led to the firm of ACT Special Car Center of Gretzenbach, a company specializing in the sale of ambulances, fire engines, police cars and other specialty vehicles. Yet another email request led to a response by Mr. Max Hess, who confirmed that the ambulance is owned by them and can be viewed by appointment.
Mr. Hess continued to explain that their ambulance was in service in Zurich from 1964 to 1976. After retirement, the ambulance was purchased and used by a scout group “Pfadfinder Jung Siegfried” until 1984. It then sat in a garage until 2006 at a junkyard near Zurich when ACT purchased it and restored it to its present condition (see first photo).
He added that the automatic transmissions were replaced with 4-speed manual transmissions at the request of the drivers. Also, the way to distinguish easily between the 1964 and 1966 ambulances was to see whether they came with a single or double blue revolving light on the roof. The earlier version owned by ACT has only a single revolving light.
Photo courtesy Settelen AG
Photo courtesy Settelen AG
Having asked Mr. Hess to send me the VIN number of his Checker ambulance, I reached out to Dick Bowman of the Gilmore Car Museum in Kalamazoo, Michigan. He immediately found the build sheet for the 1964 ambulance which revealed the following interesting information:
Order Date: August 21, 1963
Production Order: 5148
Vehicle: A-12W6 6-door Aerobus
Engine: Chrysler V8
Paint: Primer only
Parts: Chassis with cowl, windshield frame, front doors without glass, central pillars, KM speedometer, 4:56 to 1 Power Lok Axle, A-12W8 shock absorbers
Shipping: Truckaway to Detroit; Wallenious Lines to Rotterdam or Antwerp, Belgium
Checker Production Order for 2 Aerobus chassies
Finally, a series of email messages with Mr. Mike Gosteli of Settelen AG in Basel revealed that his company served as the key Checker dealer in Switzerland from 1961 to 1979. In that time period, the following Checker cars were imported:
1961: 11 A-10 Superbas
1962: 3 A-10 Superbas
1963: 14 cars including A-12 Wagons, A-12 Superbas, A-12 Marathon DeLuxe sedans, A-12 Aerobuses
1964: 8 cars including A-12 Aerobuses, A-12 Marathon DeLuxe sedans and one A-12 Marathon wagon
1965: 12 cars including all the models listed for 1964
1966: 2 cars; one A-12 Marathon and one A-12 Aerobus
1967: 9 cars including 7 Marathon DeLuxe sedans, 1 A-12 Marathon Wagon and 1 A-12 Custom Limousine
1968: 7 cars; all A-12 Marathon DeLuxe sedans
1971: 2 cars - A-12 Marathon DeLuxe sedans
1972: 2 cars - same as 1971
1973: 3 cars - same as 1971
1974: 1 car; A-12 Marathon DeLuxe
1977: 1 car; same as 1974
1978: 4 cars - all A-12 Marathon DeLuxe
1979: 1 car; A-12 Marathon DeLuxe
With this case closed, it is not surprising that another has been identified. According to Max Hess, there were other Checker ambulances in Switzerland. In the 1990’s he found one that served Spital Bülach near Winterthur. It seems that more ambulance chasing is in order!
The following individuals and organizations were very helpful for solving the Swiss Ambulance mystery:
Angelika Ruider - Fachfrau Information+Dokumentation - Stadtarchiv Zurich
Nicola Behrens - Stadtarchiv Zurich
Tabea Rüdin - Kommunikationsfachfrau - Schutz & Rettung, Zurich
Dieter Glatz - Schutz & Rettung, Zurich
Richard Bowman - Director of Library Services - Gilmore Car Museum, Hickory Corners, MI USA
Stefanie Schuster -Assistentin des Spitaldirektors - Stadtspital Waid
Mike Gosteli - Historian - Settelen AG
Article Copyright 2015 - Checker Car Club of America