The Gordon K. Allen Company
By the early 1960s, Gordon K. Allen had relocated to a larger location at 3909 E. Overton Rd where the company began converting Chevrolet station wagons into ambulances. For example, the entire ambulance fleet of the Dudley M. Hughes Funeral Home of Dallas featured this new Chevy conversion and were all purchased from Allen. It was during the early 1960s that Allen developed a unique warning light and siren roof pattern for all of their ambulance conversions. This consisted of a center mounted Federal “Q2-B” mechanical siren with one “Do-Ray” red or red/blue combination “pancake” style warning lights to either side of the siren and a Federal Model 17 2-sealed beam red “Beacon Ray” which was center mounted behind the siren. Later, one additional “Do-Ray” “Pancake” style light was added for a total of two lights either side of the siren. The reason that Texas ambulances could display blue lights was because an old Texas law had established that a blue light could be displayed to designate those emergency vehicles that “carried oxygen.”
It was at this location that Gordon K Allen began to convert Chevrolet “Suburban” model trucks when the model first made its debut in early 1967. For the ’67 and ’68 Chevy “Suburban” models, GKA continued to use a unique roof-mounted siren/light pattern, which consisted of a center roof-mounted Federal Q2B mechanical siren that was flanked on either side by two double faced DORAY “pancake” style red or blue lights. Behind the Federal Q2B siren was a two-bulb Federal Model 17 “Beacon-Ray” beacon with the previously mentioned combinations. Ambulance operators quickly saw that this vehicle could replace the station wagon and be more economical to purchase than the traditional hand-crafted Cadillac, Oldsmobile, Pontiac, and Buick chassis ambulances available at the time.
The most famous of Allen’s configurations was the 1962 solid white Chevy station wagon that was used to transport Lee Harvey Oswald from the Dallas City Jail in 1963 when he was assassinated by Jack Ruby. The ambulance was operated by the O’Neil Funeral Home which provided emergency ambulance service to the city’s downtown area. This is documented in 16mm newsreel footage from that date. The company continued to convert Ford and Chevy station wagons into ambulances; they would sometimes convert an International “Travelall” or GMC panel truck into an ambulance. However, many found that the parcel truck vehicles had an unacceptable, rough factory suspension and not many were purchased.
1969: The Beginning of the Modular Ambulance Corporation
In 1969, foreseeing the need to manufacture ambulances that would meet evolving Federal standards, Gordon K. Allen formed the Modular Ambulance Corporation (MAC). He realized that larger facility would be needed in order to improve the Chevy “Suburban” model ambulance conversion process with more enhanced cabinetry and electrical systems and for the manufacturing of a fiberglass raised roof for a 54″ headroom model ambulance to meet the new federal minimum standards. MAC moved into the new facility which was located at 3020 Sargent Road, Dallas.
In 1969 MAC improved the interior bulkhead and left side cabinetry design and offered a right side cabinet as well for the ’69 “Suburban Zephyr” low-roof ambulance. For the “Zephyr” line, MAC introduced the Unity combination spotlight/red flasher lights installed at the corner front door posts as an option. If the customer did not want the Federal Q2B siren, then a Federal PA15 “Director” model 75 watt siren was installed and two chrome Federal CP-25 siren speakers were mounted on the roof with each right and left side speaker flanked on either side by a DORAY “pancake” warning lamp for a total of four roof mounted lights. There was also an option of adding two “Tunnel” lights in lieu of the four DORAY red “pancake” style lights. This was interesting because the tunnel lights were a unique warning light for the Superior Coach Company at the time. MAC continued to use the GKA designed side rear “ambulances cross” and striping on all ambulance conversions. In 1969, MAC, through GKA, delivered four 1969 Chevrolet ambulances to the private funeral home based (and city subsidized) Fort Worth Ambulance Service, which was owned by the legendary Joe Brown; Brown was a pioneer in the Texas funeral home industry. Brown was well aware of the evolving new Federal standards and believed in operating well designed ambulances with highly trained attendants well before it became mandated. (See the Museum’s “Fort Worth Ambulance Service” article.)
In 1969, a vehicle of this configuration was also sold by MAC to the Community Chapel Funeral Home in northeast Houston (HPD Ambulance Zone 1130). Some Houston funeral homes desired more siren capability to the ambulance that already had the Federal PA15 siren and twin speaker combination. For example, in 1969, both the Fair Funeral Home (owned by Woodrow “Woody” Fair and located at 5416 Bennington Rd. at Hoffman Street in the N.E. Acres Home area) and the McCoy & Harrison Funeral Home (owned by Homer McCoy, Sr. and located at 2817 Nagle Street) ordered identical 1969 solid white model Chevy MAC low-roof conversions with both the Federal Q2B and electronic siren. This required the Federal Q2B siren to be mounted in the center hood near the windshield. However, the McCoy & Harrison Funeral Home also ordered a Federal PA20A “Interceptor” electronic siren in place of the PA15 Federal Director and also had a foot siren switch installed on the attendant’s seat floor.
It is interesting to note that the McCoy and Harrison Funeral Home was the busiest ambulance service in Houston in that it served the expansive Third Ward of the city and its ambulance zone extended several miles east of the downtown area and southeast down almost to the Texas Medical Center. (See the Museum’s article “Houston Ambulance Service”). Both McCoy & Harrison and Fair Funeral Homes were African American owned facilities and their owners believed in equipping their ambulances with a multi-level stretcher, folding road stretcher, portable oxygen, long and short wooden spine boards, air splints, Thomas half-ring splint, OB kit, bag/mask/valve (AMBU-BAG) manual resuscitator, airways, and a well-stocked emergency first aid kit. They also assured that all attendants had completed both the Red Cross Standard and Advanced First Aid courses as well at the State of Texas 24 hour Registered Emergency Care Attendant (RECA) course that was first introduced in July 1968.
The 1969 McCoy & Harrison MAC ambulance was designated as unit “1121” by the Houston Police Department which dispatched all ambulances at that time. It was not unusual for “1121” to average 18 to 25 calls per day. At the time, there were over twenty-five funeral home and commercial ambulances throughout Houston and each service has a specific zone assigned and were licensed by the city and inspected by the Houston Police Department. Each Houston Police dispatched ambulance displayed a city issued small red with white lettering “medallion” metal plate which was attached below the front and rear license plate. The “medallion” denoted the HPD ambulance zone and radio unit number.
In 1969, MAC also delivered its first raised roof 54″ “Zephyr” prototype ambulance on a 1969 Chevy chassis to the Fort Worth Ambulance Service and delivered another prototype to the Superior Ambulance Service (Unit 1129) which served the expansive Houston Police Ambulance Zone 1129 in South Houston which included the Medical Center, Astrodome, and Astroworld.
During this time, there were several other ambulance distributors in the Greater Dallas area. The A.G. Solar & Company sold and converted Chevy “Suburban” low-roof vehicles into ambulances. They were the distributor for both Miller-Meteor and Cotner/Bevington hearses, flower cars, limousines and ambulances and were located at 3410 South Texas Avenue in the Dallas suburb of Bryan, Texas. A.G. Solar & Company also used different designed side rear “ambulances cross” and striping than that of GKA or MAC. Summers Coach which was another ambulance conversion company in Duncanville, Texas who was the distributor for Hess & Eisenhardt S&S hearses, limousines, flower cars, and ambulances.
1970: The Modulance
In early 1970, the first Type 1 “Modulance” 138″ wheelbase prototype was built at the Sargent Road facility. This vehicle was displayed at the 1970 Ambulance Association of America (AAA) Convention and incorporated all of the latest recommendations that had been developed by the National Research Council’s Ambulance Design Committee. A slightly shorter 127″ wheelbase model called the “SA-127 Modulance” was developed as a lower cost unit. It had less cabinet space than the SA-138 and featured side windows in the patient compartment.
In 1970, MAC also pioneered a new ambulance roof mounted siren/light pattern, which quickly became their signature for low roof Chevy Suburban “Zephyr” ambulances. This consisted of a center mounted Federal Q2B mechanical siren which was flanked on either side by a double faced DORAY “pancake” style red or blue light which was then flanked at each front roof corner by a three or four sealed-bead Federal Beacon Ray with solid red dome, clear dome with red/white or blue/white/red combinations or a blue beacon. Behind the Federal Q2B siren was a four-bulb Federal Stratoray beacon with the prior mentioned combinations. Sometimes the customer would also order two DORAY lights for the rear corners.
1970s and 1980s: The Growth of Modular Ambulance Company
By 1971, Modular Ambulance Corporation had built numerous, improved design, Chevrolet Suburban “Zepher 54” model ambulances featuring a fiberglass raised roof for the Sparkman / Hillcrest Morticians in Dallas. This long-serving funeral home dates back to 1893 when it was started by George W. Laudermilk, then was known as Laudermilk-Sparkman in 1920, Sparkman-Holtz-Brand in 1933, Sparkman-Brand in 1947, Sparkman’s in the early 1960s, and finally Sparkman/Hillcrest in 1967. Sparkman’s handled the city contract for emergency ambulances in North Dallas, and Dudley M. Hughes answered the calls in South Dallas. The MAC “Zephyr 54” rapidly became popular and the company received several hundred orders during the Winter of 1971. In early ’71, MAC had successfully built and delivered six 1971 Ford SA-127 model “Modulances” to the private funeral home based and city subsidized Fort Worth Ambulance Service.
Meanwhile, the Houston Fire Department took over the city-wide ambulance service on April 1, 1971 following a year of research by a multi-disciplinary advisory committee. For previous generations, all Houston city-wide ambulance had been provided by funeral homes, the old Jeff Davis Hospital, a few volunteer organizations and a growing number of commercial services in the late 1960s. Houston Fire Department District Chief W. O. “Whitey” Martin was appointed by the chief of the fire department to command the newly created HFD Ambulance Division. This event would have a dramatic, but positive effect on MAC manufacturing. The city first started their new service with twenty-two low-roof Dodge vans which had been quickly converted into ambulances by the fire department’s shop. But a tragic accident involving one of the van ambulances (HFD Ambulance 1128) killed the HFD driver and convinced the fire department that a heavier vehicle was needed for their fleet.
The Houston Fire Department purchased and received the first “Modulance” SA-138 model unit in the Spring of 1971 and was initially assigned as “1101”, but soon reassigned as “1124” at HFD Station #24 at Bell and Palmer. This unit rapidly became the busiest HFD ambulance in the city and served the Third Ward area just east and southeast of the downtown area. This was the same area that had been served by the McCoy & Harrison Funeral Home ambulance #1121. Based on the success of 1124, the Houston Fire Department ordered twenty-two additional new “Modulances” on Ford chassis, with and the remainder being delivered in October of 1971. Modulance also built Type 1 Fiberglass body modular bodies mounted on 1971 and 1972 Chevrolet chassis. Two of these units were delivered to the New Orleans Health Corporation (NOHC) (headed by director Al Carlini), which was a Federal funded inner-city clinic based ambulance service that served the areas immediately surrounding the city’s downtown area. Two of these same units were also delivered to the Baton Rouge Ambulance Service, owned by Max Constantine, who was also the Louisiana distributor for MAC. In the early to late 1970s, Acadian Ambulance Service, the nation’s largest rural ambulance provider, purchased dozens of SA-138 Modulances for its fleet which served nineteen parishes in Louisiana. MAC also built the SA-138 model Type 1 “Modulance” on a Chevy or GMC chassis when requested.
As the “Modulance” rapidly gained acceptance and popularity, the Modular Ambulance Corporation then relocated to a larger facility located at 3333 Kiest Boulevard in Dallas. Ken Thompson was the iconic and legendary individual who joined MAC in the late 1960s, and was mainly responsible for the creative genius behind the success of MAC as it grew. Two additional 1972 SA-127 model Type 1 “Modulance” vehicles on a Chevrolet chassis were delivered to the Fort Worth Ambulance Service, which featured the newly introduced Federal “Twinsonic” warning lightbar. The SA-127 had been introduced in 1972 as a more cost-effective option that the SA-138. The 1972 debut of the NBC television’s program “EMERGENCY! featured a “Modulance” SA-138 model, which denoted that it was a 138″ long body. This vehicle was white with a broad orange stripe and had four Federal Model 14 beacons and twin Federal speakers. This vehicle was actually a trade-in from the Fort Worth Ambulance Service.
In April of 1972, the Dallas Fire Department also took over all city-wide ambulance service and ended the involvement of all funeral home and commercial emergency ambulance response. This same year, both the San Antonio and Dallas Fire Departments ordered Type I “Modulances. This was followed by the City of Baltimore, Maryland; the City of East Windsor, New Jersey; and the City of Jacksonville, Florida ordering Type 1 Modulance “SA-138” Ford Ambulances in the early 1970s. In 1972, as the demand for orders grew, Modular Ambulance Corporation had relocated to 18011 Great Southwest Parkway in nearby Grand Prairie, Texas.
During the 1970s, Modular Ambulance Corporation (MAC) built thousands of modular ambulances on both Type 1 truck chassis and van “cut-aways ” as well as earlier “Zephyr 54” Chevy “Suburban” model ambulances and vans. MAC pioneered the “Moduvan” which was a downsized modular ambulance and was more fuel efficient. and the Type II “Vanbulance.” They also built a limited number of “Rescue” ambulance models which featured full accessible exterior compartments for rescue equipment.
The end of the Modular Ambulance Corporation
The Gordon K. Allen Company continued forward as the southwest distributor for the MAC ambulance line and eventually relocated across the street from to 3910 East Overton Rd to gain greater square footage for its ever-expanding Superior line and MAC ambulance distributorship operation. In the early 1980s, the Modular Ambulance Corporation became the Prestige Vehicles Corporation and relocated to a larger facility at 3500 Pioneer Parkway in nearby Arlington. Ken Thompson continued on as the General Manager. By the early 1980s, Modular Ambulance Corporation had ceased to exist but left the EMS industry with its many memorable accomplishments. The Gordon K. Allen Company and Ken Thompson, along with Modular Ambulance Corporation, will long be remembered as great pioneers in the early years of ambulance manufacturing.
Submitted to NEMSM March 2011 by Tom Barlett
National EMS Museum People Files, NEMSM-0003. Gordon K. Allen
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National EMS Museum Resources
NEMSM-0100. James Ward Collection. [Modulance sales brochures]