The thrill of the ambulance chase
When Chas Martin joined the Victorian Civil Ambulance Service in 1962, there were just 28 ambulances on the streets on Melbourne. Mind you, the last horse-drawn ambulances had only been withdrawn from service in 1925, and the first radios were fitted to cars as late as 1944.
Apart from some time in the communications room, Chas spent his entire 40 years in the service out on the road; he estimates he did around 60,000 individual journeys. So you’d think perhaps he’d have had enough of ambulances.
Actually, no. After retiring from the service in 2002, Chas tried his hand at caravanning but “got sick of it”. And the old bonds were too strong to break.
“A few of us had old ambulances and equipment dotted around Melbourne, and we saw a need to preserve it all and show it to the public to remind them how things once were,” Chas says.
By 2005, Chas and his team (through Ambulance Victoria which owns all the vehicles and displays) had managed to acquire a factory in Thomastown, and in 2007 the Ambulance Museum Victoria was opened. “Even though it’s listed on Ambulance Victoria’s records as a storeroom,” Chas laughs.
The museum has about 20 ambulances, ranging from a 1916 Talbot and a 1927 Nash up to the modern-day equivalents and everything in between. It also houses a huge range of equipment, uniforms and memorabilia, as well as human-powered wheeled carts that were the first form of dedicated patient transport in Victoria. When not on display at the museum, the ambulances are often used for TV shows and movies needing period-correct vehicles.
Chas is the museum’s co-ordinator and still chases collectible ambulances around the country.
“The last one was a 1961 Studebaker that I picked up from Brisbane. It was an ex-Sale (Gippsland) car and it had been bought by a Studebaker fanatic. We managed to scrape together the money to buy it and I flew up to drive it back to Melbourne. It drives beautifully. A few years back I also drove home a 1961 Chrysler Royal ambulance from Tasmania. That one took me three or four years to do up.”
The sheer number of missions Chas and officers like him carried out in the day seems high, but he explains: “These days it’s all emergency work. Back then it was all sorts of jobs … you got to know Melbourne pretty well.”
He still has the emergency worker’s gritty sense of humour. “It’s dangerous work out there in the traffic. I had a big crash one day years ago in St Kilda. I got hit amidships by a drunk driver. I had a patient on board, too. Nearly killed her. She’d already had a stroke, so she wasn’t having the best of days.”
The museum is at 3 Merchant Ave, Thomastown. It’s open by appointment for car clubs and groups. Call 9761 3607 or 0428 813 385.