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Detroit Fire Department's first ambulance on the road again 92 years later

Vehicle purchased at auto show in 1974

DETROIT – Nearly a century after it first cruised the streets of Detroit, the Detroit Fire Department's first ambulance is again on the road.

The ambulance was gifted to the city in 1927 by philanthropist Paxton Mendelssohn. 

The vehicle was a place where doctors could treat everything from burns to broken bones. It was also equipped with a giant coffee urn to provide warm drinks to fire victims.

"It's such a unique piece of Detroit fire history," said Sheryl Fox, retired firefighter and Detroit Fire Department historian. "The coffee wagon part -- it responded to large fires and during that time there wasn't a Salvation Army or Red Cross to come out and provide warm drinks."

The ambulance served its purpose until the 1950s, when it seemed to disappear forever.

But that changed when its rusted corpse showed up at a Pennsylvania car show in 1974. Brant "Doc" Vitek purchased the ambulance for $2,000 with a plan to breathe new life into it.

"For a long time, I didn't think it would happen," he said.

Vitek got to work restoring the vehicle. Much of it is original, including its bumpers, wheels, radiator, fender, headlights and step plate.

"I'll never forget when it first started," said Tom Sweeten, of Sterling Hot Rods. "The smile on his face -- excuse me. I get emotional about it. He was a really happy guy. So was I." 

While it no longer makes runs in Detroit, the vintage vehicle is back to what it once looked like so many decades ago, this time in Sterling, Virginia.

Fox was overcome with happiness when she saw a video of the restoration project.

"I was literally jumping up and down like a kid and so excited," she said.


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