St John volunteers’ passion for ambulances

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Amuri St John ambulance volunteers Jeff and Margaret Walker volunteer have two very special vehicles in their care.
They have two rare ambulances among their car collection.
Both ambulances have been converted to campers after being decommissioned, but one has many original features and will be restored as an ambulance.
The youngest vehicle is a 1962 Austin LD5. It was the first to be specifically designed and built as an ambulance for the London Health Board. Prior to this, ambulances were trucks that had been converted.
In New Zealand, each area would source their own trucks and then have them fitted out by local businesses.
Two Austin LD5s were brought to New Zealand for St John in Dunedin. From there on, the New Zealand fleet of purpose built vehicles gradually built up.
With room for just the driver in the front, the LD5 had a four speed gear box and a different rear suspension to the trucks. This made the patient’s ride easier.
Made from fibreglass, the body has survived well.
After it was decommissioned in the 1970s, like most ambulances, it was converted into a camper van.
Finding parts can be tricky, the windscreen particularly. It wraps around towards the front doors and is laminated, so the only way to replace it, is to have one made or try to source one from overseas. Restoration can be a long process.
The other ambulance dates back to 1952. An Austin Sheer Line long nose vehicle, it was also imported from England along with one other that was used by the Christchurch Ambulance service.
With an aluminium body, but wooden framing that has rotted out from leaking, the challenge is restoring the framework. Jeff says the best wood to do this is Southland beech. “It’s the best hard wood, but difficult to find.”
It was also turned into a camper when it’s working life ended, but the person who bought it retained many of the original features, like a built in sink.
The new owner would take it to Rakaia once a year for three months salmon fishing. He would then drive back to Christchurch and put it under cover until the following season.
After he died, it went to live near Oxford, until the Walkers bought it.
This ambulance is thought to be the only one to survive, apart from one in Canada, which has been restored.
As well as the ambulances, the Walkers are building a collection of old equipment, like stretchers, that will eventually go in the restored Sheer Line.
Ambulances are now all built for purpose. Over the years, the make has changed, from Chevrolet to Bedford and Fiat. The latest ambulances in the New Zealand fleet are built by Mercedes and seem to be popular with drivers and paramedics. For smaller jobs, like first aid at events, the Fiat is used and has also gained favour.