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Posted: 10/30/13

CREEPY COLLECTION. Romeo resident Jim Vowell is pictured in front of his 1971 Cadillac combination coach. He said that although the car can be equally converted to a hearse, he usually displays it as an ambulance. "People are more likely to walk up and look in when it looks like an ambulance," Vowell said. "Some people are just creeped out by a hearse. I guess I can't blame them." Vowell has a collection of five classic ambulances and one limousine. He also restores vintage sirens and beacon lights for other collectors.

(Observer photo by Debi Martone)

Local man's collection of old ambulances gets him into the Halloween spirit

Observer Special Writer
      People turn their heads to take a second look when Jim Vowell drives by.
       He especially gets attention when he has a skeleton as a passenger in the front seat and is transporting a casket in the back.
       Vowell isn't an undertaker or funeral director, although he sometimes drives a hearse. And even though the Romeo resident is a fireman and paramedic by trade, the ambulances Vowell sometimes drives aren't used to carry patients. Not real patients anyway.
       When he isn't transporting actual patients in a Bruce Township ambulance, occasionally Vowell can instead be spotted driving through town in one of the six classic automobiles in his collection<a 1971 Oldsmobile hightop ambulance, a 1971 Cadillac M-M Volunteer hightop ambulance, a 1964 Oldsmobile Vista Cruiser Amblewagon, a 1971 Cadillac combination coach, and a 1965 Pontiac Sedambulance. He also owns a 1989 Lincoln Limousine.
       "I'd like to say my cars keep me out of trouble. I'd also like to say they keep me off the streets," Vowell said. "But they don't. I like to drive my cars."
       Some of the trouble, or more or less fun, that Vowell has with his cars is surprising someone on their 40th birthday by showing up in his combination coach with a license plate that reads, "w8in4u," or adding things, such as passenger dummies, to attract attention from people on the roads.
       "I definitely get strange looks," he said. "And I'd be a rich man if I had a nickel for every time I've heard a phrase from Ghostbusters, like, `who you gonna call?'"
       On one occasion, Vowell attracted attention from a police officer when the timing didn't exactly make the situation very amusing<at least until the police officer drove away.
       "When I bought my combination coach and was bringing it home, I didn't have a valid license plate on it. So here I am, driving out of Illinois with an illegal license plate, a stretcher in the back, a light on the top, ambulance signs in the window, and a trooper comes up behind me. So I was thinking, `oh boy, I am going to get a huge ticket,'" Vowell shared. "So I slowed down while the trooper moved from behind me to riding alongside me down the highway. I was really nervous. He was driving next to me for quite some time. Then the trooper gave me a wave and drove off. He was obviously just checking out my car."
       With 34 combined years of experience as a fireman and paramedic, Vowell's interest in old-style ambulances began in the 1980s. He started his collection in 2000 and can tell car enthusiasts and gawkers alike about the significance of each one.
       For instance, Vowell said cars like his 1965 Sedambulance were used in wealthy areas or where celebrities lived, since they can be converted from a limousine to an ambulance and not draw attention to the person inside.
       "If a celebrity was being transported to or from the hospital, or rehab, nobody would notice or pay attention because they see limos all the time in the area," he said.
       Vowell said his combination coach can be converted from an ambulance to a hearse with a few, easily made adjustments to the rollers inside.
       "The only person who used to have a car big enough to take anyone to the hospital was the undertaker," Vowell said. "So they used it for whatever was needed."
       According to Vowell, the older ambulances have a faster and smoother ride than the trucks that are used today. However, the lack of room for attendants and equipment made for tense and time-sensitive trips to the hospital.
       "Kids will look in and ask me, `where did you put stuff?' I tell them the only equipment they used was gas<gas for a fast ride to the hospital," Vowell said. "And these cars do go fast."
       Vowell shares his stories, and his cars, at shows and events all over Michigan, as well as in other states. A movie production company in Detroit has asked to use one of his cars, and rumor has it that his 1989 limo was used in a Miley Cyrus music video, although that was before he owned it.
       "When I saw the video I knew it was that car," he said. "I don't have a certificate of authenticity to prove it though," he added with a laugh.
       Locally, however, Vowell's cars are most known for being part of the Halloween displays on Tillson Street for the last six years, particularly at the home of Mike and Charlotte Ponke.
       For the first three years that he lived just a street away, Vowell said he didn't even know all of the decorating and events on Tillson Street existed.
       "I used to drive one of my cars to Florida in the fall, so I was gone at this time," Vowell said.
       Although some think his collection is a bit macabre, Vowell said he enjoys having something unique to add to the Tillson Street exhibits.
       "I always loved Halloween. But now I have a really good time with it," he said.

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