Q&A with Peter Adsten

Crestline: Building World Class Ambulances is a one-of-a-kind photographic journey through the history of ambulances from 1967 until 2004


Crestline: Building World Class Ambulances is a one-of-a-kind photographic journey through the history of ambulances from 1967 until 2004.

Author Peter Adsten effectively combines words and photos to tell the story of his working career, first as an EMT and then as an ambulance manufacturer in the province of Saskatchewan.

Following his retirement in 2004, Adsten began the long process of researching photo archives and scanning 17,000 Crestline and Ambucraft photos, the best of which are included in his book. The final product contains 336 pages and 560 photos, most of them in color. Adsten has also collected 10,000 old ambulance photos from private collectors and from archives throughout Canada, and encourages readers with old photos to send them to him for his website EMSclassics.com. All proceeds from sales of the book are donated to the Paramedic Association of Canada Benevolent Society.

Why did you write this book?

It was important to me to make a record of who we are, what we did and why we did it. I thought that other than my own family and friends, perhaps others in the EMS industry might be interested in our history, and this is what developed.

You obviously had a good store of photos and information.

Yes, I was fortunate that way. We took a photo almost every time a customer came in to pick up a vehicle we had manufactured, and most of those pictures are still available. I could have written the story without pictures, but I personally like to have pictures as well as the description. The first chapter is the history of when I worked as an EMT for private ambulance services, where we were using Cadillac-type ambulances that kids today call "ghostbusters." The rest of the book chronicles how the ambulances started out as vans with just a few modifications, then vans with a raised roof, and finally the modular ambulances that became dominant and remain so today. So, it traces the transition period when North American-made ambulances went from car-based to van- or truck-based vehicles.

You began work as an EMT. Why did you move from that into manufacturing?

When we had our own ambulance service, we felt a need for a larger vehicle than the car ambulances we were using. We needed more storage space for all the new medical equipment that was being invented, and we needed more room inside the vehicle. During those years, Ford, Dodge and GM all made van ambulances, but they were tiny and didn't have many creature comforts. Then during the late 1970s they suddenly started producing vans that were larger and included air-conditioning, cruise control, comfortable captain chairs and a large fuel tank--all the things that made the van more acceptable. At first, we built two vehicles for our own use. In Canada, by the time you added the duty, currency conversion, federal sales tax and transportation, the Cadillac ambulances that we imported from the United States were very expensive, and we could see we could save a lot of money by building them ourselves. I was a carpenter and my business partner, Ken Sawatsky, was an electrician and was mechanical, and we did our best. They weren't all that great, but they served a purpose and saved us a lot of money.

Were there certain standards that you had to follow?

No. In both Canada and the United States there were absolutely no requirements for performance testing or engineering, so there was an explosion of ambulance manufacturers throughout North America and Canada. Anybody could go to the local dealer and purchase a van that was very well-suited to conversion. Some built good quality and some were in terrible condition. Soon after that happened, many of the traditional car ambulance manufacturers like Superior and Miller Meteor went bankrupt and lost their business or closed.

You published the book yourself. What kind of promotion do you do, and what response have you had?

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