Ecto-1 and the Working Cadillac

Brendan McAleer
by Brendan McAleer

You have to hand it to Lego: years after the patents on their plastic interlocking bricks expired, the company has become expert in parting kids of all ages from their cash. The Lego Movie, a concept that would have boggled the mind of any child of the ’80s, is a certified blockbuster. The Lego Harry Potter and Lego Star Wars video games – that’s a game of a toy of a movie, if you’re counting – are best-sellers across multiple platforms.

Now there’s this, an assemblage of beige-overalled 1980s misfits rendered in blocky, multi-part format, ready to do battle with spectres while making off-the-cuff quips. Talk about shut up and take my money: the Lego Ghostbusters set is relatively affordable, at just under fifty bucks, and is everything you were hoping for. By June, thousands of them should be parked proudly on the desks of all kinds of dudes who are far too old for this sort of thing. I’ve already cleared a space on mine.

The centrepiece of the set, aside from minifig versions of Venkman, Stantz, Zeddemore, and Spengler, is the gloriously recreated Ectomobile – Ecto 1. Thirty years ago this year, the white and red original burst on-screen, sirens blaring.

As a fit for the role, the Cadillac might have been an even better casting choice than Bill Murray as Venkman. When there’s something strange in your neighbourhood, you know who you’re gonna call.

Before Hollywood got hold of it, Ecto-1 started life as a 1959 Cadillac Miller-Meteor Futura Duplex. The Futura designation indicates that it had limousine windows rather than a landau top, and the Duplex that the car could be used as both an ambulance and a hearse. Technically, I suppose the Ectomobile could be called a Triplex in that it could ferry you to hospital with a minor cough, take your corpse to the cemetery after some careless orderly put an air bubble in your IV, and then bust a proton-pack cap in yo’ ass after you returned from beyond the grave to haunt the intensive care ward.

Much like the Armoured Rolls-Royce’s underpinnings, Cadillac once supplied a bare chassis for custom coachwork, available through their commercial division. Essentially a strengthened Series 355 frame, the 390 V8-powered chassis was bare of bodywork except for the front clip, and might include optional extras like air-conditioning and air suspension. Most were considerably lower in the rear than the civilian versions, making for a lower load height.

Companies such as Superior, Eureka, and the aforementioned Miller-Meteor took this bare frame and created ambulances, hearses, a very rare vehicle called a flower car (used for transporting floral arrangements), and stretch limousines. Quarter-panels and other signature Cadillac bodywork would often be supplied along with the bare essentials, but the coachwork usually involved customized doors, windshields, a heightened roof, and unique details like curved glass in the rear for a better view of the casket.

While a lucrative business for Caddy in the 50s, 60s, and 70s, these professional vehicles weren’t all that common. In 1959, just 2102 chassis were made, the lion’s share going to the Miller-Meteor company in Ohio. Divided again between ambulance, limousine, dual-purpose and the odd flower car or two, not many more than several hundred Futura Duplexes were made in total. Stringent EMS regulations introduced in the late 1970s would eventually force the change to van-based ambulances – the last Cadillac commercial chassis was delivered to Miller-Meteor in 1976.

By comparison, the similarly iconic DeLorean DMC-12 of the Back To The Future trilogy is relatively commonplace, with somewhere in the neighbourhood of 9,000 cars made between 1983-84. The bullet-shaped tail-lights and the quad foglights of the ’59 Caddy are a one-year oddity.

Thus, there was only ever one Ecto-1. Where the set designers got the car from isn’t clear, but the news that it was originally brown will certainly please Style Editor Sajeev Mehta to no end. While versions of the script as late as 1983 indicated the Ectomobile should be a 1975 Excelsior ambulance, drawings commissioned by Dan Ackroyd for his original screenplay seem to show a much earlier car.

At any rate, the ’59 Miller-Meteor got the part, and was transformed into a screen legend first by concepts drawn up by John Daveikis, and then more properly realized by Steven Dane, credited as a hardware consultant. Dane also fabricated up early models of the proton packs you probably tried to make as part of your Hallowe’en costume in 1984.

Two cars were used in the film, the first an ex-fire-department ambulance that was rented by Sony Pictures to portray the black-primered “before” car that Ray Stantz so proudly pulls into the firehouse, “Everybody can relax, I found the car. Needs some suspension work and shocks. Brakes, brake pads, lining, steering box, transmission, rear-end…”

All that for just $4800. Well, it did need rings, mufflers, a little wiring – point is, the fictional Ray Stantz got a heck of a deal on an extremely rare machine. Thanks to the work of the non-fictional Steven Dane, the slightly-beat Desert Rose Caddy ambulance that was actually purchased by Sony was transformed inside and out into an iconic bustin’ machine.

In the mind of Dan Ackroyd, Ecto-1 should have been more ghostly hearse than ambulance – painted a menacing all-black with purple underglow and sirens. Fortunately, since so much of the film was to be shot at night, the car donned the red and white livery we all know so well. The Ferno-Washington gurney held the proton-packs, and a series of avionics gauges were fabbed up into spirit containment devices and ghost detectors.

It was a hell of a machine. Nearly twenty-one feet long, eight feet high and nearly seven feet wide, Ecto-1 weighed nearly three and a half tonnes. Sure, the V8 cranked out 325hp, but the floaty suspension and mausoleum curb-weight blunted performance somewhat. Blunted? Sorry, I mean slimed.

After the movie, Sony ended up buying the primered car as well, and using it as a promotional vehicle. George Barris, famous for any number of other famous movie and TV cars, made another Ecto-1 out of it, and it eventually passed into private hands. Among other differences from the original, the promotional car has a red interior rather than black.

Another car was used as a rolling feature at Universal Studios, and Ghostbusters II featured Ecto-1a, an “upgraded” version of the original. Any number of replicas have followed, many of them based off of Superior and Eureka ambulances.

The appeal of the Ecto-1 has been something of a double-edged sword in the view of Professional Car enthusiasts. While some far-gone ambulances and hearses have been pulled back from the brink by movie enthusiasts, the rarity of the standard cars might well have been increased by Ecto-1 replicas made out of hard-to-find ’59 Miller-Meteors.

It’s not like movie star status did anything for the original. Left outside for nearly two decades in the Sony Pictures backlot, Ecto-1 was weathered and brutalized by the years. Eventually, right around the 25th anniversary of Ghostbusters, the car would be sent to Cinema Vehicle Services of North Hollywood for a full restoration. The Ectomobile was stripped down to the bare bones and built up again. Even after the renovations, it spent another five years baking in the California sun on the backlot. Ecto-1a is a ruin after the same sort of shabby treatment.

For those of us who remember Ghostbusters from the complete first picture, the idea that a trilogy might be on the horizon is both exciting and terrifying. Think of just how bad the fourth Indiana Jones movie was, as best represented by the car-chase that destroyed the warehouse seen at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark – a childhood memory sacrificed to CGI nonsense.

But Ecto-1 (apart from the siren) was never purely about movie magic. It’s an antiquated rolling piece of American automotive history given new life by a mortgaged-to-the-hilt gearhead Ghostbuster; an unlikely, outdated rescue vehicle suddenly imbued with silver screen immortality.

It is, funnily enough, a dead car resurrected by a movie franchise that ran on putting down spirits who wouldn’t remain deceased. To end with a quote from Dr. Peter Venkman, “Generally, you don’t see that kind of behaviour in a major appliance.”

Brendan McAleer
Brendan McAleer

More by Brendan McAleer

Join the conversation
2 of 29 comments
  • Sector 5 Sector 5 on Feb 01, 2015

    Kids will want Jurassic World Lego this June. Got 1:18 Chicago Fire ambulance. 59 Crown Royale. Impressive model. Maker a victim of the GFC. No hearse for me. They can centrifuge & flush. Don't want to hold up the traffic.

  • VolandoBajo VolandoBajo on Jun 19, 2015

    Loved Legos, especially when my son got into them. He built a few models, then began modding and morphing things into other variations. When he was in first grade, there was a statewide building competition for young kids, sponsored by an association to promote women in construction. Kids got a sandwich bag of Legos, a small rock, a piece of tinfoil and some string, and had to come up with a design using some or all of the components. Given that he went the year after 9/11, and decided to build a hidden underground command post, complete with a rope ladder, Lego walls and an aluminum foil roof. Compared to patios, carports, and the like, his was a shoe-in. There is a remarkably close replica of the Ecto at a business near the Wegman's grocery story in Cherry Hill NJ. You'd practically have to blueprint it to find discrepancies. Did a double take the first time I saw it. Think is's for an exterminator. And making a slight turn down another path, one of my best friends in HS weighed upwards of 300 lbs. His father bought him a retired funeral parlor Cadillac that seated several adults. On HS Dress Up Fridays, once a month, our whole HS engineering and tech club would all dress in black suits and ride in the Cadillac. One of us also carried a violin case, though it actually had a violin in it. Of course, even pre-Godfather, our set's nickname was "the Mafia". Nothing like one of those Barris era Cadillacs, in whatever state of trim, to get admiring looks from people on the streets.

  • CKNSLS Sierra SLT I am thankful for those who have served/and serve this country to protect our freedoms.The "usual suspects" are quiet.......
  • KevinB Hemmings ran an article on the 1960 Cadillac Series 62 grille and its complexity. It took a lot of work.
  • Kwik_Shift_Pro4X Now going for $7000.
  • SCE to AUX Working on a deck project. Also replaced the A/C compressor in a Subaru.
  • A I have a project 87 or 88, don't have the year in front of me. Tranny was starting to slip when my daughter drove it, original tranny so it's likely the rubber seals are failing. I had a backup tranny so i disassembled it to see what kind of shape it was in. I did see it needs all the rubber seals, hard parts are all good. So a basic rebuild kit should fix it. The reason she stopped driving it was because she heard a slight engine knock. So both engine and tranny likely will need a rebuild. We are from Wisconsin but only rarely driven in snow, underside looks solid and a bit of surface rust here and there. Some fading from the sun.She has decided to let it go now that ahe is a mother and no air bags. This car is fun to drive but at my age i don't need another project. Will send pictures if anyone is interested, I will let it go at junk price, just would rather see it fixed and driven then crushed and melted down.Contact info