Like many remodelers I've worked from a variety of vehicles—all used when I got them. I started out with a 1/2-ton Chevy pickup and went from there to a Chevy 20 series van and then later to a Ford Econoline panel van. After the panel van I wanted something bigger so I bought a used "short" school bus, a '92 E350 with single rear wheels. The bus lasted 6 years and when it was time to replace the thing I decided I wanted something more versatile and was considering buying new.
I looked at extended vans like the Sprinter, and every conceivable configuration of service bodies on one-ton chassis. But the cost of these vehicles was shockingly high, even without a complete fit-out, and with my wife expecting twins I decided it was not the time to buy new. A short time later I saw a locksmith drive by in a retired ambulance and that gave me the idea for my next work vehicle.
After fruitlessly searching on auction sites like eBay I found a website called ambulancetrader.com. There were several listing relatively nearby but none of them panned out. Then I found a unit for sale in NYC, a 1993 E-350 SuperDuty Ford van with a 7.3L normally aspirated diesel engine. It was owned by a crane operator and had most recently been used as a mobile office and rigging supply truck (he had three). I bought it from him for $1,800.
For me, the main attraction of a used ambulance was all the exterior accessible storage in the box, or "module". One of the compartments is large enough to fit my job site table saw and accessories—at a height where the saw was easy to lift. All the compartments are double weather stripped, illuminated and lockable. And the box is aluminum with stainless steel hardware so it won't rot out like a service body.
The interior of the module has 6'-0" of headroom and all kinds of built-in storage cabinets. Between the cabinets is a clear floor area 50" wide by 12' long. I can get a 24' extension ladder inside with the doors closed—or 18' trim if I'm willing to run it between the seats of the cab. A built-in 1500-watt inverter powers three 110-volt receptacles.
The vehicle required little in the way of conversion. By law the sirens had to be disconnected and the ambulance markings removed. Fortunately, the markings were decals and came off easily. If you swap out the strobe lenses for amber colored ones you can use the strobes for towing and/or blocking traffic in the normal course of work. They have to be amber; anything else can be construed as "impersonating a first response vehicle". Blue denotes volunteer fire or EMS, red/white/blue is for ambulance or police, and red/white is for fire.
In addition to strobes the exterior is equipped with scene lights that can provide 360 degrees of illumination around the vehicle. The scene lights are particularly handy early and late on short winter days.
The ambulance had 97k on the clock when I bought it. In the six year's I've owned it the only major repairs it required were a new transmission and injector hoses. I upgraded the rear springs to increase the ride height and load capacity—but that was by choice. Everything else that has been done to the ambulance falls into the category of normal repairs: brakes, tires, battery, and regular maintenance. I spend about $2,000 per year to repair and maintain the vehicle, which is extremely reasonable given the age and $1,800 price tag of the van.
It has a gross weight of about 13,000 pounds and gets 10-11 miles per gallon. Where I live, in Connecticut, the ambulance is deemed a combination vehicle so commercial registration is not required. I spend $100 per year for registration and $400 per year for insurance.
Ambulances are not hard to find once you know where to look. They are categorized as follows:
Type I is pick up chassis based, dual rear wheels and can be 4WD
Type II is a modified van, usually just the top popped up
Type III is van cutaway chassis with dual rear wheels, what I have.
Mini Mods are same as type III, but with single rear wheels and a little narrower
Medium Duty is a truck chassis (International, etc.) and a bit bigger
These vehicles are typically very well-maintained; they have to be because lives depend on it.
Low mileage usually indicates use by a fire department, while higher mileage indicates a transfer vehicle used mostly on the highway. Brand new ambulances sell for well over $100k. But by the time those vehicles are 10 years old they can be gotten for $8-10k.