Susanne Ottendorfer, MD, BBA, and her husband, Siegfried “Sigi” Weinert, MSc, EMT-I, exhibit their 30-year passion for EMS by serving with the Austrian Red Cross, the main EMS provider in Austria, as well as on an EMS response car in Moedling, a district close to Vienna, Austria. But their relationship and passion for EMS goes much deeper: They also own the largest EMS toy collection in the world.
Susanne is an emergency physician and heads the prehospital EMS department at the county hospital in Moedling. She also serves as the medical director of 144 Notruf Niederösterreich, the government-owned dispatch center for the state of Lower Austria.
Sigi is a fulltime employee at 144 Notruf Niederösterreich, working in the back office and serving as a volunteer paramedic on an EMS response car. He was also the acting president of the Austrian Paramedic Association, which provides advanced medical life support, prehospital trauma life support and emergency pediatric care in Austria.
HOW THE COLLECTION STARTED
When Sigi married Susanne 15 years ago, he brought a small collection of ambulance models as a dowry for their marriage. After a few years, Susanne started her own toy collection. “From that point on we had two collections growing in our family, Sigi said.
Their collection has grown into a competition of sorts over the years, as they searched toy shops, flea markets, toy shows and other locations for toys and collectibles. “Whoever saw the item first was in charge of buying it and placing it into their collection,” Sigi said.
Susanne initially parked the models she bought in her office at the hospital, and Sigi kept his collection on a shelf at home.
“When people accompanied by their children visited my office, I usually had to pay more attention to the kids, who were fascinated by the small toy ambulances, than to their parents. But I often saw a sparkle in the eyes of adults when they admired the collection as well,” Susanne remembers early in the development of her collection.
Siegfried “Sigi” Weinert and Susanne Ottendorfer’s collection of ambulances include collectibles from around the world.
Eventually, Sigi and Susanne had to move their collections from their respective shelves and combine them in one, large area.
However, after years of friendly competition, Sigi and Susanne realized they were running out of space to store their priceless collectibles. Sigi’s collection had outgrown his shelf at home and Susanne’s hospital was being rebuilt, requiring her to move into a small container office.
Because the temporary space was so small, Susanne wasn’t able to take her collection with her. She and Sigi decided the time had come to combine their collections. “Our friends said, ‘Now you’ve truly consummated your marriage,’” Siegfried said.
Since then, their collection has grown to include more than 12,700 pieces, earning them a spot in the Guinness Book of World Records. And it continues to grow, with new models being added from all over the world and meticulously catalogued.
“We have models from as far away as Argentina, New Zealand and Mexico,” Susanne said. “I’m thrilled with every new addition we make to our collection, but there are highlights. I like pink very much, and when I find a pink plush ambulance, I’m delighted.”
Currently with almost 13,000 pieces and growing, Sigi and Susanne hold the record for largest collection of model ambulances.
Their collection covers a wide range of toy-making history. The oldest items date back to 1895. These “penny toys,” made in Nuremberg, Germany, are very rare and have survived through two world wars. The massive collection also includes some very unusual ambulance items, like a Japanese space age ambulance model (see top photo), slippers shaped like an ambulance, an ambulance soap dispenser, a bird house, salt and pepper shakers, and even a whiskey bottle.
Containing pieces from as far back as the 1800s, Sigi and Susanne’s collection holds some very rare finds.
Sigi and Susanne search toy stores and flea markets to find truly vintage ambulance models.
Sigi and Susanne continue to search for new additions to their collection whenever they’re traveling.
Susanne and Sigi share four big passions in life: Collecting ambulances, delivering EMS to those in need, visiting Disney theme parks and traveling all over the world. While traveling in foreign countries and cities, the couple is always prepared for ambulance hunting. Weeks before traveling, they research local toy shops or flea markets in the area they’ll be visiting. They then develop a plan and routes to follow in order to visit as many shops as possible, hoping to find items not yet in their collection. And with nearly 13,000 pieces, that’s nearly impossible.
Among some of the weird ambulance models in the collection are an ambulance birdhouse (top) and whiskey bottle (bottom).
“We were on a trip in Malta with our son, who was in junior high school at the time. We found a lot of toy stores and a huge flea market there, so we ended up purchasing a lot of ambulances; so many that they filled an entire suitcase. At customs, they made us open the suitcase and when they saw all the toys and model ambulances, they assumed they were for our son. When we said, ‘No, these are for us,’ they looked at us like we were crazy people and just said, ‘Go. Close the suitcase, and just go,’” Susanne recalled.
Every year, they make their annual pilgrimage to the Chicago Toy Show, perhaps the biggest event for antique toys in the U.S.
Some of the models in the collection are highly detailed, down to the last patient compartment accessory.
Space in their basement is becoming increasingly limited by the day, so Susanne and Sigi are thinking about a bigger location. “We think it’d be worth putting them in a big museum, so visitors can view each item separately,” Susanne said.
But beware: Only looking a second on each item would take nearly four hours to go through their entire collection. And a second isn’t nearly enough time to appreciate the many models. Sigi said if you were to put the models bumper to bumper, you’d have to walk more than a mile to see them all.
“Some people spend their money for a ‘shrink,’ we have a collection that helps us relax and re-energize,” he said.