GROVE CITY — As recently as the 1970s, an ambulance and a hearse looked almost the same, except for the paint job.
That changed in part because of the work of Horton Emergency Vehicles, a company that helped to develop the van-based ambulance and remains a leading manufacturer of the vehicles.
“Back in the day, the same vehicle picked you up, and whether you went to the funeral home or the hospital depended on the condition,” said Lance Randolph, the company’s vice president and general manager, repeating an old saying in the industry.
Horton has about 450 employees in Grove City and sells to customers across the country. Founded in 1968 by local entrepreneurs, the company is now owned by Rev Group, a Wisconsin-based conglomerate that has more than two dozen RV and emergency-vehicle brands.
In the ambulance market, Horton is on the premium side, with retail prices that usually range from $200,000 to $400,000 for each custom-made vehicle.
“If you look up and down the streets, the majority of the trucks running around Franklin County are Horton,” said Bill Griffith, captain of the Columbus Division of Fire office that handles purchasing.
Columbus was an early customer, buying its first Horton model in 1969, Griffith said. Today, Columbus has about 60 Horton ambulances, including nearly all of its regular fleet.
“The number-one thing is they’re local,” Griffith said. “They’re a lot easier for us to deal with.”
Columbus officials have a short trip for repairs or to take delivery, while counterparts in other states make long trips for the same reasons.
On a recent afternoon, the deputy fire chief of Tempe, Arizona, was on the factory floor in Grove City to look at a model being completed.
The company sold its vehicles to agencies in 38 states last year and has the capacity to build about 500 vehicles per year.
“The thing you won’t see is robots,” said Randolph as he led a tour of the floor.
Indeed, most tasks are performed by people using basic tools and machines. Workers begin with sheets of aluminum. They cut, bend, weld and fasten the metal to form the outer box of the ambulances.
Horton places the box on a chassis that it buys from vendors such as Ford, General Motors or Freightliner. The chassis include the tires, axles, engine, transmission and cab.
Many employees are dressed in shirts that bear the company’s motto: “No compromise.” It’s a reminder to all that there is no room for error in…