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Last Rides

Reagan_hearseFor most of us, a hearse the last car we'll ever ride in. For a small minority, it's a daily driver. Out of all the strange automotive obsessions we post about here at Car Lust, owning and driving hearses has to be among the oddest--at least at first glance. Well, okay, maybe at second glance, too.

But there is a method to this apparent madness. Hearses appear to be just basic station wagons, albeit with some specialized features not generally found on the family hauler. But this is not really the case. Heareses are very specialized vehicles built and outfitted to perform a very specific function, in a perfectly efficient fashion, at what are very stressful and emotional times for those who must rely on them. Perhaps no other vehicle has been at the center of some of the most profound and saddening moments in peoples' lives ... and simultaneously been the butt of so many jokes.

First let's get the jokes out of the way:

  • No, they don't make His and Hearse models

  • Yes, you can have a bier while driving one

  • Heavy drinkers may or may not put the quart before the hearse

Now that that's out of the way (for now, at least; the very word "hearse" lends itself so easily to a virtually limitless array of puns), we can begin to delve into the weird and wacky world of the hearse enthusiast.

First, as a bit of etymological pedantry, the term hearse derives originally from the old French term herce harrow, which was a framed farm implement holding teeth or tines and used as something like a plow. Middle English later co-opted the shortened form, herse, to refer to a stand that held candles during the Christian Tenebrae service and eventually came to mean a structure that held candles or hangings that were suspended above a coffin. This association with coffins eventually made its way to the modern form, signifying a vehicle forHorse conveying a dead person to the place of burial. Early hearses were horse-drawn affairs, which is why modern hearses are still often referred to as 'coaches'.

The modern motorized hearse has been made in the U.S. since about 1909 and have generally been based on existing luxury cars made by Lincoln and Cadillac. Others have produced funeral coaches, however, such as Henney-Packard (yes, that Packard). European hearses are also made by the European luxury brands: Mercedes-Benz, Jaguar, Austin and even Rolls Royce have made hearses.

Before modern paramedic/EMT services became available in the early 1970s, hearses often doubled as ambulances and transport units for sick or injured patients. Back then, ambulances were primarily used solely to transport the ill and injured to medical professionals rather than the other way around; they generally carried little if any medical or first aid equipment. 

Manufacturers typically produced a special version of an existing chassis, usually including the entire front end, sometimes along with the front doors, and shipped that to coachbuilders to outfit the remainder of the car. The chassis is a stretched and strengthened "commercial" version of a passenger model and is often lower in the rear to support both the added weight and to facilitate loading and unloading of the, err, cargo. Note that this is not a station wagon with some specialized equipment; the chassis is based on an elongated sedan.

MercedesHearse Two styles predominate--the limousine and the landau. The former (image at left) tend to have a lot of glass, allowing a view of the casket during funeral processions. These are more popular in Europe.

The landau is much more common in the U.S. Landaus have a padded leather or vinyl roof with most of the cargo area covered. The windows are usually curtained. Access is gained through the rear, much like a station wagon. These are known as "end servicing" types, but there are also side-loading models, termed, not coincidentally, "side servicing" models. Side loaders are also known as Three-Ways (meaning you can load/unload through the two side doors as well as the rear) which just adds to the linguistic fun. The S-shaped decoration on the side of the landau is meant to mimic the  hinged support of the old horse-drawn hearses.

Since hearses tend to be made for short-haul, relatively sedate driving they don't have a lot of power. For the most part, the engines and transmissions are unchanged from the passenger-car equivalents, but the added weight tends to make these beasts a bit slow on the uptake. Hearses are definitely built for comfort, not speed. Although they often operate 7 days a week, their short haul and low-speed nature tends to preserve them rather well, and hearses can remain in use for years. This also makes collecting good quality hearses fairly easy, since they tend to be exceptionally well-maintained. And since demand for new models is pretty low, they are one of the only true hand-crafted automobiles that can be purchased by nearly anyone. Such craftsmanship and attention to detail is indeed a ... well, a dying art.

Hearse enthusiasts are a small but quirky bunch. They often tend to the Goth side and adorn their vehicles with various o\\death-related oddments. They take their rides seriously, but, almost alwaysCcrp_0603_hers_03_z+hearses+mora playfully. They have drive-ins, conventions, (additional HearseCon video here), and have tried to break into the Guiness Book of World Records by organizing the World's Longest Hearse Procession. Nevertheless, hearse enthusiasts love their cars and will customize them, restore them, drive them, baby them, and lavish as much affection on them as any lover of classic Camaros or Mustangs.

It's easy to make fun of these cars, and doing so is no doubt therapeutic--the whole "whistling past the graveyard" thing (in this case, almost literally). We have a need to make light of that which we will all eventually face, and the accoutrements of the entire ritual revolving around our final passing are ripe for the humorous picking. And that's okay.

Still, these are exceptionally fine automobiles and most often very nearly one of a kind, owing to the quirks of the coachbuilding industry. They've carried presidents, princesses, and your dear old aunt Margaret to their final resting places in grace and style, and we need to thank all of those who keep these cars in prime condition.

--Anthony Cagle


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What?? You didnt even mention the Surfin Hearse? Jan and Dean man!

'They've carried presidents, princesses, and your dear old aunt Margaret to their final resting places in grace and style, and we need to thank all of those who keep these cars in prime condition.'

Anthony, I'd say your final words there are dead-on.

Used hearses are an affordable way to get a real live (no pun intended) hand-built custom bodied (no pun intended) car.

There is a lively club (okay, I did include that pun) for collectors
called the Professional Car Society. It also includes ambulances and flower cars.

It might be fun to collect the ones that took famous people on their last ride. The Cadillac used for JFK in Dallas was up for sale last year (they say the famous Navy grey 64 Pontiac used at Andrews AFB was crushed on the orders of RFK to avoid it becoming a curiousity...rather a waste of tax money, IMHO) and the Rover that transported Churchill was auctioned in England.
Also seen recently in auction reports was a rather macabre child-sized hearse built on a 1920s Studebaker chassis.

Or you could always paint one and turn it into a station wagon.

I've had a fantasy for many years of turning a hearse (Preferably with suicide doors) BACK into a sedan, becoming truly a unique limousine. Everything is there... a name brand, stretched frame, even a high roof usually. Just fabricate a trunk, rear window, back seat, and interior, and you're about there.

Hopefully it would look better than this goofy thing:

Given that most of the fun hearses get single-digit mileage, it should come as no surprise that I'm a big fan. Alas the notion of buying one would have stretched the tolerance of even the most tolerant of my wives.

It's worth mentioning, too, the Jaguar XKE hearse seen in "Harold and Maude" (and, alas, never again, as it was destroyed).

My first experience with these things as private cars was when a couple of friends of a roommate were driving one up to Alaska (stopped in Seattle). Made a nice sort of camper-car, sleeping two comfortably.

We got some looks from neighbors, having a hearse parked in front of the building for a few days. . . . .

Don't forget the Boot Hill Express!

I remember building this model kit as a kid, way back around 1970.

All I have to say is: Don't let your last ride in a car be your first ride in a Cadillac.

Tony Stewart had his 84 Cadillac hearse customized on Unique Whips. The below link focuses on the electronics that went into the car but they gave it some awesome power as well.


For those who've not had the chance to see the quirky "Harold and Maude," here's a shot of the classic Jaguar hearse:

Great soundtrack by Cat Stevens, too :-)

So yeah, i LOVE hearses and will probably end up at that convention one day. dont let your first ride in a hearse be your last.

...and may the Good Lord take a liking to you, but not too soon! --Sammy Davis, Jr., in "The Cannonball Run"

My first experience with a hearse was with the Shriners. We had a 1978 Landau which was dark green metal flake. We installed an air powered calliope in the back with a seat facing backwards. The brass pipes of the calliope were mounted on a steel plate which had garage door rollers on all four corners and those in turn were in garage door tracks which lifted the whole thing up through a sunroof (glass removed) in the roof via cables and a boat winch. I sat in the back during parades and played the calliope. It was lots of fun. During that time I found a hearse club in IPlainfield Illinois (Las Ryds), joined it and showed the hearse with the calliope. (her name was Callie). Now it's gone and I bought my own 1991 cadillac Federal coach. No calliope, but I'm putting in amps and speakers to drive my synthesizer. Tocata and Fugue in D minor, anyone? LOL!

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