Automotive History: A Tale of Two White Wagons

Two wagons f-horz 2

There were those who considered Vernon O’Neal a cumbersome and plodding businessman; far more people admired his Texas pluck, which manifested itself in his cheeky exuberance to shake things up. His instincts had paid off quite well; he owned the biggest-by-volume mortuary/ambulance service in the city, which included an all-white fleet of professional vehicles–white, since he believed that while death should be treated seriously, it should not be thought of as something depressing. His newest vehicular acquisition was an Aspen White 1964 Miller-Meteor Cadillac hearse, purchased just three months earlier at a national funeral directors’ convention in Dallas.

Cadillac 1964 Miller Meteor Hearse Kennedy_l

It was a stately presence, based on the code 6890 commercial chassis that underpinned most contemporary ambulances, hearses and other professional cars. One of 2,527 produced that year, it was whisked off to Miller-Meteor, in Piqua, Ohio, for funeral coach conversion. It would be hard to imagine another vehicle better suited to its intended mission.

The 1964 Cadillacs, only slightly changed from their 1963 predecessors, enjoyed credibility that was not to be found in contemporary Lincolns and Imperials: This is a legitimate luxury car, dignified and substantial in every detail, and thus the equal of every other such vehicle in the world. The design was pure Bill Mitchell–an impossibly masterful combination of knife-edges and soft curves all falling together in precisely the right places. What made Mitchell’s designs unique was that the finished product looked so natural, so effortlessly right–a fact that belied the intense thinking-through of even the smallest design details.

Cadillac 1964 grille

The fine horizontal grille bars, for example, were set an the angle that reflected the maximum amount of light for a jewel-like appearance. There were fins, naturally, but just tall enough to impart a crispness and motion to the overall design.

Cadillac 1964 dash

Inside, the driver faced an equally well-considered instrument panel that, despite a copious amount of brightwork, was remarkably simple and functional. Two chrome-ringed pods defined a control center that included a speedometer, gauges, radio and something new for 1964: a thermostat and controls for an automatic climate control system. The finishing touch was a curiously delicate two-spoke steering wheel with an elegantly weighted dial at the top of the column that unlocked its telescoping adjustment.

Underhood was Cadillac’s new 429 CID (7.0 L) V8, mated to a Turbo Hydra-Matic transmission. With 340 horsepower and 480 lb-ft of torque, it was, pardon the expression, overkill, with far more than enough power to motivate a fully loaded funeral coach to speeds that seldom exceeded 40 mph.

 

1964 Cadillac Prestige-17-18

Cadillac at the time owned the U.S. luxury car market. More than 165,900 Cadillac models would ultimately be produced for model year 1964, vs. just over 36,000 Lincoln Continentals and some 23,300 Imperials. The DeVille series, comprising four- and six-window hardtop sedans and a hardtop coupe, was the volume leader. The entry-level Cadillac–if one could call it that–was the  Series 62, available as a pillarless coupe and a six-window hardtop sedan. Topping the Cadillac range was the Fleetwood series, which included the Eldorado convertible, 60 Special sedan, the Series 75 sedan and limousine and the aforementioned commercial chassis.

Ford 1960 Starliner

Unlike the 1964 Cadillacs, the 1962 Fords had been significantly restyled from their immediate predecessors. Ford’s 1960 attempt at “batwing” styling (on left above)–clearly a response to Chevrolet’s 1959 styling–had been wildly unsuccessful, so much so that many Ford stylists denied responsibility for the production design. Unlike Chevy’s go-for-broke horizontal fins, the Fords’ fins seemed a half-hearted, play-it-both-ways effort that in rear view looked a bit like floppy terrier ears. looked  Indeed, it would be years later before stylist Joe Oros owned up, and many more years for the 1960s, particularly Starliners and Sunliners, to became genuine collector cars.

Not surprisingly, the 1961 Fords (on right above) dialed things back a bit with less radical styling and short, slightly canted vertical fins.

Galaxie1rear

Sales rebounded, and Ford had learned its lesson: for 1962, Ford styling was linear and conservative to the point of anonymity, with rear fenders that (probably coincidentally) sloped at the same downward angle as GM’s ’62 full-size Chevrolets and Buicks.

Ford 1962 Ranch wagon br

In the 1962 Ford lineup, the Ranch Wagon was analogous to the base model Galaxie. Available as a two-door sedan and a four-door sedan, the Galaxie sold almost as many units of each as the Galaxie 500, despite an MSRP only $160 less than its flossier stablemate. Buyers not fond of B-pillars would have to move up to the Galaxie 500 Victoria or Victoria XL hardtop sedans or coupes, while sun lovers could choose between Sunliner and Sunliner XL convertibles.

Naturally, there were wagon equivalents to the upscale models; the Country Sedan corresponded to the Galaxie 500, while the top-of-the-line wagon, the Country Squire, boasted Victoria trim and appointments. Oddly, the new-for 1962 intermediate Fairlane series did not offer a station wagon; buyers desiring something smaller than the big Ford wagons had to choose from the Falcon range.

 

Oswald-Ambulance

Also part of O’Neal’s fleet was vehicle # 605, a Corinthian White 1962 Ford Ranch Wagon. One of 33,674 produced and as plain as its Cadillac garage mate was grand, it was used primarily for ambulance duty but also served as a first-call vehicle used for transporting bodies to the mortuary from the place of death. Today it probably seems strange that many funeral homes operated the only ambulance service available–there was, to put it quite cynically, no real incentive to transport the injured quickly–but that was the case, especially in rural areas and smaller towns.

Under the Ranch Wagon’s plebian hood rested a 292 CID, Y-block V8–the same base V8 that powered the dressier Galaxie 500. Mated to a 3-speed Cruise-O-Matic transmission, it developed 170 horsepower. An automatic transmission, power steering and power brakes were among the very few options on this particular Ranch Wagon. There was no carpeting; only textured rubber mats separated the metal floor pan from the soles of the passengers’ shoes. The only audio system to be found was the emergency scanner/two-way radio that monitored police and fire calls. Neither air conditioning nor tinted glass protected its occupants from the brutal Texas sun.

Cadillac 1964 hearse kennedy int

It was a sunny Friday afternoon when O’Neal got the call. “This is agent Clinton Hill of the United States Secret Service, and this is a legitimate call.” O’Neal never doubted it. “I want you to load the best casket you’ve got into your best hearse and bring it over to Parkland Hospital ASAP.” Oneal instinctively selected the Elgin Casket Company’s Brittania model, a solid bronze affair weighing some 800 pounds. Unable to load it by himself, O’Neal was forced to wait until several of his employees returned from lunch before the casket could be lifted into the Cadillac’s white and turquoise interior.

Two days later, the same phone rang. This time, it was the Dallas police frantically demanding an ambulance be sent to police headquarters. This time, it was the Ranch Wagon’s brief turn in history.  A worn gurney was hustled aboard, and the Ranch Wagon sped away.

Two vehicles, two missions. One carried a slain president to his final flight to Washington; the other, his dying assassin. On the next work day, Tuesday, November 26, 1963, both vehicles were washed and then returned to the garage, waiting for their next assignment.