It’s hard to argue that these are not the glory days for many types of cars. Muscle and sports cars? Crazy capable trucks? Mindbogglingly fast and smooth grand tourers? Salad days for sure. But what about hearses? We’ll look at this question with an overview of the current new offerings in the North American funeral car market and see what you all think. For people like me with a strange attraction to hearses, click through for an immersion in their stately world!
In my recent articles on the National Museum of Funeral History and the Professional Car show, we saw a good sampling of hearses from the WWI era to the 90’s. If you buy the premise that some hearses can be very attractive, even heavenly, then you may have thought about some questions such as, “Are new hearses still great examples of the art?” and “What is the last really good looking hearse?”
Let’s see how the current crop of casket bearers look. Below I’ll give a summary of what’s available in the new market and at the end I will give my opinions on the questions.
Superior Statesman. This is the entry level of three models that Superior makes. It is based on the Cadillac XTS, as are almost all new hearses. The reason for this is that Cadillac actually still makes a commercial chassis and puts a lot of effort into supporting the industry with their Master Coachbuilder program.
The XTS is not quite like the commercial chassis of yore, when Cadillac supplied an extra long frame from the factory and coach builders constructed most of the bodywork aft of the cowl to fit on top of it. That program ended in 1984. The unibody XTS has to be chopped and stretched, which does allow each builder to choose his own wheelbase.
FYI, in the funeral business they are called “coaches”, never hearses, and they carry “caskets”, never coffins.
Superior Crown Sovereign. The thing that quickly becomes apparent in reviewing the available hearses on the market is that the differences between models and even brands are rather subtle. You could play one of those “spot the differences in the pictures” games between Superior’s top and bottom models.
There are two big differences that I can see. The Statesman (entry model) at 258 inches is 9 inches longer than the Sovereign and Crown Sovereign (upper models), though sharing the same wheelbase. I don’t understand that, either, but it is definitely not a typo. Also, the upper models have an industry leading rear door that opens a full 270 degrees, while the Statesman makes due with 125 degrees.
Federal/Eagle Kensington. I’m not sure of the history behind it, but Federal Coach Co. and Eagle Coach Co. are the same company and sell very similar models under both brands with separate model names, except for the entry level Kensington which is shared by both. I actually think this is the best looking new hearse. I like its simplicity without landau bars, aluminum bands or other garnishments and the “limousine” style side glass appeals to me. This is probably more of a European style. The formal roof and landau bars that are more commonly seen are more of an American style.
You might think that new hearses would be smaller than the ones based on the huge Cadillacs of past decades. Not so. They seem to be bigger than ever, at least in length. Consider wheelbases.
1957 – 1970: 156in
1971 – 1976: 157.5in
2019: 156 – 158.7in
Even 1938, which was the first year Cadillac lists a commercial chassis in their models, they had a wheelbase of 161. That’s longer, but a giant portion of that was ahead of the windshield. Federal Renaissance/Eagle Echelon. This is another model that I think is nicer looking than most. It’s also a limousine style with a curve at the rear of the side glass that compliments the front door glass. Being a higher priced model, they couldn’t resist putting landau bars on but perhaps the factory would delete them for you. I particularly like the painted roof with no vinyl at all. It is also noteable for the standard large skylight in the casket compartment, for natural illumination. Or perhaps this feature has more metaphysical purposes by allowing the deceased to have a clear view heavenward.
Though the consumer Cadillac XTS is available with All Wheel Drive, I don’t believe any new coaches incorporate it. The hearses seem to all have the 304hp 3.6L V6, rather than the 420hp twin turbo 3.6L V6 from the XTS V-Sport, which is the only trim to offer All Wheel Drive. Too bad!
Federal Stratford/Eagle Icon. Every stretch hearse on the market that I could find is based on the Cadillac chassis, except for this one, for those funeral fish who want to swim in a different direction. The SUV-based Stratford is only 5 inches longer than Federal’s Cadillac models and actually shorter than S&S’s and Superior’s longest Cadillacs. The wheelbase, however, is several inches longer than any other on the market.
Besides being visually different, the Stratford has a real practical advantage with standard All Wheel Drive: a boon for snowy areas. The Eagle and Federal models are somewhat differentiated in their exterior and interior styling and the Eagle has a casket compartment skylight.
Federal/Eagle Chrysler Pacifica Funeral Van. Also available as a Dodge Caravan. This is what the funeral business calls a First Call vehicle, meaning that it is intended primarily for non-funeral duties of transporting the deceased from where they died to the funeral home. They have a special covered stretcher that secures into the back. If you were to hang out at Emergency Room ambulance bays, you would sometimes see these First Call cars come to pick up patients who are leaving the hospital after an unsuccessful stay.
Chevrolet Suburban. This is the Federal/Eagle version, though you can also buy them from Armbruster-Stageway (who will sell you a Cadillac Escalade if you prefer). These could serve as First Call vehicles or as an alternative to a regular hearse. Available with All Wheel Drive and considerably less ostentatious and expensive, one could easily see how some funeral homes would prefer these over a traditional stretched coach.
Armbruster-Stageway Crown Regal. A-S appears to be part of the same company as Superior and S&S, though again the exact history is not easily found online and their dimensions and designs aren’t shared with Superior/S&S. A-S makes one basic car, with a few cosmetic varieties. I like the wrap-around back window and limousine style side windows, though it is also available in coach style and with a conventional door-only back window. This is the shortest stretch coach on the market at 240 inches.
Armbruster-Stageway Regal Florette. This is the most interesting variety of hearse that I found. So you want a fully functional funeral coach and you want a flower car, but don’t want to buy two vehicles? A-S has you covered!
Specialty Hearse Metropolitan Cadillac Flower Car. Specialty Hearse is a Federal/Eagle dealer, but they have a body shop which will convert a Cadillac XTS into a flower car for you. You can also buy a very similar one from Armbruster-Stageway. The business end bears a strong resemblance to the flower cars of the past except it is not built on an extended wheelbase. Not a new practice, Specialty has been making standard wheelbase flower cars since at least the 90’s and other companies had been converting Coupe De Villes going back to the 60’s.
So why aren’t flower cars used much these days?
S&S Medalist. Sayers and Scovill has been building hearses since 1876, the only coach builder continuously operating for that long (albeit under other ownership in recent decades). It appears they officially go by only the S&S abbreviation these days and their product line is closely related to corporate cousin Superior’s.
The Medalist is the entry level model (of five) and shares dimensions and specs with the Superior Statesman (see above). It maintains the S&S trademark bodywork kickup at the trailing edge of the sides and lantern on the C pillar.
S&S Olympian. The S&S Olympian and Victoria share the shorter length and mega-opening 270 degree rear door of Superior’s high end models. The Olympian is unique, however, in its extra tall roof. It’s three inches taller than the Medalist, though it looks like more than that. Why that would be needed I’m not sure. Extra high caskets? double decker caskets?
S&S Masterpiece. Here is the crème de la crème of currently available hearses. Lest you think that commercial glass funeral coaches were a thing of the great memorial past, S&S presents their Masterpiece. In their own words, “In every profession there are those who rise above the rest; who strive for perfection in every detail of their service; for whom second best is never good enough. For individuals of this high caliber, the 2019 ‘Commercial Glass’ Masterpiece by Sayers & Scovill eloquently proclaims professional and community leadership.”
How in this age of comprehensive safety regulations did they pull this off? Look closely at the photograph and I think the answer jumps out.
Back to our original question. Do any of these new funeral cars hold a candle to the older models from the 90’s and earlier? I think not, and here’s why: the Cadillac XTS is poorly suited to make a good looking hearse.
Two main traits make it an unattractive base to build a hearse on. One is its cab-forward proportions. I generally am not a fan of front wheel drive cars with cab forward design, though I know some people like it, being space efficient and a sensible arrangement with a transverse engine. It makes for a very short hood, though, which I think is particularly unbecoming on a larger, luxury type car. Combine that with the long, long modern hearse coachwork and it just looks disproportionate to me. Stubby nose.
The other trait is the wedgy profile of the car. It has a very low hood/high deck shape. The window sills slope down towards the front and the body character lines accentuate that even more. The long hearse shape requires that those lines even out around the middle of the car and in some designs seem to head back downwards toward the rear. This gives the car a curved, convex look. High in the center, lower on the ends.
You might ask, “What about Lincolns?” Lincolns were not really used at all in the hearse business until the late 70’s. Unlike Cadillac and some others, they never produced an official commercial chassis. As Cadillac downsized and changed their commercial chassis in 1977 and 1985, Lincoln was used as an alternative and gained some popularity. Though Cadillac just seems like the “right” car to be a hearse, I think a lot of the 80’s and 90’s Lincoln hearses look quite good.
Since the rear wheel drive Town Car was made through 2011, could it be the last great hearse? I don’t think so, personally, as the 1998 restyling wasn’t great for hearses. The rounded body style clashes with the squareness of the hearse rear.
The taillights particularly are hard to resolve with the hearse bodywork. Still, the long hood and front-axle-to-cowl length give them better proportions than the new Cadillacs. And the new Lincoln MKT hearses? Practical, but possessing looks that only its mother could love.
So, I stand by my assertion that the 1996 Cadillac Fleetwoods are the last truly heavenly American hearses. At least to date. I wish Cadillac could support a commercial version of the CT6. That might look better, with its RWD proportions. If Cadillac actually builds the CT8, that could be a great hearse. A large, flagship rear wheel drive Caddy would make a great basis for a ride to the cemetery.
Here’s another question: hypothetically, what car would you like to see made into a hearse? Let us know what you think!