Recently, I wrote the CC article on the National Museum of Funeral History. Their collection of early (1916-51) hearses is really impressive. It should not surprise us car people that there is a small but enthusiastic community of folks who collect, restore and show hearses. Folks in the hobby call these types of vehicles “Professional Cars”. Professional Cars are most commonly hearses and car-based ambulances, but can include limos, taxis or any specialized working automobile (non trucks). The museum will occasionally host Professional Car shows, one of which I was able to catch a few years ago. Click through to see some highlights.
If there was a headliner for the show, it would be this fully restored 1948 Packard Henney Ambulance. It is the only known surviving 1948 Packard ambulance. It retains its 356 c.i. straight eight and even still has its 6 volt electrical system powering the lights and siren.
As a paramedic, I have a particular fascination with the classic ambulances, where my personal and professional interests dovetail.
I really dug this 1963 Chrysler. As with most every early 60’s Mopar, the 63-64 Chrysler is a love-it-or-hate-it design. I’m firmly in the camp of the former. I love the Exner-era boldness and quirkiness, such as the square steering wheels and push-button transmissions. I’ve always thought the 63-64 dashboard was particularly graceful. It is a long held fantasy of mine to be able to work a real shift driving an ambulance like this, just for a day.
Beautiful classic Cadillac hearse. This 1968 model is a combination hearse/ambulance. If it was a dedicated hearse, it would look the same on the outside except without the gumball emergency light on the roof. It would then be a “limousine” style hearse, meaning the window section behind the rear doors is glass rather than vinyl-covered.
As I mentioned in the museum article, in the days before modern EMS services, funeral homes in many communities also handled the ambulance service. Extensively trained personnel weren’t necessary because there wasn’t extensive training to be had in that pre-EMT and paramedic era. Neither was a lot of equipment needed. A stretcher and a seat for the attendant were the minimum requirements. The funeral home could easily remove the stretcher and fold down the seat and Presto!, the ambulance is now a hearse and ready to pick up that unfortunate patient they may have just recently delivered to the hospital.
Oldsmobiles were never the most popular choice for hearses and ambulances, but perhaps more common than one might assume today. Cotner-Bevington, the coach builder best known for their Olds-based creations, made this 1972 example. Unfortunately, the firm folded in 1975, making Oldmobile hearses thereafter even less common.
This vehicle, and the Cadillac directly above, have what is called “commercial glass” meaning the windshield and side glass is taller than factory, with less curve to the side windows, to make the raised roof appear more natural. Commercial glass models were more expensive to build and to buy, making them more prestigious in the hearse world.
Here is a real oddball. It’s a 1966 Pontiac Bonneville combination by Superior. It’s a non-stretched wheelbase car but it has commercial glass. It looks like it was built up from a regular Bonneville station wagon.
Here is another great looking hearse. The 80-92 Cadillac DeVille/Fleetwood/Brougham may have been one of the greatest foundations for a hearse ever. The long, boxy shape perfectly complimented the long. boxy hearse bodywork. Up through 1984, Cadillac built a Commercial Chassis that came with a lengthened frame from the factory. After that, coachbuilders who wanted to make a rear wheel drive Cadillac hearse had to chop and lengthen the chassis themselves.
I apologize that this photo is so poorly framed. Apparently it’s the only one I took of this beautiful specimen. This one sports the side loading feature, which had a small but significant following for many years. These are no longer made. I’d love to hear from someone with funeral business experience what the pros and cons of this set up are.
I think the final rear wheel drive Cadillac Fleetwoods make very good looking hearses. It was surely a blow to funeral directors and coach builders, a generally conservative and traditional lot, when GM finally ceased production of their body-on-frame rear-wheel-drive cars in 1996. I’m not sure if this attractive black S&S is a 93 or 94 model. There would be no outward difference, but a major underhood one. 1994 was the first year for the 260hp LT1 V8, a 75hp bump. The extra power would be especially welcome in the extra heavy hearses.
Unlike the Cadillac above, this 1995 S&S has commercial glass. My daughter snuck into this photo. Perhaps she was attracted to the car because its color matches her shirt.
Could this be an example of the last truly good looking American hearse? Personally, I think possibly so only because the Fleetwood may be the last donor car really well suited to the hearse look. Tomorrow, I’ll take a look at what is on offer in the new hearse market and seek to answer the question of whether new hearses can be as good looking as older ones.