Custom Built One At A Time

Custom Built One At A Time

By Louis C. Farah.

It’s amazing how many people look at a vintage professional car and assume that they were factory-built cars that came off of an assembly line somewhere in Detroit. It’s easy to understand why people would believe that considering the master craftsmanship that went into the construction of each car that rolled out of the doors of such well-known manufacturers as Miller, Meteor, Flxible, Superior and Eureka. That expertise and innovation becomes even more evident when we look at the smaller builders such as National, Cotner/Bevington and Seibert.

However, if one were to visit the hearse builders of today (there are no manufacturers of ambulances on a passenger car chassis in America anymore) they would definitely see an assembly line operation where standardized bodies are mated with a stripped-down Cadillac or Lincoln chassis to make a funeral car. A lot has changed in the past 30 years with the demise of the passenger car-based ambulance.

Gone are the days of custom-built bodies that made professional cars appear as if they were standard automotive bodies that were altered by the manufacturers. What most people don’t realize is the fact that those that designed and constructed these cars intentionally built these vehicles to resemble ordinary factory- build cars that the public bought themselves. The same flowing lines as those cars appearing in the showrooms of Cadillac dealers were no accident. Rather than produce a car with a strange and bulky looking style that left no doubt that this was nothing more than a ‘butcher job” on a luxury car, master craftsmen made professional cars a thing of beauty and dignity. Gone were the days of the horse and buggy. By the 1930’s, professional cars were stately and offered a high degree of integrity and prestige to the funeral director or ambulance operator.

The bodies were custom-built based on the customer’s exacting standards and specific order. These were not cookie-cutter vehicles by any means. Interior appointments, emergency lighting, sirens, casket table specifications, curtains, window treatments and virtually every part of the car was custom built from scratch depending on what the customer ordered. When one looks in the gallery at the gorgeous examples of the cars that were built by the the coachbuilders of the past, it’s easy to see why people thought these cars were built in a Cadillac factory instead of the independent professional car builders of the time. The flowing lines of the car were perfectly matched to the custom bodies that were built. Using the same chrome trim, fender styles, tail lights and other parts provided the perfect blend of design and practicality.

Unfortunately, professional cars built today (primarily hearses) are cookie cutter vehicles that no longer emulate custom- build bodies that match traditional passenger car styling of a particular year or vehicle make. For the past 30 years, manufactured bodies that have been used on a variety of chassis such as Cadillac, Buick and Chevrolet are the same with little or no variance in style. The art of master craftsmen has been lost, especially with the consolidation of Eureka, Miller-Meteor, S&S and Superior under the banner of Accubuilt.

Although the professional cars of today are certainly more quality built and technologically advanced from their predecessors, the progression of design and construction has resulted in a loss of style and uniqueness that perhaps may be lost forever. You would be hard pressed to tell the difference between most professional cars, especially in determining what year a particular car is. The price of progress appears to have been the loss of uniqueness.

As far as vintage cars club are concerned, it is our responsibility as those that have chosen the field of professional cars to do our best to acquire these unique vehicles and protect their historical value. Although we certainly accept any and all professional cars in PCI, the many would agree that the most collectible cars are those from the 1930’s through the 1970’s. Believe it or not, in a mechanical sense, these are perhaps the easiest to restore and maintain. Most of the parts can be found at such auto parts outlets as Pep Boys, Trak Auto, Auto Zone and NAPA stores. If you’re looking for fuel pumps, carburetors, wiper blades, water pumps, spark plugs and other bolt-on parts, most can be purchased for under $40.

However, beware of simply buying a part for your particular year and make of vehicle. Professional cars were not built nor assembled by the chassis distributor. Cadillac did not build these cars: Miller- Meteor, Superior, Cotner/Bevington and S&S built them. There are vast differences in the suspension, braking and drive train components as compared to the everyday cars that were delivered from Detroit. That’s another reason for the camaraderie among professional car enthusiasts: Getting accurate restoration information from someone that knows your car and has been there before.

The only daunting task regarding these older cars is body work. Body parts for vehicles from the 1960’s and 1970’s are still readily available on the West Coast and Southwest areas of the country due to the low instance of rust. However, the older the car, and the closer to the East Coast that one travels, the less likely you will be able to find a rust-free fender, chrome piece or other external body part.

Master craftsmen may have built these cars, but it is now up to us to restore and maintain these special vehicles. That’s just as important in the professional car hobby as owning the car!

Reprinted with permission from the July 2009 Issue of the “Professional Car Collector” magazine.  The official publication of Professional Cars International.  PCI Club Information can be found HERE.

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