Customized Professional Cars

Customized Professional Cars

By Louis C. Farah

While the classic car world will always have those pristine factory stock and original cars as the foundation of the hobby, there is a completely different segment of collectible vehicle hobby that is just as strong as ever. In fact, it is this segment that receives just as much attention at car shows and events as vintage classics get at auctions across the country.

Customized vehicles.

Custom cars have been a mainstay of enthusiasts since the early 1950’s. Race tracks across the country featuring customized Ford and Chevrolet’s in various configurations. Customizers such as George Barris were “frenching” tail-lights, modifying engines and adding bumpers, grills and other body pieces from a variety of cars to produce some pretty stunning vehicles.

As a teenager in the 1960’s, just about all of my friends in high school were modifying their cars. It didn’t take much. The standard coupe with a V-8 engine would get a four barrel carburetor, a dual exhaust system with a pair of glass pack mufflers and a set of shiny Cragar mag wheels to produce your very own hot rod. By the late 1960’s, an 8-track tape player blaring-out the latest Jimi Hendrix rocker would firmly place you on the map with the babes.

Weekend nights would finds me and my friends cruising down the world famous strip known as Van Nuys Blvd., the epitome of the California car culture. Whether to see, or be seen, the San Fernando Valley thoroughfare was the place where you could rev your engine, lay a little rubber on the pavement and show off your pride and joy.

Not much as changed since those pubescent years of my high school days. My love of cars still stands as a priority in my life, and more so when it comes to professional cars. Just like the cars of yesterday, the customization that is being done to vintage hearses today very elaborate, highly detailed and just plain amazing. Even more compelling is the fact that customized hearses have found their way onto such television shows as “Pimp My Ride” and “Monster Garage”.

The purest professional car enthusiast would probably find themselves aghast over any modification of a hearse. To many funeral directors, modifying a hearse would border on blasphemy. However, most do not realize that the vast number of hearses that are customized were basket cases on their way to the crusher. Many a vintage hearse that was too far gone to be restored served as the platform of the many customized cars that we see today. Rather than lose that car forever to scrap metal, someone saved that car and reincarnated it to be back on the street and shown in all of it’s glory.

As with any modification of a car, it can be mild or a full-blown chop job that barely resembles the car’s former life. In the cast of a mild restoration, changes can be as subtle as a different paint job, lowering of the vehicle, chrome wheels or changes to the interior. The appearance of the car still shows as a hearse, albeit a non-stock looking hearse that perhaps would not be utilized for an actual funeral service.

The other end of the spectrum would be an all-out customization of a hearse. Chopping the body, a wild paint scheme and detailed interior changes takes a vehicle to a new level. The possibilities are endless, which allows a vehicle owner to exercise their freedom of self-expression. As in the case of any classic car, the owner is certainly free to do whatever they want to their car without being harassed or belittled. Although this doesn’t appear to be a problem in the conventional classic car world, it certainly is a reality in certain circles of the professional car arena.

Much has been written on website message boards, chapter newsletters and national publications regarding the disdain for anyone that would even consider modifying a hearse from it’s factory original state. Yet a number of those that find hearse modification distasteful fail to realize that the vast majority of customized hearses were, in fact, headed to the junk-yard and eventually the crusher to be turned into scrap. With vintage parts as rare as hens teeth, what does one do with a car that can’t be restored to factory original condition? They turn the car into something else.

The unusualness of a hearse is what makes the body so inviting to modify. Just about everyone has seen a classic muscle car modified in some way, shape or form. Few have seen a hearse customized in the same fashion. Perhaps the most well-known modified cars having to do with funerals are the cars used on the television series “The Munsters”.  Grandpa’s “Dragula” and Herman’s “Munster Koach” are perhaps the most famous modified funeral cars of them all. The Dragula is based on an actual casket that has been placed on a high-performance Ford chassis and a full-blown V-8 developing 400 horse-power. The car was featured on numerous episodes of the show with Al Lewis (playing the character of Grandpa on the show) behind the wheel. The Munster Koach was also the brainchild of George Barris, who at the time was know as the “customizer to the stars”. Both vehicles are currently on display at Barris Kustom City, located on Riverside Drive in North Hollywood.

Shown below is another Barris creation called the “Kargoyle”, which has been seen at many of our shows. Built using a 1967 Miller-Meteor Cadillac hearse, the car is a magnificent example of a total customization effort complete with a chopped and lowered body, side pipes, custom paint, drag strip motor, mag wheels and a fully detailed interior complete with casket. Bret Barris premiered this car at our World’s Longest Hearse Procession in 2005 and continues to display this fascinating vehicle at our shows and events.

The word “customize” means a lot of different things to different people. To some, a simple set of chrome wheels gives a completely different look to a vehicle. I attended a professional car show about ten years ago and remember seeing an absolutely beautiful and original Cadillac hearse that was on display during a Concour d’ Elegance show where the cars were being judged. The owner couldn’t afford the factory white-walled tires that came with the car, so he had a set of new white lettered tires in stalled. The chief judge of the show knocked so many points off of the car that it didn’t come close to winning a trophy, even though it was the best car in it’s class. The chief judge decided that the car was “modified”, and therefore had lost it’s historical significance. Yet I saw another hearse that had major changes in it’s interior where the owner had turned the car into a combination car from a hearse. It was definitely more modified than the disqualified hearse, yet it won a trophy! Go figure.

A number of people have asked me about display rules at PCI shows and what is allowed. PCI has no rules nor restrictions regarding the display vehicles. All cars are welcome, regardless of condition, style or modifications. What good is a professional car show if you can’t bring your professional car? I have found that most people that attend our events are eager to learn as much about these cars as possible. They shop around for parts, seek advice on restoration and realize that there aren’t a lot of people out there that own and/or know a lot about these unique vehicles. With resources as rare as they are, we should be serving as stewards for folks that are new to the hobby or are searching for much needed advice or services.

Modified professional cars are some of the most recognizable and valuable cars in the world today. Perhaps the most recognized professional cars are the Ghostbusters cars, otherwise known as Ecto-1 and Ecto-1a. Built on a 1959 Miller-Meteor Cadillac ambulance chassis, both of these cars were recently completely restored for Sony Picture by PCI member Ray Claridge, owner of Cinema Vehicle Services. Their shops in North Hollywood contain a complete vehicle restoration facility on the premises that can literally take a car down to the frame and rebuild it from the ground-up.

Are these cars modified or customized? Absolutely. Yet they still retain the looks that say “ambulance”. Regardless of how much equipment is attached to the roof and the plethora of warning lights flashing as it barrels down the street, it still has the heart of am ambulance beating inside.

There is also a segment of professional car enthusiasts that believe that any modification to a hearse is ghoulish. To me, I don’t believe that this is necessarily due to the fact that the modifications are what made the car ghoulish. The primary reason is the fact that a hearse is used as the base vehicle. It’s tough to argue that nearly everyone out there knows a hearse is designed and used to transport a dead body. The very sight of a hearse brings up the notion of death. While in normal use in the funeral industry, a hearse should be dignified and understated. After it comes out of service and lands in the hands of a car enthusiast, all bets are off. The new owner is free to do whatever they want to do.

As I stated earlier, most of the customized hearses that I have seen in the past were cars rescued from the crusher.  There was little chance that these cars would be restored back to their factory original condition. Whether rust had eaten away most of the car, or it had been picked clean for parts, the cost to restore the vehicle would have far-exceeded it’s value. Although these vehicles were not fit to be restored, they have been reincarnated into their new lives in pretty spectacular fashions. Perhaps one of my favorites is a customized hearse owned by Zach Helm, who lives in Colorado. His car was a rust bucket headed for the junkyard when he rescued it for a few bucks. Using a little ingenuity and a lot of labor, he converted the car into an armor-plated gothic assault vehicle, complete with a set of functional flame throwers coming out of the roof. Talk about an attention getter!

Although the vast majority of professional cars are stock and original, the modified segment of the hobby continues to grow. That’s a good thing. When one considers the fact that there isn’t a lot of vintage professional cars left on the road these days, preservation of any classic ambulance or hearse is of utmost importance. Buying a professional car of any type can only be expected of someone that actually appreciates these vehicles. There just aren’t that many people that actively participate in our hobby, and each time a professional car is junked or scraped, another nail goes into the proverbial coffin.

Rather than discourage people that do not share our ideas on preservation and restoration, let’s take the time to realize that they are saving that car from a certain death. Modified cars can be restored back to their original condition, but only when the time comes where the price of restoration does not exceed the ultimate value of the car. Today’s cast-off just might be tomorrow’s treasure. I would rather see a classic professional car preserved and displayed at our events than watch it crushed into little bitty pieces!

Reprinted with permission from the February 2010 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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