Professional Car History and Terminology
A professional car is loosely defined as a custom-bodied vehicle, based on passenger car styling, and used in the funeral, rescue or livery services. Such vehicles may be hearses, flower cars, service cars, ambulances, limousines, or cars which are special built to combine two or more of these different functions, such as combination hearse-ambulances, sedan ambulances or invalid coaches. These body styles are all hand built. The commercial chassis and the front and rear clips of these cars are the only thing they have in common with their factories of origin. The roof, glass, and doors are all manufactured by expert craftsmen. Next time you pass by a hearse or a limousine, study the design, and see the designers are able to maintain fluid proportions on such a long wheelbase. For many professional car enthusiasts, these vehicles are the epitome of automobile design. Gregg D. Merksamer, a noted professional car historian, prepared the following history of funeral coaches in the United States:
The carved style hearse includes horse-drawn and early motorized types, many of which were created by forward-thinking funeral directors (usually in urban areas, where a lack of passable roads was not a factor) who transferred the body of their horse-drawn hearses to an automobile or light truck chassis. At a time when skilled wood work was inexpensive, they featured ornately carved pillars, drapes and other funerary icons to denote their status as a special occasion vehicle. As with all cars at the start of this century, initial costs were high, reliability was questionable and noise levels were undignified – especially for a funeral; only large urban funeral homes could afford to lay out between $4,000 and $6,000 for the first auto hearses available commercially (introduced by Crane & Breed of Cincinnati, Ohio, one of America’s premier builders of horse drawn hearses, on June 15, 1909, with long established coach builder Cunningham of Rochester, NY.) Sayers & Scovill of Cincinnati, Ohio didn’t follow suit into building motor hearses as quickly as did Cunningham. but Cunningham was first on the market with a commercially produced motor ambulance, which appeared at about the same time as did Crane & Breed’s first motor hearse.) at a time when a quality horsedrawn version could be bought for around $1,500
By the early 1920s the automobile had found more acceptance in the funeral procession and metal was well on its way to replacing wood as the most popular body building material; hence the styling of hearses evolved to match other automobiles of the day and the limousine style hearse, featuring windows down the entire side of the vehicle, became the most popular type, mainly it was largely a matter of versatility. Meteor’s model T was an instant success in sales when it was introduced in 1915, largely because it could be used for more than just work as a hearse in processions. Also, hearse styles ran cycles of 10 to 15 years up thru the second world war, and the cycle was ripe for something new and different. In the latter half of the 1920s the Henney and Eureka companies introduced the first 3-way hearses, featuring a casket table that moved along a Y-shaped track to emerge from either the side or rear of the coach; this curb-loading feature, If anything, raised the loading height of a hearse, because of the necessary space displaced by the side loading mechanism. Curbside loading caught on because it was a courtesy that people noticed for safety and neatness reasons and kept the pallbearers from stepping into a street that was still most likely unpaved and muddy. It was also at this time that coachbuilder-assembled chassis incorporating mechanical components sourced from various suppliers to the auto industry at large (i.e., Continental engines, Borg-Warner transmissions, Timkin bearings and Eaton gears) were superseded by long-wheelbase commercial chassis supplied complete by LaSalle, Cadillac, Packard and Buick. The first chassis designed and built especially for use as a hearse or ambulance was introduced by Meteor in either ’13 or ’14, and sold to different coachbuilders. It was an assembled chassis in its own right, but it preceded all other commercial hearse chassis. For that matter, the last assembled chassis in hearses was the ’54 Packard commercial chassis, which was shipped in pieces to Henney in Freeport, beginning after the agreement in late ’37, and assembled at the Henney plant in Freeport.
By the end of the 1920s there was little to visually distinguish the average hearse from the limousines carrying the mourners in the funeral procession, so in 1929 Sayers & Scovill added a new element of stage presence and distinction back by re-introducing the industry’s first carved panel or “Art Carved” hearse. This “Signed Sculpture” was another effort in the styling cycle, as somebuilders never stopped building carved hearses, such as Cunningham. If anything,the Signed Sculpture could be credited with leading the way toward the carved panel hearses of the mid-’30’s. Also, while some builders went to stamped aluminum panels for carved hearses, some didn’t, and special jobs often still featured hand carved panels because of the cost of making dies for a one-off job. The things that killed the carved hearse were its lack of versatility and the high maintenance required, such as the extra work in detailing the car after it was washed or waxed. Also, its dated look didn’t help. It was no wonder the landau displaced the carved hearse after the war, but that trend started before the war.
For the 1938 model year Sayers & Scovill introduced the industry’s first landau or victoria-style hearse, featuring a heavily-padded leather or vinyl roof with a blind quarter panel decorated by S-shaped irons inspired by those used to lower the tops on horse drawn victorias in the 19th Century. In response to the gradual disappearance of open touring cars and phaetons that previously ferried flowers in the funeral procession, the industry’s first purpose-built flower cars had appeared by 1940. Some confuse these as Cadillac or Packard pickup trucks, but an early flower car resembled a 2 or 3 passengercoupe or convertible coupe with a long deck of specialized design. Also, the Eastern style flower car often had a fixed deck and it was the tray within the perimeter of the deck that raised and lowered, sometimes hydraulically, and other times manually, depending on the builder and optional offerings. Flower cars were offered in two general configurations; a Western or “Chicago”-style flower car with an open flower trough and an Eastern-style flower car featuring a fixed deck, as do all newer Eagle flower cars, and it was the tray within the perimeter of the deck that raised and lowered, sometimes hydraulically, and other times manually, depending on the builder and optional offering. If desired, it could be raised flat to allow a casket to be loaded into a compartment underneath using through a hearse-style door at the rear of the vehicle.
Moving on to the hardware inside the hearse, one finds that the sort of facilities enjoyed by the deceased on his or her last ride hardly differs from one coach builder’s car to another, let alone any funeral coach produced in the last half century. To simplify loading virtually every hearse has eight to ten cylindrical rubber casket rollers mounted horizontally in the vehicle’s rear door threshold and carpeted or Formica-surfaced rear floor. Once inside one will see skid Strips. They prevent the hearse floor from getting marred during loading of a casket. Then you will see a pair of clamps called bier pins. These pins are slid into bier pin plates that run a line of holes down the center of the casket compartment; the rear pin has an adjustment wheel that pushes the rubber face pads of the front and rear bier pins against the ends of the casket. To reduce the chance of casket movement in an accident, today’s funeral coach builders use swivel-proof hexagonal mounting holes instead of round ones. Before the arrival of the adjustable bier pin, the only adjustment was a hex design pin by Superior that had an offset, or eccentric, pin base so there was a way to take up some slack when setting the pin after loading a casket. In the end, Hexagonal mounting holes don’t really do anything to help hold a casket securely, if the pins are set properly and the casket is loaded with a modicum of care .
Both landau and limousine-style hearses generally come with curtains partially covering the casket compartment windows. But different drape styles didn’t seem to be restricted to one particular type of coach, as many combination cars had formal drapes, while many 3 ways had airliner drapes. The difference in drapes are: Formal style drapes are usually made from a heavy velvet material and are hung in a manner where the cloth is drawn back in the middle of the span to form concentric arches or radiuses in the fabric. Airline style drapes, which began appearing in the mid-1950’s as airplane travel became commonplace, hang straight down from between its attachments at the top and bottom of the casket compartment windows and usually use a lightly-colored woven material for a more modern-looking appearance.
Combination coaches, which were very popular, gave a funeral director an affordable tool to operate the funeral home, while also serving his community with ambulance service. Funeral homes used to run the ambulance service for many years, because they were the only ones who had a vehicle long enough to carry someone in a recumbent position. Many times the funeral home offered the ambulance service for free, or next to nothing. Dispite common belief, funeral homes did not make money on ambulance runs. If anything, it was a good will gesture to the area he served. Combination coaches were also fitted with reversible casket rollers, folding attendants’ seats and removable roof beacons (usually unbolted through a zippered headliner in the driver’s compartment) and sirens.However, the features varied from one extreme to another, depending what the owner wanted.
Combination cars disappeared from general service in the late 1970s, when a downsized Cadillac commercial chassis appeared at the same time as changes in the Federal ambulance regulations governing minimum width, headroom and equipment levels.
Even though they were typically the coach builder’s cheapest model, the first-call or service car is usually the rarest because these served as the workhorses for the funeral home – making first calls at the place of death, carrying chairs or casket-lowering equipment to the cemetery – and were frequently treated as the most disposable vehicle in the fleet. Though a few service cars in the 1930s and 1940s were constructed on expensive Cadillac and Packard chassis, they usually resembled a basic panel truck or sedan delivery (many were in fact cut and stretched from Chevrolet, Pontiac and Ford sedan deliveries by low-cost firms down south like Memphian, Barnette or Economy Coach) with a stylized chrome wreath affixed to the windowless metal side panels. T Service cars disappeared when alternative vehicles became available, such as metal bodied station wagons, and earlier, sedan deliveries. Funeral homes still used service cars, but home brewed them for the most part. For that matter, in the late ’70’s, station wagon conversion service cars were fairly popular, but were, and are, often confused with hearses because they were more of an entry level hearse conversion than an actual workhorse service car like in earlier times. This was one of the things that diluted any special look a landau hearse ever had. Superior offered a service car on Pontiac chassis into the late ’60’s.