The Flower Car
An East Coast Phenomenon?
By: Louis C. Farah
By far, the highest profile vehicles in the professional car hobby have always been ambulances and hearses. That’s due to the fact that the vast majority of professional cars built were ambulances and hearses, at least, those professional vehicles that were built by such manufacturers such as Superior, Miller-Meteor, Eureka, Flxible, Cotner-Bevington and a handful of other coachbuilders.
Although coachbuilders produced limousines as well, Detroit auto makers made most of the limousines that were used in funeral service-related livery fleets. However, one specialized vehicle was built exclusively for the funeral trade, and traditionally used in East Coast and Canadian funeral services.
The flower car.
For those of us that grew up here in California and other western states, flower cars were rarely seen at funeral services, if seen at all. Graveside flowers were usually delivered by a non-descript station wagon or van. Other than a wreath of flowers placed on the casket, flowers were only seen at the place of the funeral service or at grave itself at the burial.
On the other hand, flower cars were used extensively at funerals held on the East Coast and Canadian funeral services. They were a very visible addition to the funeral procession, usually following the hearse with dozens of floral tributes. The higher profile of the deceased, the more floral tributes, and thus, more flower cars to delivery the tributes with.
To me, the practices of West Coast funeral services appeared to have been more practical. Flowers were delivered to the church or gravesite by the flower store in their own delivery vehicle, which was usually a van. Flowers were certainly displayed at a funeral service, but special vehicles weren’t used to “spotlight” the floral tributes. When one considers the cost of what a brand new flower car sold for, and the fact that is was more of a utility vehicle rather than a luxury vehicle used to display and transport the deceased, it was not surprising why these vehicles weren’t widely used on the West Coast.
The use of a flower car on the East Coast appears to have been based more on tradition than practicality. The building of any professional car on a luxury commercial was expensive, but the “style and class” of having a custom built Cadillac to simply deliver flowers to a funeral certainly could have been an “East Coast” endeavor.
A practical and inexpensive service vehicle was produced in the early 1960’s by Abbott and Hast Conversions located in Los Angeles. Ron Hast, an innovator in affordable funeral car conversions developed a line of “first call” cars and service vehicles based on the Ford station wagon. By using vinyl roof coverings, bolt-on landau bars and deeply tinted windows, funeral directors could purchase practical vehicles for a fraction of the cost of a new Cadillac or other luxury vehicle custom built on a commercial chassis.
With the advent of the Ford and Chevrolet vans that were being built in the later part of the 1960’s, a more durable and much cheaper vehicle was handling the duties of a flower delivery vehicle on the West Coast. Throughout the last forty years, the full-sized and mini van platform has been the choice of most funeral directors here in California.
So why were flowers cars so popular on the East Coast, and how did the tradition start? I asked long-time funeral specialist Paul Nix to provide some insight.
According to Nix, the use of flower cars originated in the New York area and eventually spread to the Midwest. As part of a grand ceremony, the flower car carried tributes to the gravesite as part of the funeral procession.
In as much as the hearse was a symbol of dignity, style and grace, so was the flower car. Much like the use of a Cadillac hearse over a conventional passenger car hearse like an Oldsmobile or Buick, a use of a flower car to deliver floral tributes instead of a van or station wagon implied good taste, respect and wealth of the decedent’s family.
The flower car, depending on how it was built, was truly a multi-functional vehicle. Many were built and designed to carry a casket underneath the chrome canopy. Some funeral homes used a flower car for removals from the place of death to the funeral home instead of a traditional station wagon or van being used as the “first call” car.
Flower cars were not cheap. In fact, a flower car cost more to buy than a hearse. A lot of custom body work went into building a flower car, and with low production numbers to begin with, only those funeral directors that enjoyed a constant demand for their vehicles found it practical to purchase a flower car.
Most every professional car manufacturer offered a flower car. The golden days of the individual coach builder (and the flower car as well) seemed to be the 1950’s through the 1970’s. Soon a consolidation in the industry would not only reduce the number of manufacturers, but flower car offerings as well.
Flower cars are still being built today, but they are expensive. Companies such as Accubuilt and Eagle produce these unusual vehicles, but only on a special order basis and the cost of the vehicle must be paid up-front. The demand for flower cars is very small today, and no manufacturer wants to be stuck with an $80,000 vehicle in their inventory if they can help it.
Chapter member Chuck Landwehr, who is the owner of Erickson and Brown Funeral in Taft, California has been in the funeral business for over three decades on the West Coast, yet he has only seen a handful of flower cars in the greater Los Angeles area during his career.
Landwehr remembers the funeral home of Harrison-Ross in south central Los Angeles as having a flower car. My research found that Harrison-Ross still utilizes a flower car in their services if requested. Other than that, I could not find any other funeral service in the area that used flower cars in the scope of their operations.
Flower cars were completed restyled and re-engineered from other professional cars. Many featured hydraulically operated stainless steel floral decks that could be adjusted in height. A “western” style flower car usually was built to simply transport flowers while the “eastern” type of flower car could be adjusted to any position from deck height to floor level. The eastern cars also had casket rollers and slides so that a casket, as well as flowers, could be transported.
Most deck heights were offered in 18, 24 and 28-inch heights to meet the varying requirements of the nation’s funeral directors.
Most “eastern” flower cars featured 24 inch stainless steel decks with a power operated floral tray that could accommodate a full size casket or roughbox under the deck.
Another interesting style developed when the flower car became more prevalent in the Midwest. A “Chicago” style flower car featured an extremely low stainless steel deck that blended much better with the overall bodylines of the Cadillac. Obviously these cars were used strictly for the transportation of flowers since they didn’t have the height to transport a casket. However, they could accommodate a flat gurney and could be utilized as a removal vehicle if needed.
By the 1960’s most flower cars were manufactured on a Cadillac commercial chassis. The cost of vehicle dedicated that only the finest luxury car be used to produce a flower car, and the most prestigious car built in America was the Cadillac.
While most other major professional car manufacturers had marketed such vehicles since the late 1930’s, Superior introduced their first flower cars during the 1949 model year. They made their debut at the October, 1948 National Funeral Directors Association convention held in Detroit, Michigan.
The flower car created quite a sensation at the convention with it’s coupe styling. Distinctive styling highlighted the all-new flower car.
These innovative vehicles that featured casket areas had the same equipment as most hearses. A complete set of 10 regulation casket rollers in chrome plated frames along with bier pin plates, Roto-Hex bier pins and skid plates adorned the casket compartment floor.
1984 was the last year that Superior offered a flower car. The cost was $46,624.00, a steep price for what amounted to a utility vehicle. The revived Eureka Coach Company of Toronto introduced their Concours Classic flower car in 1981, which was larger, more elegantly styled and sold in greater numbers than the Superior Coupe de Fleur. Thus, Superior dropped the flower car due to low sales.
The consolidation of the funeral industry by such giants as The Lowen Group and Service Corp. International have made the field of funeral services extremely competitive. Many funeral directors are watching every penny just to stay alive. No longer can the average funeral home spend lavish amounts of money for specialized vehicles.
To many, the need and desire to purchase a flower car for their fleets has fallen by the wayside.
All Photos courtesy of the Thomas A. McPherson Archives