We look at a niche of automotive design.
Around the launch of Driven To Write, I did a short piece about hearses, and I’m now returning to the subject. Speaking personally, I’m unconcerned how I go- a Transit van or a borrowed estate car would be fine. But, if I leave behind anyone who would miss me, I’m concerned that their loss is eased as much as possible. So I can see why the conveyance should be seen as ‘suitable’. But what are people’s expectations?
My own facial expression seems to default to dour mode, even when I’m feeling quite OK, often causing people to ask me to cheer up. So much so that I’ve often assumed that I might be a natural for the undertaker’s sombre cortège. Of the various professionals involved, I’d judge the most difficult job is driving the limousine containing the deceased’s direct relatives – in some cases a goldmine for an aspiring author of observational drama, maybe, but equally a potentially harrowing job in the face of unrestrained grief.
The driver of the car at my Father’s funeral (limousine and hearse both coachbuilt on X300 Jaguars) was suitably discreet at first, until my Mum’s best friend started asking him unexpectedly direct questions about his job. I joined in, asking if all his fleet were Jaguars, at which point he confided with some pride that they also provided that staple of a Hammer Horror funeral, the black glass-sided carriage and plumed horses, and indeed that they supplied Eastenders (a popular soap drama for our non-UK readers) on a regular basis to ensure that departing cast members got a real decent Cock-er-ney send-off. Was that true, or was he just trying to put us at our ease?
Many funerals are unexpected, and we are, most of us, pretty bad at dealing with death. As such, it’s understandable that the arrangements for the ceremony often default to the easiest path. In some cases, however, someone goes to the trouble of doing something a bit different. Different cultures have different ideas of what is appropriate, and despite what I might feel about my own departure, my attitude is that, if you’re going to go, why not do it in a reasonably noisy way.
In life, I consider a Ford a perfectly good car to own. But is a Ford a suitable car for a hearse? Coleman-Milne having been building funeral vehicles on a variety of Ford bases for decades, going back to Zodiac days. The last time I looked they were using Australian Ford Falcons, but now I see that their newly released model is the Norwood, based on the One-Ford Mondeo, and available in standard and Classic forms. They also do a Mercedes E Class hearse and will do new conversions onto a secondhand Rolls Royce Silver Spur or equivalent Bentley base.
Wilcox Limousines, whose entry level hearses are Vauxhall Insignia based, move up through Volvo S80 to Jaguar-based hearses. Back in 2013, it was the sight of a new X351 XJ hearse that caused me to write the short piece I mentioned at the start. Although the X300 based vehicle my father travelled in looked fine, I wondered whether the styling of today’s vehicles actually suited the traditional hearse shape. I also wondered at the time, though not in print, how easy it was to convert the XJ’s aluminium architecture to a hearse. Now I know, since Wilcox have a really good video showing what they do.
The thing that irks me about some conversions is that they retain the roofline of the doner car within the side view, as in the standard Coleman-Milne Norwood. I recognised this as a cost-saving measure, which I’m sure it is, but it is also presented by the makers as giving it more modern, sleeker lines. Do customers seek sleekness under these circumstances?
It’s not snobbery that causes me to find an Insignia or Mondeo an inappropriate base for a hearse, it’s more over-familiarity. These cars, in theory at least, are the cars of everyman and everywoman. If you are having a funeral it should be memorable, so if it’s off an the peg conveyance, it should be at least a Jaguar or Mercedes, but better an old Daimler DS420 or a Rolls. Ideally, though, the vehicle should suit the horizontal passenger. I was hoping that Kustom King George Barris’s funeral conveyance might have been reasonably outrageous, such as his own creation Kargoyle, but although the cortège was obviously awash with fancy metal, George himself travelled in a classic silver mid-60s Cadillac 75. Biker funerals, of which there are quite a few, often try to offer suitable transport, and what better than the Tombstone Hearse?
Talking of cortèges, in my grandfather’s day, as they say, every man stood and took off his hat as a funeral passed. Today, of course, that doesn’t happen, but there is still something moving about seeing a cortège. The last funeral I attended was for a 101 year old and, although the service was well attended, most her friends had gone before her, so the cortege was slight. I’d intended finding my own way to the crematorium but, as the hearse and the limousine moved away, I realised I wasn’t sure exactly where it was. Which gave me little choice but to tag onto the end of the 15 mph procession in my Cube. Much as I like the car, some odd sense of propriety made me feel that the Nissan’s comprising 25% of the procession was unfitting to the end of a long life and I started lagging further behind until I became an unexplained 15 mph cortège of my own.
But what is my nomination for World’s Best Hearse? A Rolls or a Daimler? No. On reflection I think that George Barris got it right. Restrained is wrong, but funky ends up looking just a bit inappropriate. Leave that to the mourners who follow, should they wish. A Cadillac 75 will always look special, yet it retains enough gravitas for the situation. But no side-irons.