From Watergate Bay to JFK - the uniqueness of a vintage hearse

20. February 2012

classic surfer hearse at watergate bay in cornwallWhether you like cars or not, there’s pretty much one care you’re near enough guaranteed to take a ride in – a hearse.

Back in 2004 on holiday at Watergate Bay in Cornwall, I remember we were pulling out of the car park, after a sun scorched afternoon on the beach and in the beach bar; as I swung the car around, a fantastic sight came into my view – you can see it in the picture here, a hearse that had been converted into the coolest surfboard carrier this side of a lowered, split-screen camper van. It’s stayed with me for all these years, today I looked a bit deeper..

It’s pretty clear where the idea may have originally came from, when you remember that Jan & Dean released a song called Surfin’ Hearse from the 1964 album Drag City.

In fact, 1964 recently cropped up again in the er, world of hearses, for the very 1964 Cadillac hearse that carried President John F Kennedy’s body from the Dallas hospital to Air Force One went up for auction in January.

The soon-to-be-famous white Cadillac was a brand new arrival and had been put on display in the Funeral Directors Association convention prior to being bought by O’Neal Funeral Home. One can only imagine how many people have seen this unique, classic vehicle across the world since that fateful day.

Come January 21st 2012, the hearse eventually sold for a whopping $160,000 (that’s approximately £100,000). Tasteful or not, the vehicle is inarguably a rare historical automobile connected to a rather seminal moment in American history.

Cadillac produced a strengthened version of the Fleetwood limousine for conversion to a hearse, but are not the only company to enter this market in America. Ford supplies a Lincoln Town Car with a “hearse package” for coachbuilders, while Volvo, Vauxhall and Mercedes-Benz are also competitors in a market that will seemingly, despite medicine’s best attempts, never die out.

Japan has another option for your final destination – a hearse with a rear modified to look like a Buddhist temple, where the base platform is often a heavily modified van or pick up truck.

Of course, it would be strange if the ubiquitous Camper Van hadn’t been used as a hearse, and it didn’t take long to find a company called Volkswagen Funerals supplying a classic 1972 “Bay VW Hearse”.

Known as a Volkswagen Type 26 Conversion, this veedub was originally one of a number commissioned and coach built by Fritz Freckinger in Germany in 1972.

Possibly the most unusual funeral transport might well be the 1916 Packard Funeral Bus, which was designed to carry pallbearers, mourners and the coffin all together. Unfortunately, the bus probably also has the most unfortunate and unusual final journey too. Climbing a hill in San Francisco, the bus struggled with the weight and the incline, eventually tipping back and releasing the passengers and coffin unexpectedly into the street. Maybe the inspiration for a certain Jackass sketch I recall. The bus now resides in Houston, Texas at the National Museum of Funeral History - where it can presumably do no more harm.

I reckon though, that if you’re a surfer, fed up of traffic and fancy being let out at junctions by considerate motorists, and already have your classic car insurance in place, you could do far worse than seek out a vintage hearse to carry your surfboards. Who knows, you may even bump into the owners of the car we saw down at Watergate Bay.

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