It’s sad that hearses today look like some antiseptic, streamlined version of a modern car. Aerodynamics may have helped save a bit of fuel, but it’s done nothing for the style and sophistication of the funeral coach industry. When you finally take the Last Ride, or even if you just want to spook the neighbors this year, here’s hoping you keep these bad-ass coaches in mind:
Claire Fisher’s 1971 Cadillac Victoria by S&S
When any dude buys a hearse, his entire hope is that he’s able to attract a hot redhead who hates her dad, just like Claire Fisher in the HBO series Six Feet Under. Emotionally conflicted Goth chicks are attracted to gigantic Cadillac hearses like squirrels to a suet feeder.
Claire’s 1971 Cadillac features coachwork by S&S, which was one of the two biggest Professional Vehicle builders in the 1950s through the 1970s. They built hearses and ambulances on anything full-size, from Chevrolet all the way to Cadillac, including Pontiac, Buick and Olds.
In Japan, hearses are known as “reikyusha” and fall into a couple of groups. Foreign-style reikyusha are just like our hearses here: all black, and station wagon-like in their construction. Japanese-style hearses are much cooler.
Typically built on either a full-size Nissan, Toyota or – in this case – Lincoln Town Car chassis, Japanese-style reikyusha have an ornate compartment for the deceased, usually crafted of carved wood. The style changes based on the region. This one appears to be from Tokyo, with gilded ornaments on the upper body.
DRAG-U-LA isn’t exactly a “hearse” per se, but a slingshot dragster built with Grandpa Munster’s coffin as the body. The story is that Richard “Korky” Korkes – who was working for car customizer George Barris in the 1960s – purchased a fiberglass coffin out of the back of a funeral home.
The car the casket sat on was a fairly conventional slingshot rail, with a 289-cu.in. Ford V-8 with a four-speed, with dual quads. Ten-inch Rader aluminum and steel wheels – fitted with awesome Firestone 10.5-inch slicks – were modified to feature a spider as a center cap. Zoomie organ pipes made up the exhaust, and what should’ve been a radiator was a headstone with the inscription “Born 1367. Died ?”
DRAG-U-LA was featured heavily in the Munsters episode Hot Rod Herman, which pitted Grandpa against a pair of drag-racing hustlers who made off with the other great Munster vehicle, the Munster Koach. It was also the focus of the full-length Munster movie Munster, Go Home! where Herman competes in DRAG-U-LA in a cross-country race.
A few pop-culture references: Rob Zombie released the song “Dragula” in 1998 on his solo album Hellbilly Deluxe, and portions of the Munster, Go Home! episode appear on the Gearhead Records compilation All Punk Rods.
Check out the best scenes from Hot Rod Herman in the video:
Jaguar XKE Hearse
Harold and Maude was the original hipster movie, featuring a weird kid in skinny pants having a sexual relationship with a 79-year-old Ruth Gordon. It’s a pretty hilarious movie, with a great soundtrack from Cat Stevens, and it features one of the coolest cars ever in film – a 1971 Jaguar XKE which the title character, Harold, (played by Bud Cort) modifies into a hearse, to shuttle him to his hobby, which is attending funerals.
There’s little to know about the XKE hearse’s construction, and it flies off a cliff at the end, so there isn’t one left to ogle anymore. What we do know – from an article by Mark John Calabrese in Roundel in 1997 – was that this sporty little GT was the inspiration for one of BMW’s coolest, most anarchic cars:
“[A]t this year’s New York Auto Show,” Calabrese wrote, “I found out that the car came from a movie…Sure, that’s it: Let’s build the Jag hearse from Harold and Maude, only as a BMW (and let’s not throw it off the cliff in the final reel). And sure enough, the offshoot inspired by a cult film is becoming a cult classic in its own right; I predict that the M coupe will be the successor to the M3 as the car of choice for true hard-core Club performance diehards. Certainly the little cult icon has won over an alarming number of previously sane Bimmer junkies”
Also cool is the fact that some nut in the Netherlands has recreated a handful of the key Jaguar Hearse scenes from Harold and Maude using LEGOs as his medium of choice.
1964 Mercedes-Benz Leichenwagen
The Germans have better, more descriptive, less euphemistic names for everything. “Hospital,” for example is “Krankenhaus,” which sounds awesome and literally translates to “suffer house.” The German word for “hearse” is “Leichenwagen,” which is the quite obvious translation: “corpse car.” And you thought Will Rogers was plain-spoken.
This gorgeous 1964 Mercedes-Benz Leichenwagen was for sale in 2010 on “German Cars for Sale Blog,” which sounds pretty literal itself. The hearse, which was on sale in Italy, was up for auction on eBay, and only bid up to $9,400 at the time, registering a no-sale, despite having appeared on Bring-A-Trailer.com.
The Euro headlamps make it cool, but the amazing coachwork and cabinetry inside are absolutely breathtaking. Even if you weren’t a fan of hearses, you can’t deny that this is one of the coolest cars around.
1916 Packard Funeral Bus
According to the National Museum of Funeral History – unaware there was such a thing, but OK – the 1916 Packard Funeral Bus featured coachwork from the Fifth Avenue Coach Company in New York City.
Originally mounted to the top of a Kelly Truck Chassis, the Funeral Bus was intended to be a self-contained, six-wheeled, rolling mourning parlor, with room enough for pallbearers, 20 mourners and the guest of honor, who – along with his casket – was stashed in a special compartment.
Just one issue, though: This behemoth went into service in San Francisco, where it had to climb hills with the bereaved and the deceased alike. At one point during a climb, the coach tipped back and the weight of all those folks perched high above the wheels shifted, causing pallbearers and mourners to tumble around, and the casket overturned.
Immediately, the bus was pulled out of service, removed from the truck chassis and legend has it that a ranch hand used it as his home for almost 40 years after.
Many years later, the body was reunited with a chassis – this time a four-cylinder Packard drivetrain, which allows breakneck speeds of up to 12 miles per hour. On those hard rubber tires, it must be quite comfortable.
Kim Jong-Il’s 1976 Lincoln Continental
As (mostly) Americans, it should do your heart good that when the last guy to really buy into communism croaked, he chose to drive to the great beyond in a fat-ass Lincoln Continental built by capitalist pig-dogs, typically for the enjoyment of the ruling class.
Like DRAG-U-LA, this isn’t really a “hearse,” either. It’s more like a Continental that’s gone to a high-top van conversion specialist, with a dead Kim Jong-Il strapped to the roof like Aunt Edna in Vacation.
Safe within the confines of his coffin, Kim Jong-Il rested in his favorite monochrome tan leisure suit and boots with four-inch lifts for the occasion.