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Friday 2nd March 2007


I WOULDN'T BE SEEN DEAD IN THAT...

Fancy something rather unusual? Jonny Smith explains his facination with dead black cars

Black Humour?
Black Humour?

Every car nut on earth has a story of woe about a bargain opportunity they never seized. Unfortunately, some eight years later I’m still in the grieving process. Over a hearse. And you know what? I’m not afraid to admit it.

For some reason there has always been an unsavoury fascination for cadaver carriers. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not a Goth or some velvet cloak wearing druid, I simply revel at the prospect of driving a big, cheap, ever-so-slightly-socially-unacceptable car that looks like Dracula’s greenhouse.

The bargain in question was a 1982 Mk2 Ford Granada Coleman-Milne. Pretty common in hearse circles. Finished in Mason’s Black, naturally. But there was a beast lurking within this classic Essex mourn mobile, and it certainly wasn’t the original 2.8 V6 ‘Cologne’. The owner had gone and shoe horned an ex-Mustang 302 (5.0ish-litre) V8 in, complete with three-speed auto and side exit exhausts. The damage? Just £1,000 with tax, test and even a free coffin thrown in to, errr, sweeten the deal.

Ford Cardinal
Ford Cardinal
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Saab 95 Hearse
Saab 95 Hearse
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I had no money, my job paid pitifully and the ‘Dad loan’ trump card had already been used a few months previous. Needless to say I badgered the owner via phone and spent several nights trying to form a purchase plan. Aside from the zero funds situation, my girlfriend at the time threatened point blank to leave me if I turned up outside the flat in a “bloody death car”. Letting that bargain go pained me. Splitting up from her a few months later pained me less.

Dead low

Custom cars undoubtedly kindled my hearse interest in the ‘90s like Stuart Holmes’ Mk2 Granada Cardinal at the annual Doncaster Custom Car Show. Boasting deep purple paint, gold wire wheels, full hydraulic suspension and even a goldfish tank set into the tailgate, this was a pointless but awesome piece of automotive art. Any hearse that has the audio system hidden within a coffin never fails to impress. Talking of which, there is a low-rider 1983 Cadillac Fleetwood across the blue in America (pictured) which goes bump in the night, literally. It also drives on three wheels...

In the mid-90s, there were several other hearses kicking about in the UK that had been given the hot rod treatment. An ex-funeral 1959 Chevrolet Bel-Air with supercharger and throttle butterflies bursting through the bonnet remains one of the rudest machines I’ve seen. The shrunken pigmy head swinging from the rear mirror was perhaps a little unnecessary, but for some simply driving a standard hearse doesn’t sufficiently go against the grain.

Hollywood hearses

Hearses have always snatched a smattering of limelight in the movies. Everything from the three ‘blind’ mice assassins in Dr No, chasing Sean Connery down a mountain pass in a pre-war LaSalle hearse, to the Six Feet Under TV series and The Addams Family, naturally. Brett Barris, offspring of custom car creator George Barris (he of Batmobile, General Lee and Back to Future DeLorean fame amongst countless others) built a wild roof chopped 1967 Cadillac Miller Meteor hearse named ‘Kargoyle’. Wearing spider web billet wheels, gruesome murals and air suspension, this was one of over 70 hearses that helped set the Guinness World Record for the mile long ‘Longest Hearse Procession’ on October 29 2005. Tasteful.

Lay me to rest -- in a Montego

Every so often (usually around midnight after a tumbler of port) the search begins for bargain hearses, and it never fails to disappoint. A quick click on the stock list of Zenith Classics (see link below) yielded a 1983 Ford Mk6 Norwood (Mk2 Granny) for £895, an ’89 Carlton-based Vauxhall Quest II for £2k or 1986 Woodhall Nicholson Rover Montego for £750. Oh dear. Can you imagine being driven to your final resting place in a mutant two-litre automatic Montego with Brown Ambia innards?

I mean, really. Sure, you’re deceased, but I’m sure it’s still hurtful.

My brother’s mate used to own an old Morris Oxford hearse. He borrowed it once and said it was petrifying. It felt as it someone was constantly staring over your shoulder. The car had loads of Feu Orange air fresheners but, try as they might, the stench of formaldehyde was unmistakeable. Even though it had been out of service for several decades the eerie smell lingered on. 

Hearses: versatile

Hearses, it seems, are fantastic value for money motoring. It’s hardly surprising when you consider they’re usually maintained regardless of cost, have low mileage mechanicals and are dry stored. Certainly it’s been done by some eccentric folk, but employing a hearse as an MPV might not be to everyone’s tastes. The Neighbourhood Watch would almost certainly spit feathers - which is almost the incentive – but just imagine the practical interior space. By thinking outside the ‘casket’, a hearse is actually a very useful workhorse. Remove the wood veneer decks and coffin rollers and you’ve got a cavernous boot – a blank canvas for creativity.

Bolt in another set of seats? These, together with the pair of pallbearer’s seats, will make for a comfortable seven or eight seater. The kids will love looking out through huge rear glasshouse. Or, for the tradesman, use it as a van. If I was a carpet fitter or a painter and decorator, I’d jump at the chance. Paint it a happier hue and get your business noticed in the vicinity. Going camping?

If there’s room in the back for two coffins, there’s room in the back for a king-size futon. What a genius working class mobile home for while you’re sat in a cold forest following the WRC in Wales or heading down to Lemans for a weekend of madness.

For some aging hearses the decommissioning process is a little more brutal. Being cheap and usually based upon tough old boots like Daimler DS420s and Granadas means there is never a shortage of ex-funeral machinery T-boning their way around Britain’s banger race tracks.

Hearses today

‘Large flat deck with ample space for two coffins on the upper deck; full size bearer seats (2) with seat belts; leather upholstery in warm charcoal; coffin illumination lights (halogen); comprehensive immobiliser system.’ Clearly, this is not your usual car brochure. Should you pass away these days, the array of corpse collecting machinery is immense. For British coachbuilders like Woodall Nicholson business are still very much alive. Dating back to the 1820s, Woodall Nicholson is one of the oldest UK conversion companies. They merged in the ‘90s with Coleman Milne (see link below), who is not only the largest but also the last name in quality funeral chariots.

Coleman-Milne’s current best selling hearse is an Australian Ford Cardinal, based upon a Fairlane. For £62,000, you get 4.0-litre straight six power and a car with a girth of over seven feet. According to Coleman Milne’s Central Area Sales Manager Kevin Heath, they sell 60-80 hearses and around 100 limos a year.

"Most people tend to buy the matching limousine. The Australian Ford is perfect because most British estates are simply too small and of course it’s factory right hand drive," he says.

But if an Aussie blue oval is a bit too brash, why not try a Saab 9-5 or Mercedes E-class based hearse? Starting at £67,000 and £72k respectively, these cars are not only hand crafted in Bolton, but also put through strict safety tests at MIRA. At the end of the day, bodies mean extra (dead) weight, which means the brakes and suspension need to cope. 

So, although that bitterness has passed for that V8 Coleman Milne Mk2 Granada in Weymouth, there still remains a warped longing in my heart. The subject hasn’t even been approached with my current fairer half. Talking of utter bitterness, memories of a two-owner green 1967 Dodge Charger in Guernsey for just £3000 still torture me. It was a few years back and I was earning £10k a year. Let’s not go there...

Have you ever declined an absolute steal and kicked yourself for years? Share the anguish by posting up your stories.

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