Professional Cars - A Short History - Basic Terminology


   

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Hearses

The hearse, also known as the funeral coach, has been around since the 1700's. Starting with horse-drawn hearses made by various carriage companies, the carriage was hand carved usually out of mahogany, that featured ornately carved pillars, drapes, glass windows, and other funerary icons to denote their status as a special occasion vehicle.

The first recorded self-propelled professional vehicle is the 1895 Electric Ambulance given by J.P. Morgan to the people of New York City pictured in an 1895 issue of Harpers.

A number of manufacturers built funeral omnibuses in the early days of the motorized coach. Typically they were not built by professional car manufacturers. More often than not they were one-off vehicles built on commercial truck or bus chassis and manufactured by commercial vehicle body builders.

On June 15th, 1909, one of America's premier builders of horse-drawn hearses, Crane & Breed of Cincinnati, Ohio, along with long established coachbuilder Cunningham of Rochester, NY., introduced the first commercially available auto hearses as did Sayers and Scovill (S&S), and Meteor (which later teamed up with Miller to form Miller-Meteor aka M&M)

A funeral home and furniture store may seem like an odd combination today, but a hundred years ago it was common in small towns for an undertaker to also operate a furniture or hardware store.  The reason is because the furniture manufacturers also made the caskets.  A handful of these original funeral home/furniture store combinations still exist mostly in the South and Midwest.

Consequently many manufacturers marketed dual-purpose hearses and furniture trucks to these small-town business.

By the early 1920s the automobile had found more acceptance in the funeral procession and metal was well on its way to replacing wood as the most popular body building material; hence the styling of hearses evolved to match other automobiles of the day and the limousine style hearse, featuring windows down the entire side of the vehicle, became the most popular type, mainly it was largely a matter of versatility. Meteor's model T was an instant success in sales when it was introduced in 1915, largely because it could be used for more than just work as a hearse in processions. Also, hearse styles ran cycles of 10 to 15 years up thru the second world war, and the cycle was ripe for something new and different. In the latter half of the 1920s the Henney and Eureka companies introduced the first 3-way hearses, featuring a casket table that moved along a Y-shaped track to emerge from either the side or rear of the coach; this curb-loading feature, If anything, raised the loading height of a hearse, because of the necessary space displaced by the side loading mechanism. Curbside loading caught on because it was a courtesy that people noticed for safety and neatness reasons and kept the pallbearers from stepping into a street that was still most likely unpaved and muddy.

For the 1938 model year Sayers & Scovill introduced the industry's first landau or Victoria-style hearse, featuring a heavily-padded leather or vinyl roof with a blind quarter panel decorated by S-shaped irons (called landau bars) inspired by those used to lower the tops on horse-drawn Victorias in the 19th Century.

Moving on to the hardware inside the hearse, one finds that the sort of facilities enjoyed by the deceased on his or her last ride hardly differs from one coachbuilder's car to another, let alone any funeral coach produced in the last half century. To simplify loading virtually every hearse has eight to ten cylindrical rubber casket rollers mounted horizontally in the vehicle's rear door threshold and carpeted or Formica-surfaced rear floor. Once inside one will see skid Strips. They prevent the hearse floor from getting marred during loading of a casket. Then you will see a pair of clamps called bier pins. These pins are slid into bier pin plates that run a line of holes down the center of the casket compartment; the rear pin has an adjustment wheel that pushes the rubber face pads of the front and rear bier pins against the ends of the casket. To reduce the chance of casket movement in an accident, today's funeral coach builders use swivel-proof hexagonal mounting holes instead of round ones. Before the arrival of the adjustable bier pin, the only adjustment was a hex design pin by Superior that had an offset, or eccentric, pin base so there was a way to take up some slack when setting the pin after loading a casket. In the end, Hexagonal mounting holes don't really do anything to help hold a casket securely, if the pins are set properly and the casket is loaded with a modicum of care.

Both landau and limousine-style hearses generally come with curtains partially covering the casket compartment windows. But different drape styles didn't seem to be restricted to one particular type of coach, as many combinations had formal drapes, while many 3 ways had airliner drapes. The difference in drapes are: Formal style drapes are usually made from a heavy velvet material and are hung in a manner where the cloth is drawn back in the middle of the span to form concentric arches or radiuses in the fabric. Airline style drapes, which began appearing in the mid-1950's as airplane travel became commonplace, hang straight down from between its attachments at the top and bottom of the casket compartment windows and usually use a lightly-colored woven material for a more modern-looking appearance.

See the Manufacturer's Index for a list of Professional Car Builders

Hearse and Ambulance Terminology

1973 EMS SYSTEMS ACT - The 1973 EMS Systems Act - passed in 1974, implemented four years later in 1978 - required that communities receiving federal funds for their programs had ambulances that met new federal specifications. Three chassis styles meet the criteria and are still in use today: Type I uses a small truck body with a modular compartment, Type II has a van body with a raised roof and Type III has van chassis with a modular compartment. Passenger-based vehicles were purposely excluded from legislation and the last American-made automobile-based ambulance was built in 1978. However a handful of automobile-based ambulances are still made in Europe using Mercedes E-Class and Volvo S-60/S-80 chassis.

3-WAY HEARSE - Considered by many to be the best style available, 3-way hearses featured no center divider (the thin wall with the glass window, much like a limousine)  between the front and back interior, but instead had suicide doors, and a motorized or manual pivoting and rolling casket table equipped with its own rollers, skids, and bier pins that would extend out the back doors as well as the side of the car as well, so as to allow a funeral to be loaded from the curbside.

ANGEL OF MEMORY - A common funeral industry symbol that depicts an Angel whose left hand holds a wreath, a symbol of eternal life. Her right hand held a cycas leaf, a symbol of memorialization since Egyptian times.

BIER PINS - Pins found within the coffin area of a hearse used to secure the coffin and prevent its shifting while being transported. There are two basic types: adjustable and fixed. Adjustable prevent forward and back movement. Fixed prevent lateral movement.

CARVED-PANEL STYLE - A style of hearse discontinued in the 1940's, evidenced by ornate carved depictions on the hearse's sides of draperies or columns. Ornamentation may be of wood, pressed metal, or pressed metal over wood.

CASKET - The funeral industry preferred term for coffin.

CASKET KEY - A device resembling a crank, used to lower and lock the lid of a coffin.

CHURCH TRUCK - An folding gurney used to support and transport a coffin to and from the funeral vehicle. Also used to support the coffin for the funeral service.

COACH - Another term for hearse.

COACHMAKERS - Acme, AHA, A.J. Miller, Barnette, Brantford, Comet, Cotner-Bevington, Crane & Breed, Cunningham,  Eagle, Economy, Eureka,  Federal, Flxible, Henney, Hess & Eisenhardt, Knightstown, Krystal, Leo Gillig, McClain, Memphian, Miller-Meteor, National, Pinner, Rock Falls, Sayers & Scovill, Siebert,  Superior, Weller, Wolfington

COFFIN - The container for the dearly departed.

COMBINATION - A hearse that was equipped with both funeral and ambulance equipment. In the old days, funeral homes ran ambulance services as well as funeral services. This called for some cars to double as both funeral cars and ambulances, featuring casket rollers, AND lights, sirens, gurneys, and oxygen equipment. Some even had removable landau panels, as illustrated by this car. Look closely and you can see the seams where the landau bar panels detach from the body. Some small towns couldn't afford both a hearse and an ambulance so the "combo" could do both.

Combination coaches, which were very popular, gave a funeral director an affordable tool to operate the funeral home, while also serving his community with ambulance service. Funeral homes used to run the ambulance service for many years, because they were the only ones who had a vehicle long enough to carry someone in a recumbent position. Many times the funeral home offered the ambulance service for free, or next to nothing. Despite common belief, funeral homes did not make money on ambulance runs. If anything, it was a good will gesture to the area he served. Combination coaches were also fitted with reversible casket rollers, folding attendants' seats and removable roof beacons (usually unbolted through a zippered headliner in the driver's compartment) and sirens. However, the features varied from one extreme to another, depending what the owner wanted.

Combinations disappeared from general service in the late 1970s, when a downsized Cadillac commercial chassis appeared at the same time as changes in the Federal ambulance regulations governing minimum width, headroom and equipment levels. Even though they were typically the coachbuilder's cheapest model, the first-call or service car is usually the rarest because these served as the workhorses for the funeral home - making first calls at the place of death, carrying chairs or casket-lowering equipment to the cemetery - and were frequently treated as the most disposable vehicle in the fleet. Though a few service cars in the 1930s and 1940s were constructed on expensive Cadillac and Packard chassis, they usually resembled a basic panel truck or sedan delivery (many were in fact cut and stretched from Chevrolet, Pontiac and Ford sedan deliveries by low-cost firms down south like Memphian, Barnette or Economy Coach) with a stylized chrome wreath affixed to the windowless metal side panels.

COMBO see COMBINATION

COMMERCIAL GLASS - Most high-roof professional cars built since the late 1950s have custom-made extra-tall windows and windshields, incompatible with standard OEM factory glass. As some cheaper makes and models included the standard OEM glass, a distinction needed to made when describing the vehicle in catalogs and advertisements. Coaches equipped with commercial glass are consequently much more expensive, and provide their owners with increased status within the industry. One downside to commercial glass, is that it can be next to impossible to find commercial windshields for some pre-1980s professional cars. Most of today's Cadillac hearses plus a small percentage of Cadillac limousines continue to use commercial glass.  Commercial glass is custom-made by a handful of manufacturers and can be up to 45% larger than regular OEM windows.

DATE MARKS - Bizarre and very ugly chrome-plated bars and triangular moldings placed on the grills and hoods of Sayers & Scovill vehicles from about 1935 until 1965. Supposedly used to hide the year & make of S&S chassis, although I personally doubt the practice would have continued for as long as it did. Most likely a poorly executed attempt to distinguish S&S coaches from their competition.  

ENDLOADER - The most common type of hearse available, the endloader featured a center divider, and no casket table at all. Instead, the floor was outfitted only with casket rollers and skids (skidplates) to ease the coffin into place. In some cases endloaders have suicide doors, but more often than not, the sport regular doors. Also common on an endloader is a center partition, a wall just behind the drivers compartment that separates the front and rear. While some endloaders, like Oldsmobile and Pontiac, may or may not sport a center partition, you will never see a 3-way hearse with a center partition.

END SERVICING - see ENDLOADER

FIRST-CALL CAR - During the first part of the 20th century, many funeral services were held in the deceased's home. This facilitated the need for a vehicle that could be quickly dispatched to the residence to take care of the body's preparation (embalming). The Model T was a favorite first call car as it was large enough to carry a folding cold-table, portable embalming pump, surgeon's case. make-up kit and all the fluids required. Also see SERVICE CAR

FLOWER CAR - Flower cars as we know them were an outgrowth of the practice of using a large touring car to carry flowers in a funeral cortege when there was an overabundance of same that wouldn't fit into the hearse. As closed cars became more popular, and phaetons declined in popularity, someone decided to do something to cover that situation.

It isn't known exactly who was first to build a purpose built flower car of the more modern variety, but by the mid '30's, some cars were being stretched and built into the open well, or Chicago type, flower car. Silver-Knightstown was an early builder of some examples of which photos still exist. The usual base vehicle was a premium coupe or convertible coupe, and its contours were kept to the back of the roofline, with an open well behind the roofline, capped at the trailing edge with a dummy convertible top boot.

I've seen evidence that Meteor and Eureka had built flower cars on Cadillac or LaSalle chassis in '37, but it was Henney in 1938 that made the flower car popular and practical for many firms. Henney's first flower car differed from earlier versions in that it had a closed rear compartment, with a deck to carry the flowers on. The deck could be raised and lowered to best handle the number and type of pieces being carried, and with the deck in its full raised position, there was room in the compartment beneath it to carry a casket. Standard equipment included a drop type tailgate for loading from the rear, with roller in its inside surface, but a side hinged rear door was optional. There was also a small right rear door for access to the rear compartment from the front of that area, and a dummy left rear door. After Henney introduced its flower car, things really took off in that market segment, and other manufacturers were quick to follow suit.

There were two types of long wheelbase coupe style flower cars... Eastern and Western, or Chicago style, as Chicago was where the Western style flower cars were most popular. Chicago style cars had a large open well, with no deck, but often had a canvas device like a tarpaulin which could be suspended at different levels in the well. They also had the usual rear loading door or tailgate, and it wasn't uncommon for them to have a pair of casket rollers mounted in the door sill. If there was any hardware on the floor of the well, it was usually skid strips, with no rollers. A Chicago style flower car could be used as an open top casket car if desired, as the boot could be raised, and usually had to be raised before opening the rear loading door, and this provided access to load a casket into that compartment.

While Western style flower cars were popular in Chicago, Eastern style flower cars weren't uncommon in that city, either, and I've seen ads for firms showing their fleets with Eastern style flower cars, as well as seeing footage of funerals in that city using an Eastern style flower car. Naturally, an Eastern style flower car was more versatile than its Western counterpart, as it could also be used as a service car or first call car, or as a hearse. Eastern style flower cars were usually also available with a fixed deck, and sometimes a car was built with a fixed deck and an upholstered rear compartment, instead of the compartment being lined with stainless steel or aluminum, and such a car was generally referred to as a floral coach.

FULL WINDOW, or LIMO STYLE - This style of hearse lacked the landau bar, and instead favored a full window design all the way around the car instead.

FUNERAL CAR - Generic term for any funeral vehicle: hearse, flower car, service car, or limousine. Funeral industry accepted term.

HEARSE - A vehicle used for transporting the deceased for burial ceremonies. Ornate and luxurious. 

INVALID COACH - just another word for AMBULANCE

KRINKLE TOP - A type of paint that wrinkles as it dries, used on roofs of some hearses. Resembles vinyl but is more durable.

LANDAU - Style of hearse with no extreme rear side windows, with ornamental landau irons. Came into vogue in the 1930's and remains the most popular style.  Resembles the landau carriage of 19th century: The most luxurious of carriages and, thus, a status symbol. Both landau and limousine-style hearses generally come with curtains partially covering the casket compartment windows. But different drape styles didn't seem to be restricted to one particular type of coach, as many combinations had formal drapes, while many 3 ways had airliner drapes. The difference in drapes are: Formal style drapes are usually made from a heavy velvet material and are hung in a manner where the cloth is drawn back in the middle of the span to form concentric arches or radiuses in the fabric. Airline style drapes, which began appearing in the mid-1950's as airplane travel became commonplace, hang straight down from between its attachments at the top and bottom of the casket compartment windows and usually use a lightly-colored woven material for a more modern-looking appearance.

LANDAU IRON (BAR or BOW) - This refers to the "S" shaped chrome bar on the outside of the casket compartment. This is the most distinctive trademark of hearses to date. Based on the hinge/support device of the 19th century landau carriage.

LEATHER BACK see LANDAU

LIMOUSINE STYLE - A style of hearse with windows on the sides from front to back, enabling easy viewing of the coffin during a funeral procession. Both landau and limousine-style hearses generally come with curtains partially covering the casket compartment windows. But different drape styles didn't seem to be restricted to one particular type of coach, as many combinations had formal drapes, while many 3 ways had airliner drapes. The difference in drapes are: Formal style drapes are usually made from a heavy velvet material and are hung in a manner where the cloth is drawn back in the middle of the span to form concentric arches or radiuses in the fabric. Airline style drapes, which began appearing in the mid-1950's as airplane travel became commonplace, hang straight down from between its attachments at the top and bottom of the casket compartment windows and usually use a lightly-colored woven material for a more modern-looking appearance.

MAGAZINES - Funeral Industry magazines that featured ads and features on professional cars include: Casket & Sunnyside; Mortuary Management; Embalmers' Monthly; American Funeral Director; Embalmer; Funeral Director; International Cemetery & Funeral Management; American Cemetery

SERVICE CAR - Funeral industry preferred term for first-call car. A less ornate vehicle used for transportation of the deceased from place of death, hospital, medical examiner, etc. to the mortuary. Usually resembling a station wagon or van. Service cars disappeared when alternative vehicles became available, such as metal bodied station wagons, and earlier, sedan deliveries. Funeral homes still used service cars, but homebrewed them for the most part. For that matter, in the late '70's, station wagon conversion service cars were fairly popular, but were, and are, often confused with hearses because they were more of an entry level hearse conversion than an actual workhorse service car like in earlier times. This was one of the things that diluted any special look a landau hearse ever had. Superior offered a service car on Pontiac chassis into the late '60's.

SIDELOADER - see 3-WAY

SIDE SERVICING - see 3-WAY

SILENT SIREN - a flashing red or purple light mounted on the hood or front bumper of an ambulance to signify an emergency was in progress. 

TOE-PINCHER - A style of coffin that is hexagonal in shape, common in Europe and Asia, and pre-20th century United States. Example

THREE-WAY - see 3-WAY

2004 Mark Theobald - Coachbuilt.com, with special thanks to Bernie DeWinter IV.

 

    For more information please read:

The Professional Car (Quarterly Journal of the Professional Car Society)

Gregg D. Merksamer - Professional Cars: Ambulances, Funeral Cars and Flower Cars

Thomas A. McPherson - American Funeral Cars & Ambulances Since 1900

Carriage Museum of America - Horse-Drawn Funeral Vehicles: 19th Century Funerals

Carriage Museum of America -  Horse Drawn - Military, Civilian, Veterinary - Ambulances

Gunter-Michael Koch - Bestattungswagen im Wandel der Zeit

Walt McCall & Tom McPherson - Classic American Ambulances 1900-1979: Photo Archive

Walt McCall & Tom McPherson - Classic American Funeral Vehicles 1900-1980 Photo Archive

Walter M. P. McCall - The American Ambulance 1900-2002

Walter M.P. McCall - American Funeral Vehicles 1883-2003

Michael L. Bromley & Tom Mazza - Stretching It: The Story of the Limousine

Richard J. Conjalka - Classic American Limousines: 1955 Through 2000 Photo Archive

Richard J. Conjalka - Stretch Limousines 1928-2001 Photo Archive

Thomas A. McPherson - Eureka: The Eureka Company: a complete history

Thomas A. McPherson - Superior: The complete history

Thomas A. McPherson - Flxible: The Complete History

Thomas A. McPherson - Miller-Meteor: The Complete History

Robert R. Ebert  - Flxible: A History of the Bus and the Company

Hearses - Automobile Quarterly Vol 36 No 3

Marian Suman-Hreblay - Dictionary of World Coachbuilders and Car Stylists

Daniel D. Hutchins - Wheels Across America: Carriage Art & Craftsmanship

Marian Suman-Hreblay - Dictionary of World Coachbuilders and Car Stylists

Michael Lamm and Dave Holls - A Century of Automotive Style: 100 Years of American Car Design

Nick Georgano - The Beaulieu Encyclopedia of the Automobile: Coachbuilding

Marian Suman-Hreblay - Automobile Manufacturers Worldwide Registry

G.N. Georgano & G. Marshall Naul - The Complete Encyclopedia of Commercial Vehicles

Albert Mroz - Illustrated Encyclopedia of American Trucks & Commercial Vehicles

Beverly Rae Kimes & Henry Austin Clark Jr. - Standard Catalog of American Cars 1805-1942

John Gunnell - Standard Catalog of American Cars, 1946-1975

James M. Flammang & Ron Kowalke - Standard Catalog of American Cars, 1976-1999

 



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