Hearses, Limos And The Collectors Who Love Them
MICHELE NORRIS, host:
There are thousands of car shows every summer, but one of the most unusual is happening this week in a small town in northern Ohio. The Professional Car Society is for people who love cars that were built for a profession - things like hearses, limos, and ambulances.
Kabir Bhatia of member station WKSU tells us more.
KABIR BHATIA: A '69 Cadillac with 40,000 miles? A '94 with 48,000? Even granny cars used for grocery runs rarely have low mileage like that. But these are professional cars with gleaming black or white bodies holding ornate coachwork, vintage hospital equipment and sporting lots of sirens and lights.
This year's meet is drawing people like Ron Devies to the town of Hudson, south of Cleveland. He's a police chief in a small Ohio township, and heads the Car Society's Ohio chapter. He's expecting more than a hundred professional cars this week, some from as far away as Florida and Canada. But his own 1970 Ford ambulance was delayed by a flat tire.
Mr. RON DEVIES (Professional Car Society): AAA refused to take it because they claimed that it's a commercial vehicle. They wouldn't even look at it. It's no different than any other van. It's just got some funny lights on it and a cot in the back.
BHATIA: That's often the main difference between a consumer and a professional car. A heavier suspension here, a custom roof there, and the name of a funeral home or emergency service company painted neatly on the side.
The vehicles aren't all just ambulances or hearses, though. Dan Herrick drove his combination car here from Chatham, New York.
Mr. DAN HERRICK: Most people don't realize that at one in time, there was over 50 percent of the ambulance service in the United States was provided by funeral directors. Small town - the funeral director could afford one car. So, he'd have a car that was called a combination car. This can be used either as a hearse or an ambulance.
It takes five minutes to switch it from ambulance to hearse mode, or from hearse mode back to ambulance. The emergency light on the roof comes off. It's got panels that go over the back windows, so that you have the landau bars and the panels to make it look like it's a hearse. There's panels on the floor that flip over; one side is ambulance side, the other side is the rollers for the casket.
BHATIA: Don't bother making a joke about this car, Herrick says he's heard them all. But his story, going from ambulance driver to smitten collector, is a typical one.
Mr. HERRICK: I like the fact that it's a custom-built car. This car that I have here was built for a funeral home that did a service for its community.
I joined an ambulance service in 1967 and the head of the service then at one time looked at me and said you're going to have to own one of these cars, just the way you feel about them. And I said: Oh no, nobody ever collects one of these cars. Well, I now have four of them.
(Soundbite of laughter)
BHATIA: The combination cars arriving ahead of the convention were mostly GM-based from the '60s or '70s. Many look like they just came off the showroom floor.
LeeAnn Boston gets 20 miles per gallon in her '94 Cadillac funeral limo, which is unusual because cars like hers can weigh upwards of three tons. But it's the dark gold that catches the eye.
Ms. LEEANN BOSTON: People look at it, they stare at it. I live in Hendersonville, where there's a lot of country music stars, but people do turn around and look at it. And on the interstate people look at it, kids point at it. And it gets a lot of attention.
BHATIA: Ron Devies estimates that two-thirds of the club's members are paramedics or funeral directors. But they're far from a dour and somber bunch. Most could just as easily pass for muscle car collectors - friendly, middle-aged guys and a few women who love to turn a wrench.
For NPR news, I'm Kabir Bhatia.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.