[ last update: 06.10.2004 ]

The (new) Cadillac Database©

Professional Cars
Cadillac Chassis

Introduction and Index

Return to The (New) Cadillac Database© Index Page
or select "Professional Cars" years from the table below


Pick one   >

1902 1903 1904 1905 1906 1907 1908 1909
1910 1911 1912 1913 1914 1915 1916 1917 1918 1919
1920 1921 1922 1923 1924 1925 1926 1927 1928 1929
1930 1931 1932 1933 1934 1935 1936 1937 1938 1939
1940 1941 1942

WW2 years

1946 1947 1948 1949
1950 1951 1952 1953 1954 1955 1956 1957 1958 1959
1960 1961 1962 1963 1964 1965 1966 1967 1968 1969
1970 1971 1972 1973 1974 1975 1976 1977 1978 1979
1980 1981 1982 1983 1984 1985 1986 1987 1988 1989
1990 1991 1992 1993 1994 1995 1996 1997 1998 1999-up


At the welcome and constructive suggestion of commercial car enthusiast, Jim Crabtree, all professional/commercial cars built on the Cadillac chassis were removed from the Dream Cars section  of The (new) Cadillac Database© and put in this  new section, devoted exclusively to Professional Cars, Commercial Cars and Business/Livery vehicles.

With the gracious help of a few aficionados, and particularly professional car enthusiast and expert, Bernie De Winter, the majority of these vehicles now have been properly categorized and identified.


Some Professional Car Terminology

What are professional cars?

Professional cars consist of hearses, flower cars, and ambulances. There are many variants of the above, but you get the basic idea. The PCS (Professional Car Society) is a very involved group of people interested in the preservation of such vehicles. Sure, it may seem morbid, or crazy to some of you out there. But consider this: these body styles are all hand built. The commercial chassis and the front and rear clips [except in 1961!] of these cars are the only thing they have in common with their factories of origin. The roof, glass, and doors are all manufactured by expert craftsmen. Just as the work that went into that Willoughby bodied Duesenberg, or that Dietrich bodied Packard, professional cars are an example of this kind of commitment to quality.

Next time you pass by a hearse or a limousine, study the design, and how fluid the proportions are maintained for such a long wheelbase. These underrated automobiles by most collector circles share the same qualities of the cars they collect, with the exception of the role they played in society.

Funeral cars come in many varieties. Especially when looking at the vintages before 1973. There are flower cars, landaus, limousine styles, three ways, combinations, town cars, and my personal favorites, carved sides.

What is a flower car?

Flower cars are by far the rarest of professional cars. They consist of a funeral car without the rear roof area. Sort of like an El-Camino (pardon the simile). The rear portion has a tonneau type deck, usually manufactured out of stainless steel. Under this deck there is room for the casket, and above the deck there is room for all the floral arrangements. Hence the name flower car. Not many funeral directors ordered these due to their high cost. As a result, manufacturers only made less than 10 per year.

What is a landau? A landau style hearse has just what the name implies. Landau bars on the C-pillars. Some might have the traditional "S" curve to them while others may have a more abstract "/" look to them. It all depends on the body style and what suits it.

What is a limousine style? A limousine style hearse has glass where the landau bars normally would go. To better explain this, the C-pillars are shorter, and the glass area is longer1.
1  Expert Bernie De Winter adds that in North American hearses, "limousine" refers to a body style with windows in the rear quarters of the roof.  Throughout the Database he has noticed that many times I have confused it with the idea that a limousine combination coach can actually be converted to a limousine in the traditional sense of passenger-carrying limousines. This is wrong.

What is a three-way? A three-way refers to the way the casket can be loaded in or out of the car depending on the circumstance the car was in during a ceremony. Three ways have long doors on either side as well as the traditional rear door. Some of the exclusive models incorporated a turntable in order to make the loading easier.

What is a combination? Combination means combination hearse/ambulance. In some municipalities, there was no such thing as an ambulance service. The funeral directors' cars were used as such. So the combination allowed for this to be done efficiently. Combinations have provisions for the medical personnel in the rear as well as a location on the roof for a removable flashing light. The siren was usually mounted somewhere under the hood. Combinations are quite common, and they usually come from small towns.

What is a town-car style? The town car name (or brougham) is usually given to a long wheelbase car (limousine) whose driving compartment is open. That is, there is a sliding roof panel, or canvas top which opens up the driver's compartment. This style was very popular up to WW2. Town cars are very elegant, and as a funeral car, quite a sight to behold.

What is a carved side? Carved side hearses are (in my opinion) the most exquisite pieces of art on wheels. The entire area where the casket is placed is a wooden or steel relief sculpture resembling curtains, pillars, etc. Just think of a gothic cathedral on wheels.

DR47hrse.jpg (10603 bytes)


Ambulance Classification

What is a high-top?

High-top is a name given to an ambulance with a tall roof extension.


Production numbers

Note 1: Few precise production figures are available for commercial cars (ambulances, funeral cars and the like).  Nonetheless, they are relatively rare; therefore, I have included a few in this section as representative of this special kind of Cadillac automobile.



Cadillacs that work for a living

The story of Cadillac Professional Cars
as told to me by aficionado,  Jim Crabtree

The name Cadillac has long been associated with luxury cars. The word  luxury implies cars built for the leisure class. Indeed the vast majority of Cadillacs are not built with the intention of being a utilitarian car. When Cadillac built the first cars with self starters, automatic transmissions and other 'labor saving' features, the image that the Cadillac Motor Division was selling was a car that allowed you to avoid work, not a vehicle that would be used as an integral part of your work day. There is however an entire class of Cadillac cars that were intended to become workhorses for people earning a wage and not carriages for the wealthy. These are the so-called "commercial" Cadillacs and are best known in their hearse and ambulance configurations but they also exist as the seldom recognized and totally unappreciated "commercial" sedans and limousines produced during the 1930s and 1940s.

At the time of Cadillac's founding (1902) there really were no mechanized trucks. Horses and freight wagons still hauled the heavy loads in society. The technology of horseless carriages was so primitive that just getting a vehicle to carry passengers was considered miraculous. As mankind gained a better understanding of harnessing the power of an internal combustion engine, industry worked to devise vehicles that could carry heavier loads. Eventually large trucks were developed whose load ratings could be measured in tons. During this time period, cars themselves also became larger as the advantages of longer wheel bases, bigger interiors and more power engines were recognized.

One industry however clung to horses as the preferred method of carrying their payloads. This is the industry that specialized in moving a human body in a recumbent position:  the funeral and ambulance industry. Fashion was a big part if this. Funeral directors in the early 1900s debated if it was appropriate to use an automobile in a funeral at all. Was there any reason to go from the church to the cemetery at a speed faster than the slow walk of a horse? The early 1900s was also a period of doctors making house calls and doing surgery on the kitchen table.  Hospitals did not offer access to many more machines or medical advances than could be found in a typical home. In short there was little need to rush patients to a hospital via a motorized ambulance.

By the late teens and twenties the advantages of using a motorized vehicle to provide hearse and ambulance service won out over Victorian  funeral traditions and also proved itself in modern medical practice. These industries had a need for a motorized vehicle that could carry a human body in a prone position accompanied by approximately 300-400 pounds of accessories. (casket, flowers, gurney, treatment devices etc). Trucks of this time period certainly had the load carrying capacity to do the job but their suspensions were too rough for anything but cargo.  Traditional builders of horse drawn hearses and funeral equipment such as Cunningham, Crane & Breed, Rock Falls and Sayers & Scovill (S&S) answered the need and began building their own entire vehicles using standardized outsource parts such as motors, gears, axles and electrical parts. These "coach builders" would also build the body and place it on any automobile chassis chosen by the customer, but the focus was on selling a complete car. This practice continued through into the late 1920s when coach builders such as S&S, Meteor, A.J. Miller, Eureka and Superior led the industry in production of hearses and ambulances.

It was eventually discovered by these coach builders that the luxury car builders such as Cadillac and Packard produced a chassis that was strong, reliable and prestigious enough that it made little sense to build a complete car. Business models changed and the coach builders focused on building just the body and leaving the mechanicals to somebody else.

Fortunately during this time (late 1920s into the 1930s) luxury automobile manufactures routinely built and offered a bare chassis that was designed to be the basis for a custom built body. Most car aficionados are familiar with these types of vehicles. Formal and sport bodies created by Fleetwood, Derham, Murphy, Brunn and many others. As technology advanced and car bodies became produced by using all metal processes, it became too costly to produce custom made cars. This advance in technology was also accompanied by a radical decrease in the number of potential customers brought on by the changing economy and status symbols of the 1940s. There remained however one industry with a continuing need for custom built bodies, the hearse and ambulance business.


"Cadillac" hearses and ambulances were never built
by the Cadillac Division of General Motors Corporation

There is a common misunderstanding among car buffs in general and Cadillac enthusiasts in particular that hearses, ambulances, flower cars and the like were built by the Cadillac Division of GM. This of course is a fallacy, propagated no doubt by the lavish "Professional Car" catalogs published by the company each year. In fact, only the chassis and mechanical components of these specialized vehicles ever were built by Cadillac.

These vehicles are not "luxury cars" nor "dream cars", in the accepted sense of the term, even though the compiler of  The (new)  Cadillac Database © incorporated them, initially, in the "Dream Cars" section of that data resource, mainly on account of their relative rarity. It became obvious, however, that vehicles of this kind were deserving of a chapter of their own. It has befallen this writer to creating a new Database section and to contribute his modest expertise to correcting the occasional errors and omissions found in the "Dream Cars" section, insofar as it related to "professional" or "commercial" cars.

From the 1940s to today, there has been a market for approximately 2000-4000 new hearses and ambulances each year (Note: from about 1976 on, all ambulances have been built on truck and van chassis). They were built on luxury car chassis because these chassis offered the heavy duty components that could stand up to the rigors of hard daily use. The names Cadillac and Packard etc. did add to the prestige and social standing of the mortuary that operated one.

The guaranteed sales of 2000-4000 vehicles a year was attractive enough for Cadillac to continue building a "commercial chassis" from the 1940s well into the 1970s for the sole purpose of acting as the base for a new hearse or ambulance body (Packard stopped building a commercial chassis in 1954 and Lincoln did not offer a "commercial chassis", as such, until the 1980s).


Cadillac hearses and ambulances prior to 1984 are NOT
mounted on "stretched" Cadillac chassis, NOR
are they "conversions" of any existing Cadillac model

A commercial chassis was just that, an incomplete car. A long wheelbase frame built to have a body added to it. A frame and engine that was not operable on the street in the form that it was delivered to the coach builders. Please study the photos of the commercial chassis as they were delivered to coach builders. Fenders, hoods, dashboards, door skins and trim were boxed and shipped along with the "kit" to the coach builders and so these parts generally interchange with standard Cadillacs.

However, coach builders purchased parts from other sources, which means that restoration of a hearse or ambulance that is missing parts is 100 times more difficult than for any standard Cadillac. In some years even the windshield is unique to professional cars and does not interchange with any standard Cadillac. For example, owing to the wide rear door of  hearses and ambulances, the dual, horizontal tail light pods designed for the regular 1961 Cadillac models don't fit these commercial cars; they have their own, unique tail lights.

After 1984, the "commercial chassis" delivered to coach builders was more of a stripped down production car. This is particularly true for the stretched limousines of the 1980s onward. In 1985 a stripped Coupe DeVille was used as a "commercial body".

Even literature for these cars is different. Virtually every year Cadillac produced a brochure describing the attributes and advantages of their commercial chassis. Authored by the commercial chassis division of Cadillac, this brochure is one of the rarest brochures for any given year. Many collectors are not even aware of its existence.

Cadillac professional cars were not luxury cars in a typical Cadillac sense, to understand them they should be seen as trucks and business vehicles. The goal for the business owner was a long maintenance free, economical service life. It should be understood that these Professional Cars formed a depreciating business "asset". Their service life was calculated and replacement cycles were established by the buyers long before their initial purchase. The costs associated with operation was optimized throughout the car's useful life cycle.

This is why hearses and ambulances were almost never built using Cadillac's most complex mechanical components. V-8 engines were the norm, V-12 and V-16s are virtually non-existent in professional cars. Even as late as1952 and 1953 standard shift transmissions were not at all unusual in hearses and ambulances. At that late date, many operators of these business vehicles still felt that a stick shift was more cost effective when operating the vehicle for a business. Manual steering was the norm, radio deletion plates are common (even as late as 1976!) and there even exists a 1974 Miller-Meteor ambulance built and sold without air conditioning! Power windows did exist in some hearses and ambulances, but crank windows are found on 90% or more of commercial chassis vehicles. Luxury features do not become common in hearses or ambulances until the year that GM made them standard equipment for all Cadillacs.

This brings up the subject of a very unusual car, a Fleetwood 75 "business" sedan or limousine. A Cadillac limousine (or 7 passenger sedan if there was no divider window) was always a costly car. Low volume production of this body style and the use of the finest appointments preclude any price advantages that could be gained through economies of scale. A funeral director needs a limousine or large sedan in his work. However every dollar paid out in the initial price for one of these cars is money that cannot be realized as profit.

In an effort to gain sales in this specialized market, Cadillac offered what they referred to as "business" cars. To see one of these cars you would identify them as a Fleetwood 75 limousine (or sedan). However, if your look closely you will see that these business cars were cheapened versions of the standard Cad. The use of cheaper (more durable) cloths, a lack of polished woods and other interior trim allowed for lowered initial prices.

Automotive historians have yet to fully document these interesting cars.  Many otherwise knowledgeable collectors are not even aware of their existence. Cadillac offered these cars in their line up from 1935 until 1951. In most years, production was below 25 cars, in some years and variations Cadillac created only enough to be counted on both hands.

Recognizing one today would generally require identifying it through its unique serial and body numbers. These are cars that are due for much more study and documentation.

All hearses and ambulances are rare vehicles. From just before WW2 to the 1970s, there were only a few coach builders who built on the Cadillac chassis; S&S (aka Hess and Eisenhardt), Superior, A.J. Miller, Meteor (later Miller-Meteor) and Eureka. One look at Cadillac's production figures shows that they produced approximately 2000 commercial chassis each year. Divide this figure between the 3-4 coach builders and then divide that figure again between the many variations of funeral cars and ambulances and for any variation of hearse or ambulance the production figures drop quickly into the three digit range. In many cases fewer than 100 of a particular vehicle design were ever created (e.g.: flower cars were rarely produced in numbers exceeding 50 units).

It is unfortunate that for years so many of these custom coach-built vehicles were either ignored by collectors or destroyed as parts cars by the ignorant and unappreciative. It has been recognized that some people are even scared about being around vehicles that played a role in the funeral industry. Rest assured that nobody has ever found a haunted hearse or ambulance.

As today's collectors search out Rare cars (Rare with a capital "R"!) many of these unique vehicles are finally finding caring homes and places at prestigious car shows. Becoming an expert in professional cars is more difficult than for any other type of collector car. As a Cadillac fan reading this Database you may already know the difference between a 1961 and 1962 Cadillac and you may even be able to recognize the subtle differences between a Series 62 and a Coupe de Ville, but becoming expert enough to be able to differentiate between a Superior and a Miller-Meteor hearse from across a parking lot will take some study. The fact that you are reading this Database is a good start. It is beyond its scope to explore the many differences and features of each coach builder; for this information the reader is directed to search the web using the key words 'professional car' or using the name of the coach builder you wish to learn more about.

© 2002, Jim Crabtree



Further Interesting Reading

1.  American Funeral Cars & Ambulances Since 1900 by Thomas A. McPherson, © 1973 by Crestline Publishing, Box 48, Glen Ellyn, IL 60137,  ISBN #0-912612-05-3 [the "Bible" of Professional Car buffs].

2. The Eureka Company : A Complete History, by Thomas A. McPherson, © 1994 by Specialty Vehicle Press, 49-6a The Donway West, Suite 1916, Don Mills, Ontario, Canada, M3C 2E8,  ISBN #0-9697879-1-X.

3.  Superior - The Complete History,  by Thomas A. McPherson, © 1995 by Specialty Vehicle Press, 49-6a The Donway West, Suite 1916, Don Mills, Ontario, Canada, M3C 2E8,  ISBN #0-9697879-2-8.

4.  Stretching It - The Story of the Limousine, by Michael Bromley and Tom Mazza, © 2002 by Society of Automotive Engineers, Inc., 400 Commonwealth Drive, Warrendale, PA 15096-0001, ISBN #0-7680-0672-4.

5.  Classic American Funeral Vehicles, 1900-1980 Photo Archive, © 2000 by Walt McCall & Tom McPherson,  published by Iconografix, P.O. Box 446, Hudson, WI 54016, ISBN #1-58388-016-X.

6.  Stretch Limousines, 1928-2001 Photo Archive, by © 2002 Richard J. Conjalka,  published by Iconografix, P.O. Box 446, Hudson, WI 54016, ISBN #1-58388-070-4.


Return to The (New) Cadillac Database© Index Page
or select "Professional Cars" years from the table below



Pick one   >

1902 1903 1904 1905 1906 1907 1908 1909
1910 1911 1912 1913 1914 1915 1916 1917 1918 1919
1920 1921 1922 1923 1924 1925 1926 1927 1928 1929
1930 1931 1932 1933 1934 1935 1936 1937 1938 1939
1940 1941 1942

WW2 years

1946 1947 1948 1949
1950 1951 1952 1953 1954 1955 1956 1957 1958 1959
1960 1961 1962 1963 1964 1965 1966 1967 1968 1969
1970 1971 1972 1973 1974 1975 1976 1977 1978 1979
1980 1981 1982 1983 1984 1985 1986 1987 1988 1989
1990 1991 1992 1993 1994 1995 1996 1997 1998 1999-up

© 1998, Yann Saunders [aka Mr. Cadillac] and the Cadillac-LaSalle Club, Inc.
[ Background image:  1961 Crown Sovereign funeral car by Superior Coach Corporation ]