From the July 1994 issue of Car and Driver.
Riding in a hearse—all 21 feet of it—is a harrowing experience. Not because the thing is so large that we discussed photographing it by satellite. And not because it’s morbid or ghoulish. But because the word “hearse” is derived from “harrows,” which were framelike things that held candles. Then the name “harrows” was applied to the frame used to carry the coffin from the house to the church. And then anything used to transport a coffin became a harrows, from which was required only moderate drunken slurring before the word was bastardized into “hearse.”
So much for tedious etymology.
What isn’t tedious is the 1994 Superior Crown Sovereign Cadillac hearse, a name that, like the car, is so immense it has stretch marks. This vehicle is as painstakingly custom-built as anything George Barris ever concocted and a lot classier. Sure, Cadillac made the hood, front fenders, drivetrain, and dashboard. But every other piece, from the A-pillars to the 31-inch stretch in the wheelbase to the immense side doors to the high-mounted brake light in the rearmost loading door, is custom-fabricated of metal, glass, and sheet-molding compound. All of this is performed in a 135,000-square-foot factory in the dankest recesses of Lima, Ohio, by S&S Superior, a company that has been building hearses for 71 years.
The hearse tested here fetches not only the freshly deceased but also $69,858 per copy. From the moment it arrived in Ohio (having been shipped from Cadillac’s plant in Arlington, Texas), it required seven weeks of labor by 196 persons before it achieved a condition sufficiently stately to conduct the big-buck business of funerals.
Oddly enough, from behind the hearse’s wheel, your first impression is that the two-seat cockpit, like the cabin of a pickup truck, is cozy and compact (apart from offering such amazing headroom that a six-foot-five driver can still wear a fedora and not rub the headliner). The notion of coziness is dispelled the first time you round a curve and the hearse’s inside rear wheel soundly slams a curb, then inflicts canyon-size ruts some two feet into your neighbor’s freshly seeded fescue. The side-view mirrors reflect the immense, cue-stick-straight flanks but divulge no clue as to the location of the hearse’s tail. There exists no three-quarter vision, either, because of the 18-inch dead panel (their term, not ours) behind the B-pillars. And the view through the backlight is largely obscured by dour velvet drapes.
The first time I backed the Crown Sovereign hearse into my garage, I crushed a 50-gallon Rubbermaid garbage tub, and the foremost four feet of this Cadillac was still protruding defiantly onto my driveway. Thus, the next time you observe a funeral director backing a hearse precisely into position for a drop-off (with God knows how many already-unhappy onlookers sulkily scrutinizing his every move), give him a small salute.
The upside to all of this difficulty in maneuvering is that those with whom you share the road afford a hearse special courtesy. They make holes in traffic, let you merge, allow you to exit driveways and side streets. They avert their eyes. You could drive a hearse naked and not be noticed, at least until burial proceedings were approximately 30 minutes underway.
S&S Superior’s president is Don Cuzzocrea, a softspoken 49-year-old man whose office is adorned with photos of Johnny Rutherford, George Bush, Johnny Unitas, and a helmet once worn by friend Al Unser Jr. As he walks through his plant, he greets all 196 employees by name.
Cuzzocrea wasn’t sure he wanted C/D to test one of his hearses, given the vehicle’s mission in life, never mind its symbolic mission in the afterlife. As it turned out, he needn’t have worried.
Well, mostly. Parts of the test didn’t surprise us. If you want to see something akin to Mike Tyson in a Kathy Smith aerobics video, for instance, you should observe a 5489-pound hearse, standing almost six feet tall, hurtling around a skidpad. It doesn’t so much circulate the skidpad as fill it. Still, this hearse, pushing its front Michelin MX4s like a mammoth white bulldozer, achieved 0.70 g of grip, the same adhesion achieved by a standard-length Fleetwood Brougham we tested last year. From 70 mph, this behemoth stops in 213 feet, which places it dead even with a Mazda MPV and a Dodge Caravan. And gliding majestically at 70 mph, the hearse generates the same hushed interior thrum as a Bentley Turbo R. This seems stately and appropriate.
But most surprising for a vehicle the size of Belgium is its accelerative prowess. Sixty mph is yours in 9.1 seconds, corpse not included. This relative quickness, of course, is attributable to GM’s Gen II 5.7-liter V-8, which belts out 260 horsepower at 5000 rpm and a locomotive-like 335 pound-feet of torque at a down-and-dirty 2400 rpm, all of it fed through a 9.5-inch ring-and-pinion assembly possibly purchased from Dale Earnhardt. In addition, Superior makes its own two-piece driveshaft and heavy-duty coil springs.
Our drag-strip results reflect, as noted, only one body aboard. Usually there would be two (one supple and smiling, the other not), as well as the added 350 pounds of dead weight (sorry) for what the funeral biz euphemistically calls a “container.” But this 0-to-60 time is a tenth of a second quicker than that of a Camaro V-6 automatic. And if you in your Camaro get embroiled in a drag race with a Superior hearse, guess which car gets pulled over by Officer Bob? Under wide-open throttle, the big V-8 snarls and whoops in a distinctly non-funereal fashion, although the hot-rod racket emanates from so far astern that you look in the mirrors to see if someone’s ZR-1 is possibly overtaking.
One drawback to this performance is a dismal EPA city rating of 14 mpg. Mind you, most hearses set out on trips that average only ten miles (unless you shuck your mortal coil in New York City, where it is a 100-mile run to find someplace to plant containers). And although the top speed of this vehicle is 111 mph, it is rarely achieved in the midst of a funeral procession, because it agitates the bereaved.
Despite its Titanic size, Superior’s Cadillac hearse is not a bad thing to drive in a straight line, given its power and flawlessly smooth four-speed 4L60-E transmission. The tall, vinyl-wrapped roof cap resonates beyond 75 mph, however, and the front seat offers the lateral support of a canvas park bench. The biggest dynamic drawback is steering that sets new standards in numbness and encourages you to spin the tiller of this land-locked yacht with one digit.
Superior’s attention to detail here is nonetheless superb. The panel that usually encases four electric window lifts, for instance, now holds only two, but the plate behind the switches is fabricated to look original. The company fashions these custom trim bits so perfectly that you have to be told what’s been modified. Cadillac has such faith in Superior that it allows the hearses to be adorned in any location—the base of the all-new A-pillars, for example—with the marque’s traditional crossed-wreath crests.
The replacements for the rear side doors are custom-made in steel by Superior—using a three-story, 800-ton press—and are fitted with custom glass that is 42 inches long. Both are fitted with Superior’s own side-impact beams, even though no living soul will ride behind these rear doors (the only rider back there is, ah, no longer deeply concerned about injuries). The fuel-filler neck, all the way to the tank, is protected by a series of fiberglass boxes, to avoid spillage if the hearse should turn turtle. (In fact, Superior installs massive roof-rail tie pillars that, asserts Cuzzocrea, “make it far better in a rollover than a standard Fleetwood.”) And the company crash-tests its hearses at the Transportation Research Center in Ohio.
The mirror-like chrome rocker sills are uninterrupted, fashioned by Superior in absolute straight-and-true sheets. The grille is enlarged for looks. The rearmost loading door is something to behold: it is 45 inches wide—allegedly the widest in the hearse biz—and custom-stamped in glass-smooth steel. The door is mounted on two gigantic precision-tooled hinges and encased in stainless-steel doorjambs. It swings open an amazing 125 degrees (to avoid hernias, the pallbearers on the door side must get as close to the rear bumper as possible), it opens from the left or the right, your choice, and it slams shut, appropriately, with the vault-like finality of a Mosler safe. It may be death’s door, but it’s beautifully assembled. All of the upholstery, from the carpet to the headliner, is identical to Cadillac’s and is stitched as flawlessly as that in a BMW M5. The rubber seals inside the doors and windows are all of Superior’s own design. Electro-galvanized steel is used from the beltline down and for all exposed metal surfaces. And the trim pieces around the taillights fit more snugly than Cadillac’s originals. All of which may explain Superior’s seven-year/70,000-mile warranty, although, Cuzzocrea points out, “It is common for a hearse to be in service for 15 years.”
The finish on every Superior surface, whether steel or fiberglass, includes eleven coats of primer and paint and is glossier than on the stock Cadillac. While I was touring the production line (on which 92 cars were aborning right then), a worker furiously sanded the paint on an original fuel-filler flap—even though it was the same color as the rest of the car—because he couldn’t abide Cadillac’s factory-sprayed orange peel.
Speaking of color, only 50 percent of today’s hearses are painted black, a color that evidently lends gratuitous somberness to an already dark event. The second most common choice is white, with gold, dark green, silver, and burgundy not far behind. Cuzzocrea’s favorites are “calypso green and baby blue.”
What you don’t so readily see on Superior’s hearses are the subtle touches that save the funeral director from embarrassment.
“One director locked himself in the container area,” says Cuzzocrea. This is a problem, because the rear side doors cannot be opened from inside, and access to the cockpit is denied by glass partitions.
“I mean, here’s this guy beating on the windows to get out,” he recalls. “After that, we installed a little button in the loading door—an emergency door release.”
The inverse is also a problem. More than one funeral director has locked himself out of his hearse, a mortifying debacle at the cemetery. Thus, Superior cleverly crafts a hidey-hole inside the fuel-filler flap, in which is inserted a spare key.
On the floor of the 114-inch-long container area are ten ten-inch-wide rubber rollers, each embedded in a block of chrome set atop the walnut flooring, which itself is supported from below by a tube-steel cage welded to the car’s frame. You roll the casket (today they average seven feet in length) forward until it rams the two foremost bier pins, then insert a single bier pin at the rear, in any of eight different slots, depending on the deceased’s length. The rubber rollers, in theory, do an adequate job of keeping the casket from moving laterally, unless, like us, you drive the hearse around a skidpad at tire-shredding speeds—an activity usually denied to America’s funeral directors.
The rear bumper is fitted with a custom stainless-steel center section to prevent scarring from dropped caskets, which Cuzzocrea says “happens a lot.” And the cargo area is plumbed so that its atmosphere is exchanged every 120 seconds—not because the deceased may be emitting fetid odors but because the attendant floral arrangements atop the casket inevitably are.
Immediately behind the front seat and under the casket area are two more secret compartments. The compartment behind the passenger seat is reserved for a “church truck”—the collapsible cart that transports the casket when the pallbearers run out of Gatorade. And hidden directly behind the driver is a full-sized spare tire, because it is unseemly to arrive at the cemetery riding atop a space-saver spare, which, in any event, isn’t real happy supporting 7200-pound-GVW vehicles anyway.
Perhaps what is most significant about S&S Superior of Ohio is that it is an American company that last year built (this is not a typo) 1005 hand-built cars and will this year export $1 million worth of vehicles to Japan. Not just customized cars, either, but what can arguably be called meticulously crafted new cars.
“All I need is an engine and transmission,” says Cuzzocrea. “Everything else—frame, suspension, custom-stamped steel body, glass, upholstery—we can do ourselves. And as for quality of assembly, I’d put our stuff up against the final product of any big-time manufacturer.”
I ask if Cuzzocrea could build the world’s greatest Cobras or replica GT40s. “In a heartbeat,” he replies.
However, to keep Superior successful and productive another 71 years, what is principally required is the lack of a heartbeat. Yours and mine.
1994 Superior Crown Sovereign Cadillac hearse
Vehicle Type: front-engine, rear-wheel-drive, 3+1-passenger, 5-door wagon
Base/As Tested: $67,650/$69,858
pushrod V-8, iron block and heads, port fuel injection
Displacement: 350 in3, 5733 cm3
Power: 260 hp @ 5000 rpm
Torque: 335 lb-ft @ 2400 rpm
Wheelbase: 152.5 in
Length: 255.9 in
Curb Weight: 5489 lb
C/D TEST RESULTS
60 mph: 9.1 sec
1/4-Mile: 16.9 sec @ 83 mph
100 mph: 27.2 sec
Rolling Start, 5–60 mph: 9.1 sec
Top Speed (gov ltd): 111 mph
Braking, 70–0 mph: 213 ft
Roadholding, 300-ft Skidpad: 0.70 g
C/D FUEL ECONOMY
Observed: 16 mpg
EPA FUEL ECONOMY
City: 14 mpg
C/D TESTING EXPLAINED