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Collectors give new life to classic hearses and other 'professional' cars

Tuesday, July 22, 2003

By Bob Batz Jr., Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Some people collect salt and pepper shakers or bobblehead dolls.

John Ehmer collects hearses.

Full-size vintage hearses, each weighing roughly 6,000 pounds and stretching 20 feet or more.

John Ehmer sits at the wheel of his 1938 Superior Buick hearse/ambulance, one of more than 20 such "professional cars" in various conditions that are parked in his Wilkinsburg garage. At right is a 1937 Buick that the Sayers & Scovill coach company customized with aluminum panels cast in the form of drapes. Its long working life included a stint in Mexico. (Steve Mellon, Post-Gazette photos)

Right now he owns 21 hearses, ambulances and other "professional cars." He keeps them on two floors of an old car dealership he bought for them in Wilkinsburg. The total number fluctuates, but it's moving up. He's making a deal in Ohio for four more.

"It's a hobby that got a little crazy on me," says Ehmer, who lives in Beechview, where he doesn't even have a driveway.

This goatee'd grandfather is five months away from retiring as a "ways and structure" assistant manager at Port Authority, at which time he will devote even more time to his lifelong love of classic cars.

He's particularly passionate about professional cars, which are passenger car-based, custom-bodied vehicles used for funeral, rescue or livery services. Besides hearses, ambulances and limousines, there are flower cars, service cars, various combination cars such as hearse-ambulances. That's right: Ambulance service used to be provided by funeral homes.

For more information, the local chapter's Web site is www.tristatepcs.com. The national group's is www.professionalcar.org.

This week Ehmer feels like he died and went to ... well, you know. As many as 120 of these vehicles are descending on the Pittsburgh area for the 27th International Meet of the Professional Car Society.

Imagine the unsuspecting guests at the Sheraton Four Points in Cranberry, where the gathering opens today.

Two core constituencies of the group are in for special treats. Funeral directors will tour the Allegheny County Coroner's office, the Pittsburgh Institute of Mortuary Science and "mortuaries of distinction." Fire and emergency medical services types will tour the county's Emergency Operations Center, Pittsburgh's fire and EMS training facilities and the Center for Emergency Medicine.

But the public is welcome to participate in some events, such as the spectacle of a professional car parade from the hotel to McConnell's Mill State Park tomorrow morning.

Back at the hotel Friday night, there's a car cruise, and Saturday is what organizers call "Judgment Day" -- the judged "Concours d' Elegance" car show.

They close the meet out with the traditional "Light and Siren Finale that will no doubt be heard in Pittsburgh!"

The hosting Tri-State Chapter is promising a bigger turnout than the record 105 cars that came here in 1994. Several hundred enthusiasts are expected to attend.

The group, founded in 1976, has about 1,200 members in 15 countries. Sixty-seven members belong to the Tri-State Chapter (Western Pennsylvania, West Virginia and the western parts of New York and Maryland), says its president, Rick Duffy. He is executive director of Foxwall Emergency Medical Service in Fox Chapel.

You know how some people hit 40 and buy a red sports car? Duffy says that in 1998, "I went out and bought an ambulance" -- a red and white 1964 Miller-Meteor Cadillac Classic 42 from Freyvogel funeral home in Oakland. It's the ambulance he remembers seeing at University of Pittsburgh football games. He hasn't gotten another one yet, for fear his wife might send him off in a modern one, but many members have more than one car.

Duffy says Ehmer stands out in the international group for all his cars as well as all his knowledge. "I haven't seen anyone who has a bigger fetish for automobilia."

Ehmer's garage, which includes a library of old professional car literature, is another destination for members at the meet. "They want to see my junk," Ehmer says with a big grin.

He bought his first old car when he was 13, growing up in Imperial, where he was captivated by a local funeral home's 1940 Pontiac combination. He bought his first hearses really cheap back in the '70s and drove them for work, using the behemoths to haul railroad ties and other construction materials.

This is a detail from the dashboard of a 1948 Superior Chrysler hearse, which John Ehmer bought from a small funeral home near Gettysburg. It's one of only two such vehicles ever built, and the other is rusting away in a North Carolina field.

He's nicer to them now, lovingly restoring them. "Now I appreciate them more for the craftsmanship and the uniqueness and the history," he says.

His "baby" that he's now restoring was the first motorized hearse in Uruguay, an open-cab 1929 Studebaker with a fantastical hand-carved (in Germany) rosewood body. "Everyone calls it Cinderella's carriage," says Ehmer, who points out how its smaller size and original white color indicate it was a hearse for women and children.

It was quite a feat to ship it here, and the cost was dear enough that he had to sell three of his best cars, including that boyhood Pontiac.

But one-of-a-kinds are what Ehmer wants. (Besides, the hearse trader recently learned that the Pontiac may be for sale again, and "It might be coming home.") Completely restored, the Uruguayan car could be worth more than $100,000.

Prices and values range widely, depending on how rare a car is and how much someone wants it. Ehmer paid only $300 to save his black 1960 Buick hearse from the junkyard -- and you know it's his because of the $1,200 he's invested in it over the past decade, including replacement of the original funeral home's nameplate with "Ehmer" in metal script. The only such car that the Flxible coach company built, it stretches back to sharp fins. "Kind of a Batmobile look," he said.

More than the color of these old hearses is dark, and collectors know they give some people the creeps. As one of three boys exclaimed after they wandered spellbound into the garage last week, "That's where dead people went?"

But PCS members keep it professional and forbid playing around with skeletons and coffins.

Though some funeral homes are now seeking these classic chassis for promotional use, most don't own their own hearses, opting to rent them from livery companies. You don't see cars such as Ehmer's white 1968 Superior Cadillac Royale, whose sole purpose was to transport displays of flowers.

"There's no need for automobiles like this any longer," Ehmer says, but you know that's not how he feels.

Listen to him describe how the old hearses drive like 10-ton trucks -- slow, hot (no air conditioning), uncomfortable, near impossible to see from.

But he'll have eight cars at the meet, and they won't just be sitting there. "I as if to run 'em" -- drive them on the highway -- where people tend to stare like they've seen a ghost.

Bob Batz Jr. can be reached at bbatz@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1930.

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