Cadillac produced what it termed a "commercial chassis". This was a strengthened version of the long-wheelbase Fleetwood limousine frame to carry the extra weight of bodywork, rear deck and cargo. Designed for professional car use, the rear of the Cadillac commercial chassis was considerably lower than the passenger car frame, thereby lowering the rear deck height as well for ease of loading and unloading. They were shipped as incomplete cars to coachbuilders for final assembly. A commercial chassis Cadillac was little more than a complete rolling chassis, front end sheet metal with lighting and trim, dashboard and controls. Rear quarter panels and sometimes the front door shells were shipped with the chassis for use in the finished coachwork. Today, most hearses are made from converted sedans on stretched wheelbases. The fleet division of Ford Motor Company sells a Lincoln Town Car with a special "hearse package" strictly to coachbuilders. Shipped without rear seat, rear interior trim, rear window or decklid, the hearse package also features a heavy-duty suspension, brakes, charging system and tires and was once offered on a modified Ford Expedition SUV chassis with the Triton V10 truck engine. Hearses and other funeral service vehicles are often equipped with light bars and other flashing lights similar to those found in emergency vehicles in order to increase the visibility of the vehicle while in processions.
Since the working life of a hearse is generally one of light duty and short, sedate drives, hearses remain serviceable for a long time; hearses 30 years old or more may still be in service, although some funeral homes replace them at least once a decade. As of 2004, a new hearse in the USA usually costs in the range of $40,000 to $65,000.
Two styles of hearse bodywork are common. The older style is the limousine style; these have narrow pillars and lots of glass. These are more popular in the United Kingdom, among others. More popular in the United States is the landau style, with a heavily-padded leather or (later) vinyl roof, and long blind rear quarters, similarly covered, and decorated with large metal S-shaped bars designed to resemble those used to lower the tops on some horse-drawn coaches. It is common practise in the USA for the windows to be curtained, while in the UK the windows are normally left unobscured. Hearses resemble station wagons strictly because of the shape of the rear ends of conventional ones.
Until the late 1970s, it was common for hearses in the USA to be combination coaches which also could serve in the ambulance role; these were common in rural areas. Car-based ambulances and combination coaches were unable to meet stricter Federal specifications for such vehicles and were discontinued after 1979.
In Japan, hearses can come in two styles: "Foreign" style, which is similar in build and style to an American hearse, or a "Japanese" style, in which the rear area of the vehicle is modified to resemble a small, ornate Buddhist temple. This generally requires the rear of the vehicle to be extensively altered; commonly, the rear roof is cut away from the front windows back and all interior parts are removed from the rear as well. The ornate Buddhist-style rear area, generally constructed of wood and in which the casket or urn is placed, is built on top of this empty cavity and most often is wider than the base of the vehicle, so that it sticks out on the sides, over the rear body panels. Popular bases for these are not limited to large sedans, but also minivans and even pickup trucks by companies like Nissan and Toyota.
There are regional differences of ornaments. Nagoya style decorates not only the upper half of the body, but the lower half as well. Kansai style has a relatively modest decorations unpainted Kanazawa style is known for having a red body (other styles mostly have black bodies) with gilded ornaments. Tokyo style, found anywhere else in Japan, features painted/gilded ornaments on the upper half of the body, like in a photograph on right.
"Foreign" style hearses are mostly similar in appearance to their US counterparts, although their exterior dimensions and interiors reflect the Japanese preference for smaller, less ornate caskets (this in light of the national preference for cremation). This means that, in contrast to American hearses, the rear quarter panels require less, and sometimes no, alteration. These are generally built from station wagons such as the Nissan Stagea, or from executive sedans such as the Toyota Celsior (Lexus LS430 in the US) and Nissan Cima (Infiniti Q45 in the US). Interestingly, American market vehicles such as the Lincoln Town Car and Cadillac DeVille, which are otherwise fairly uncommon in Japan, are often converted to hearses in both styles.
In recent times, the Motorcycle plus side-hearse has become more popular. This type of hearse is a motorcycle with a special side-vehicle built to carry a casket or an urn. These hearses are often used during the funeral of motorcycle enthusiasts.
Amongst enthusiasts, the 1959 Cadillac Miller Meteor hearse is considered one of the most desirable due to its especially ornate styling and appearances in feature films, notably the Ecto-1 in the Ghostbusters. The famed Harold and Maude car was a 1959 Cadillac Superior hearse. People who make hearses include; Coleman Milne, Binz, Duffy and Fearghas Quinn of Ireland. They are based on Mercedes and GM Vauxhall/Opel.
Celebrity hearse enthusiasts include rock singer Neil Young and two-time NASCAR Nextel Cup Champion Tony Stewart, who had his hearse customised for a television show. Sam the Sham of the Pharaohs (known for Wooly Bully and Lil' Red Riding Hood) was known for transporting all his equipment in a 1952 Packard hearse
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