Hearses are undeniably cool, but there’s something that they didn’t even know they were missing: an exhaust loud enough to wake the dead.
This year we took part in the Lemons Rally, down the East Coast through the land of Wawas and Waffle Houses. We wanted something big and comfy for the long road trip, so we figured why not a hearse? We took this 2001 Lincoln Town Car hearse with that one key modification, and man, that was really living.
If you miss the big American luxury broughams of the seventies and eighties, consider a hearse. Hearses are perhaps the last gasp of brougham styling, with vinyl roofs, fancy accessory lights, fake marble and plush curtains frequently added to dress them up. Everything has to look extra fancy—these are the last cars you’ll probably ride in, after all.
That is, unless you’re taking the hearse on a road trip. Friend of Jalopnik and rally codriver-for-hire Steve Harrell and I recently took the Federal Coach-converted Town Car hearse on the Retreat From Moscow Lemons Rally—put on by the same people who run the 24 Hours of Lemons race series—which started in Pennsylvania, went down the Atlantic coast, and ended in Alabama. From there, we took the hearse back through a more direct route over to Jalopnik’s office in New York.
If you’re thinking about taking a road trip, the Lemons Rally is one of the best excuses to do it. This is the third one I’ve been on now, and it’s always a pretty good mix of oddball locations and landmarks. This one included such sights as silly Pennsylvania town names like Blue Ball and Intercourse, a memorial statue of Dale Earnhardt, a polar bear dip in Ocean City, one man’s homebuilt “Fortress of Faith,” and the site of the Wright Brothers’ first flight.
(Fun fact: Earnhardt’s last ride was also a Lincoln Town Car hearse, albeit a 1996 model. Intimidate in peace, Dale.)
For the rally, you take a team mascot around to different places you’re supposed to find, and post a picture at each location to get points. Those points are combined with the points given at the start of the rally for the weirdness or hopelessness of your car, and any bonus points given along the way for lemony actions. Add those all up and you determine the winner. The winning team this year successfully swapped out the engine of their car along the way, so no one really had a chance after that.
As with the Lemons races themselves, some teams run with a theme. Our theme as Team All Our Friends Are Dead—complete with a dinosaur mascot—was pretty obvious. Another team was supposed to bring a Cadillac hearse but couldn’t fix it in time, so they ran the whole rally with a prop coffin strapped to the roof of their back-up car. (It advertised discount burial services.)
Our hearse was fancy, but clearly functional. The back of the hearse was upholstered in blue velveteen with plush blue curtains covering much of the side and rear windows.
The long faux-marble floor has rollers on top to make loading a casket easier, and a flap of carpet folds over the bumper to protect it from scuffs while you’re loading. Pneumatic suspension in the rear also lowers down with the push of a button to aid in loading and unloading, and automatically raises back up when you start the hearse.
There’s a set of holes at the front to attach a pair of stops to, and the rear has a single stop with a screw adjustment that holds the casket into place. The stops work together to clamp the coffin into one place as you drive along.
Underneath the floor is a series of storage areas for things like the church truck, which is used to roll the casket out and into place, then fold away under the floor while in transit.
We stuffed some luggage in these under-floor cubbies, and had the rest near the front and rear of the back next to the coffin with ample space to spare. Really, it’s hard to find a more practical vehicle than a hearse, provided you don’t mind the “this thing was carrying around the departed not long ago” part.
The hearse had been recently retired from the funeral home Steve’s family owns. It had seen a few Massachusetts winters in its time, so the muffler had rusted off. His solution—thanks in part to how good the 4.6-liter Ford modular V8 under the hood sounds—was to simply straight pipe the hearse instead.
It’s the same engine found in Mustangs of the era, so it made a perfectly unfitting sound for a car meant to usher the dead off to their peaceful final resting place.
That didn’t make it fast. We weighed the hearse out of curiosity at a truck stop with us in it, plus our luggage and an empty casket we’d brought along for show, and it came out to a whopping 6,020 lbs. The 2001 Town Car came with 235 horsepower, which wafted it down the road just fine, but ultimately made more noise than speed in straight-piped hearse trim.
My professional opinion is that the hearse needs a supercharger.
Believe it or not, the hearse wasn’t set up to carve corners, either. While it was rear-wheel drive, you certainly felt all of that weight in the corners and in braking. Push it too hard and it feels sort of like a Porsche 911 when you try to enter a corner too fast. All the weight in the rear of the hearse wants to keep going forward and feels as if it’s pushing you from behind. This is what’s called understeer, and it’s not restricted to front-wheel drive cars.
The hearse just wasn’t built to withstand hooligan driving, either. It lasted about three miles on the infamously twisty Tail of the Dragon before the brakes overheated. The brake pedal felt like stomping a sponge cake for the rest of the rally, but at least it still worked.
In that time, everything inside moved around a bit. The coffin even shifted back and forth a little. The stops that keep it in place at the top and the corners were designed for a calm, careful, sedate drive—not anything aggressive.
If you’re hauling any precious cargo in your hearse, seriously: take it easy on the curves.
A hearse, in theory, should be a great road trip car as it’s usually based off of a big luxobarge. That said, one of the first things you notice is how little room there is for just two people in the front seats.
The front is a leather bench seat, with power adjustments on the drivers’ side. I thought it was fine enough, but Steve felt it was a somewhat butt-numbing experience due to the lack of support. You slid around a bit on good, curvy roads as there was no side bolstering to speak of.
While the front seats would be fine for cross-town driving, there wasn’t a lot of room for anything else—especially the items that you want to have handy or that naturally accumulate on a road trip, like cameras, munchies or trash. The center console that folded down in the middle of the seat was too shallow to hold much.
The two cupholders were adequate enough, but they slid out right underneath the HVAC controls, making them nearly impossible to adjust without moving a cup.
The tape deck was also well-used and extremely scratchy. If we listened to anything, it came out of a cell phone speaker.
With the platform behind you built right to the back of the seats, you can’t lie back far enough to take a nap, either. Consequently, the most comfortable place in the car is probably in the casket itself, which I crawled into to ride into the pre-rally inspection, where the Lemons staff gives out points based on the ridiculousness of the car and (where applicable) its theme.
I knew from an old Ask a Mortician episode that caskets aren’t airtight, but we didn’t lock it, either way, and I could see a little crack of daylight out the side just in case. The curved floor of the casket lowered into place with a set of screws to the most appropriate place for my height, and everything was lightly padded. There was a matching pillow and blanket, and I was surprisingly comfortable back there. The ride—albeit short—was pretty smooth.
That being said, given how everything moved around on the Tail of the Dragon, I don’t think that setup is really designed to keep living people safe in the event of a crash. You probably shouldn’t ride back there for longer distances, even though “died while taking a nap in a casket” is an extremely metal way to go.
Aside from a nasty sinus infection that got so bad I ended up having to skip a couple stops to find a doctor in North Carolina, the rally itself went well. There was a battery light that kept flashing, although it didn’t seem to affect the car in any way. The hood latch also lost a spring in Kentucky, forcing us to fix it in below-freezing temperatures. We finished eleventh overall, and even saw Grave Digger’s headquarters full of monster trucks along the way. It was a good time.
On the way back, we even swung by the company that made the hearse for a quick photo. Ohio apparently builds an unusual number of funeral cars, and many of the most common hearse builders—including Federal—have been consolidated under one Ohio coachbuilding conglomerate.
From there it was a snowy drive back up to the northeast. The cheap all-seasons on the car weren’t great for this, although they were great for sliding the big car around in the snow when we wanted to have fun with it.
The hearse wasn’t the perfect road trip car, but it was definitely a lot of fun.