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Car of the Week: 1959 Cadillac hearse from New Zealand

A '59 Caddy hearse that hails from New Zealand came back from the dead.
Car of the Week 2020

By Christopher Moor

New Zealand funeral director Simon Manning’s dream hearse, a 1959 Cadillac, had eight years of restoration before it began service in New Zealand during the southern hemisphere’s past winter. Simon says every part of the American import received attention in the restoration, right down to the last nut and bolt.

The hearse’s first public appearance in New Zealand was at Moonshine Rod and Custom Club’s American Vehicle Day in February 2021. While the hearse looked ready for work, spectators couldn’t see was required before the vehicle became ready to join the team at Harbour City Funeral Homes, where it is now used in funeral services.

Manning calls his hearse “Colin” in memory of the prolific New Zealand artist Colin Simon (1938-2021), whose funeral was overseen by a branch of Harbour City Funeral Homes in early 2021. Manning says Simon’s family is “over the moon” that his story will be shared as people admire the Cadillac named for him.

Three companies, one coach

“Colin the Cadillac” is an S&S Victoria combination hearse/ambulance built by Hess & Eisenhardt on a 1959 Cadillac commercial car chassis. The letters “S&S” stand for “Sayers & Scovill,” a coachbuilding firm in Ohio that specialized in professional car coachwork until employees Willard Hess and Charles Eisenhardt acquired controlling interest in 1942. The duo renamed the company “Hess & Eisenhardt,” but they continued to use the S&S name on some of their Hess & Eisenhardt models.

General Motors’ Cadillac division built a commercial chassis through 1984. This commercial chassis was designed for coachbuilders to install their hearse, ambulance, flower car and limousine bodies. As Cadillac moved toward front-wheel-drive automobiles in the mid 1980s, it announced it would cease building the commercial chassis, which was built in a dedicated area of Plant 21 in Detroit until the summer of 1984.

The hearse is packing a bit more power these days. A new 6.2-liter LS3 General Motors crate engine with 431 hp to be exact.

The hearse is packing a bit more power these days. A new 6.2-liter LS3 General Motors crate engine with 431 hp to be exact.

A hearse with one foot in the grave

As a young man, Simon Manning studied older professional funeral publications to learn how the profession had evolved over the years. From those publications, Manning discovered the 1959 Cadillac professional car and dreamt of owning such a car one day. He says this Cadillac model is “the most attractive hearse ever produced.”

Manning has no idea how many owners are in his hearse’s history, and believes one former owner had the body painted pale blue for the purpose of selling it. When the 1959 Cadillac hearse arrived in New Zealand, it had a silver vinyl interior and was wearing the unbecoming pale blue paint on its body. While the hearse looked quite good in the online auction photos that Manning saw on eBay, the reality told another story.

“Colin the hearse” had spent three years rusting in an open paddock prior to Manning’s purchase. During that time, someone had senselessly attacked the glass and chrome with an axe. When the carpet was removed, it was discovered that 90% of the rusty floor also needed repair.

After over 800+ hours pounding out dents and metal work, the Caddy is straight as an arrow.

After over 800+ hours pounding out dents and metal work, the Caddy is straight as an arrow.

A hearse comes back from the dead

Despite its poor condition, Manning decided to restore the hearse to its appearance upon leaving the Hess & Eisenhardt factory in 1959.

The 1959 Cadillac hearse spent its restoration years in the hands of David Wilkens, Damon Turipa and the able team at Bristols Automotive Specialists in Upper Hutt, New Zealand, where a complete rejuvenation was undertaken.

“I’d never do it again,” Manning says. “I would never have dreamt on spending what I have. But you can’t stop once you’ve started.” Without putting a price on the car’s rebuild, he simply called the cost “astronomical.”

At the start of the rebuild, Wilkens drove the hearse from the shipping yard to his restoration shop, a decision that he would change with hindsight. He says the vehicle’s brakes were shot, and it was very unsafe to drive.

If you are going to go... go in Caddy style.

If you are going to go... go in Caddy style.

An indication of where some of the money went during the rebuild is in Wilkens’ skilled and painstaking workmanship on the brightwork. He spent 800 hours removing all its small dents, many acquired from the vandal’s axe. About 60 percent of the body eventually required rust removal and panel replacement.

On the outside, the Hess & Eisenhardt hearse has now been made to look just as it was when delivered to its original owner. However, concessions have been made underneath to make the hearse easier to service and regularly drive in New Zealand. A new 6.2-liter LS3 General Motors crate engine with 431 hp has replaced the Chevy 350 that was in the vehicle when Manning bought it, which replaced the original Cadillac 390-cid V-8 that was originally in the car in 1959. The car’s suspension, brakes, wheels and tires were also modernized, which further added to the rebuild’s cost. Today, the combination is good for 8 mpg, which Manning calls “hideous.”

Wilkens says working on the Cadillac hearse was a labor of love for him and his crew. It took three men to maneuver the grille, proving what Manning says about everything on the car being big. Some of the hearse’s dimensions tell the story: 251 inches in overall length (1 inch shy of 21 feet), a wheelbase of 156 inches and side doors that are 64-1/2 inches wide.

The original bench seat was reupholstered.

The original bench seat was reupholstered.

The interior has now been upholstered in black to match the hearse’s black exterior. The two folding seats at the rear were removed during the rebuild, and an electric deck was fitted to aid the funeral directors with lifting caskets. This extra space means two caskets can lay side by side for a joint funeral. The original and reupholstered bench front seat comfortably accommodates three for a quiet and smooth ride.

‘Colin’ reports for duty

In New Zealand, vehicles are driven on the right-hand side of the road, with hearses being one of the classes of vehicles granted exemptions. To be able keep the hearse a left-hand-drive vehicle, Manning needed to convince the New Zealand Transport Agency that “Colin” had been built by the manufacturer for use as a hearse, and would serve as one again in New Zealand. He was granted the exemption, and “Colin” is back in service, now with Manning at the wheel.

Thanks to a talented group of restorers, Manning’s dream to employ a 1959 Cadillac in funeral services is now fulfilled beyond his expectations. “Colin,” his 1959 Cadillac hearse, looks as immaculate as it did when serving at its first funeral more than 60 years ago.

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