Originally published Tuesday, October 31, 2006
Cars to die for
South Bay hearse aficionados add a touch of fright to their automotive fun.

MULTIMEDIA: Halloween hot rods


Sooner or later, just about everybody takes a ride in one. Most prefer later -- and the longer the wait the better -- but for a ghoulish few, driving a hearse is as natural as dying.

Alex Rivera has owned as many as eight hearses at one time.

"Now I'm down to two," the Wilmington resident said.

During the rest of the year, Rivera may be the neighborhood oddball with the weird car, but come Halloween he's the neighborhood oddball with the coolest car on the block.

"I just use it on special occasions," said the 36-year-old sales manager. "It's a Sunday car."

There are hundreds of people like Rivera, hearse lovers all. Pamela King of Carson not only drives a death cab, but hers comes with a coffin in the back that once contained a real human being (the guy's family swapped him into another one, she said).

King paid $2,500 for her 1972 converted Cadillac on eBay, which this week listed no fewer than 450 hearses and hearse-related products, including key chains, bumper stickers and, in case one gets a dent, body parts.

"My mom calls it the deathmobile," said the 39-year-old King, whose other car is a Honda. "She refused to go in it. But it's very comfortable. It feels like an ocean liner."

Their cars are slightly dented -- the result of driving a car with all that extra room for reclining passengers. Rollers embedded in the floor make it easier to slide caskets in and out. Drapes line the inside windows.

It's all very formal and respectful, but the pair have both added after-market gear to their cars. Among other memento mori, King drives around with a rotting skeleton in the plastic passenger seat -- a vinyl resting place, you could call it. And she has placed several bumper stickers around the coach's outside. One says, "My loved one was corpse of the month."

Rivera was more ambitious. His 1964 Cadillac -- hearses tend to be either Caddies or Lincolns -- not only bounces up and down on its shock absorbers but spews fire from its tailpipe.

"Some people won't come into my home," he said.

Reactions from other drivers are usually friendly, but not always.

"People are mostly stunned," King said. "Some people are terrified and give the sign of the cross. Others give me thumbs up."

Rivera was once accosted by an irate bystander who thought he was being disrespectful to the dearly departed.

"I stopped at a 7-Eleven to buy a Slurpee and a woman started screaming at me. She thought I stopped on the way to a funeral."

Rivera and King met through one of several clubs for hearse owners. The Phantom Coaches Hearse Club, which boasts more than 100 members, meets a few times a year, usually in cemeteries.

People need only one thing to join, "just the appreciation of these fine cars," said Jeff Perrin of Long Beach, who calls himself the group's chairman of the morgue. "We have people from all walks of life. We have lawyers, actors. We all seem to get along."

Perrin speaks about the matter with a certain amount of authority. He used to be a mortician. But instead of attracting customers, his choice of vehicle seemed to scare them away.

"My boss made me park it down the street," he said.

There are pluses and minuses to owning a hearse. They get horrendous gas mileage, but one can be fairly certain they were never taken for a joyride.

"They're usually well-maintained," Perrin said. "They don't want them breaking down in the middle of a service. They don't have a lot of mileage. And they weren't driven too fast."

But there's always the part about dead people being passengers, an idea that Rivera and King seem to relish. Rivera's has the license DED CADI. King's is GOTH SUV.

And there are certain perks involved. Free admission to haunted houses is virtually guaranteed. And Rivera once gave "The Exorcist" star Linda Blair a ride during a parade. In the weeks before Halloween, they are busier than a one-armed gravedigger. They even ride in a Christmas parade on the Palos Verdes Peninsula.

"I get a lot of invitations," Rivera said.

Of course, there are drawbacks as well. For one thing, there's the smell of embalming fluid.

"When I first got one, it either had that new car smell or a death smell," Rivera said. "I don't know what it was."

For those who bristle at the idea of mocking death, Rivera has a piece of advice:

"Don't let your first ride in a hearse be your last."