L.A.Cars: Cruising With the Hearse Club

There are people in this world who love hearses. And there are enough of them in Southern California to form their own club — the Phantom Coaches Hearse Society — dedicated, in the words of president, or "chairman of the morgue," Kerri Thorpe, to "the enjoyment of hearses, meeting new friends and just having fun."

The society meets monthly at appropriately creepy venues — cemeteries, of course, and last month at a little shop of horrors on Burbank Boulevard called Dark Delicacies, which caters to the milder goth set. Amid Chuckie dolls, teen witch sets and plush bunnies with menacing saw teeth, nearly 60 Phantom Coachers munched on cupcakes and cookies, talked about upcoming events, and bought and sold funeral memorabilia, including fixtures from funeral homes and those little "funeral" flags that go on the front of hearses. But mostly they admired each other's coaches, some 20 of which lined the street outside the store like a parade of proud old ladies dressed to kill. Many are restored vintage cars dating from the '50s and '60s, the golden age of hearse building. One couple in the society owns a genuine Victorian coach carriage, complete with the traditional stately black plumes that the horses wore in a cortege.

"Hearses are amazing vehicles," Thorpe explained. "They have such style, and each one is unique. Up to about 1973 they were really attractive, but today, unfortunately, the style is gone. The new ones have very little personality."

Thorpe can tell you that the most famous coach builders were Superior, Eureka, S & S, Miller Meteor and Cotner Bevington, and that hearses come in two categories: "end loaders," where the casket slides in and out of the back, and "three- ways," where the casket can come out either side or the rear. A Landau bar is that snazzy chrome bar that goes across the side of the roof known as the Landau panel.

Thorpe has been car crazy since the age of 5 and has always loved the custom aspect of hearses. Inspired by Ruth Gordon's hearse in Harold and Maude, she took the plunge and bought her first hearse in 1990 — a 1970 Cadillac Superior that still makes her glow with nostalgia. "It was a cemetery car originally owned by Forest Lawn. All white, no drapery."

Other members admit to a more ghoulish fascination with hearses. "I like the idea of these dead bodies being in the car," says "E.W.," a tall fellow with curly gray hair in a long ponytail. "I've had my share of ghost experiences; you've gotta expect that stuff with all the activity this vehicle has seen." Does he keep a casket in his 1960 Miller Meteor? "Nope," he grins. "I'm a drummer and I put my drums in the back."

Michael, a chatty interior designer, owns a cranberry-red hearse named "Cruella," in homage to 101 Dalmatians' Cruella de Vil. The interior is all dalmatian style, from the black-and-white spotted-fur steering-wheel cover to the upholstery, draperies and big dalmatian cushions in the back. "I'm not interested in the casket thing," he insists. "I took out the rollers and put in cranberry carpeting and the big pillows and some art deco sconces. It's like a bedroom!"

How do people react to a hearse driving down the street? "We usually get two kinds of responses," says Thorpe. "Those people who put their hands over their children's eyes when we drive by, and those who yell, 'Cool! I want it!'" A member named Mark says that he gets the most positive reactions from onlookers in October. "That's the month when I get the most thumbs up." E.W. says he's used to nasty notes on his windshield: "They're crude and they're always misspelled, which tells you who you're dealing with. They say things like, 'I hate you, and I hate your hearst!'" And Michael has found that a lot of people are actually afraid to get in Cruella.

"A lot of guys at the car wash won't do the interior, and I've had trouble with superstitious attendants who refuse to valet park her. But you know what I tell them? I tell them, 'Listen, honey, it's not the dead you have to be afraid of — it's the living!'"

—Mary Beth Crain