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Big, bold and beautiful

Christopher Moor explores how a funeral director in New Zealand restored his dream hearse – a 1959 Cadillac

Eight years of stripped right down and built back up restoration awaited New Zealand funeral director Simon Manning’s dream hearse, a 1959 Cadillac, before the handsome classic began service in New Zealand this past southern winter.

While the hearse looked ready for work at an American car show last February, fine tuning the public didn’t see was required before the vehicle could join the team at Harbour City Funeral Homes.

Simon says every part of this American import received attention in the restoration, right down to the last nut and bolt. During the photo shoot, photographer Ross de Rouffignac called the workmanship ‘flawless.’

Simon named the hearse Colin in memory of the versatile artist Colin Simon (1938-2021), whose funeral a branch oversaw in early 2021. He says Colin Simon’s family are ‘over the moon’ that his story will be shared as people admire the Cadillac.

Colin the Cadillac is an S&S style combination hearse ambulance on a 1959 Cadillac commercial chassis. The letters S & S stand for the Sayers and Scovill Company, a coachbuilding firm in Ohio, that specialises in coachwork for Cadillac hearses and professional cars.

Ever since he was a young funeral director studying older professional publications, Simon had dreamt of owning a 1959 Cadillac hearse. He says this Cadillac model is ‘the most attractive hearse ever produced.’

Colin arrived in New Zealand during 2013 with an unbecoming pale blue body and a silver vinyl interior. While the hearse looked quite good in the eBay auction photos, the reality told another story. 

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

Simon decided to restore the hearse to the condition the vehicle would have left the S&S factory in for delivery to the original owner in 1959. He has no idea of the number of previous owners.

Colin spent his restoration years in the able hands of David Wilkens, Damon Turipa and the team at Bristols Automotive Specialists in Upper Hutt, where the complete restoration occurred.

“I’d never do it again,” says Simon. “I would never have dreamed of spending what I have.

“But you can’t stop once you’ve started.”

He called the cost ‘astronomical’ and quickly steered the conversation in another direction.

An indication of where some of the money went is the hundreds of hours David Wilkens spent skilfully removing all the small dents from the chrome.

About 60 percent of the body eventually required replacement to eliminate all the rust, adding further to the cost.
It took three men to manoeuvre the grille, proving what Simon says about everything on Colin being big. Colin’s dimensions are: length 251 inches – one inch under 21ft, wheelbase 156 inches, and side doors 64½ inches.

The interior is now smart black leather roof linings and upholstery with black carpet to match the repainted black exterior. A new 6.2 litre Chevrolet LS3 crate motor with 317kW (431hp) was fitted, and suspension, brakes, wheels and tyres received an upgrade.

Folding seats at the rear were removed and an electric deck fitted to aid the funeral directors with lifting the coffins. This extra space means two coffins can lay side by side for a joint funeral.

With Simon at the wheel, the bench-style front seat comfortably sat him, Ross de Rouffignac and I. The ride is quiet and smooth, with a flexibility not expected in such a large vehicle. Simon says Colin’s fuel consumption is ‘hideous’ at 8mpg.

To keep the hearse’s left hand drive, he had to convince the NZ Transport Agency that Colin was originally built for use as a hearse, and would serve as one again in New Zealand.

Simon’s wish is now fulfilled beyond expectations. Colin, his Cadillac hearse, looks as immaculate, if not better, than this 59er did when officiating at his first American funeral more than 60 years ago.

With this article, Simon granted my own wish of riding in a 1959 Cadillac, albeit in a different model than expected. I loved every moment of looking through the huge, wraparound windscreen.

Christopher Moor is a freelance journalist based in New Zealand

This is a preview of a feature article.

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