Classic hearse gets a new lease of life

00:01, Sep 11 2010
LIKE NEW: Gordon Dacombe of Stoke-based Autofocus shows off the work his team have done to get a 1937 hearse back in business.

A piece of New Zealand's undertaking history has been given new life in a Stoke workshop and could be ferrying the dead to their resting places for another 100 years.

Gordon Dacombe and his team at Autofocus have turned a pile of rusting pieces back into the sleek wagon that rolled out of the Studebaker works in the United States in 1937 and was imported new by a Hamilton funeral director.

On Monday it's going back to the North Island, where it will be used by the Whanganui undertaking firm Dempsey and Forrest, which expects to put it into service by the end of the week.

Mr Dacombe said there were gaps in the hearse's history but it was used as a surf wagon in and around Tauranga for awhile, and under the paintwork they found the cartoon characters Mutt and Jeff with the legend "Mutt and Jeff Overtakers".

He said the wooden frame had "completely and utterly collapsed" when he and his eight-strong team of panelbeaters, spray painters and mechanics took on the project a year ago.

There was so much rust in the remaining metal that they had to make a lot of new parts, and the wooden interior frame has been replaced with metal. Its body and interior are closely matched to its original look, but instead of a straight-eight side-valve motor, it has a four-litre fuel-injected Ford Falcon engine as well as power steering and power brakes. "The idea is that it looks as it came out of the factory, but it drives as a modern vehicle."


They've also equipped it with an electric hoist that raises the coffin after it is loaded so that it can be seen more clearly through the windows.

The job took a year and Mr Dacombe said he couldn't give the cost, other than to say it was "a good deposit on a modest house".

Although Autofocus does a lot of work on modern cars, he said he and his team loved rebuilding the old ones.

"It's really nice to do something that people appreciate."

They turned out a 1927 Chrysler hearse for a Waikanae funeral director two years ago, and they've already begun the restoration of a 1936 Packard hearse for a Christchurch client. It too is a shell surrounded by bits now, but Mr Dacombe says that when finished, like the Studebaker, "there's no reason why it won't be around in 100 years' time".

"There's a real interest in these old hearses and the good side of it is that they go back into fulltime work, doing what they were designed to do. We restore a lot of cars that sit in a garage or a museum."

The Nelson Mail