Long ago in a millennium passed, life was different. It was a simple time, when social networking was conducted at the pub, and it wasn’t called social networking. It was a time when maps were printed in books… a time when there were books and when people didn’t obsessively photograph themselves (or their food, and everything).
Anyway, I bought a hearse, and drove it almost 100,000km (60,000mi) all around Australia. Aside from a few old photos, stored in a box, somewhere, very little evidence exists that any of this happened at all. It was 1997.
I was a small-time traveling musician in what Australians call the ‘outback’. The outback is a large, empty space which is easily located by driving inland from the coastal cities, to what we call ‘the bush’ (a noteworthy Australian shrub), then driving on for another couple of days. You will know you have reached the outback when every passing motorist acknowledges your existence with a wave. Anyway, on this particular 1,200 kilometer day, the sun was still breaking when my beloved ’76 Kingswood wagon threw a piston and died on the spot.
I got a tow to the next town and my father (who happened to be in the area) came to meet me.
Kermit the Kingswood was parked, temporarily deceased, but my immediate concern was for the gear. My instruments, speakers, mixer, amps, lights… were, like me, all now supposed to be in Queensland. Crowds of literally dozens or less were at risk of drinking through the coming weekend without their 70’s and 80’s favourites. More concerning, I was at risk of not seeing my 600 bucks.
A few chickens scratched around the junkyard; an odd collection of old boats, cars, a tractor or two… there was a small, trailer-mounted toilet for some reason. It was dad who spotted the hearse, and suggested for a laugh that we take it for a drive.
Conspicuously shiny, the old Ford rumbled effortlessly to life. I nudged her onto the highway. At 6 meters (20 feet) long, weighing a couple of tons, she was solid and ironically comfortable. The old girl packed a V8 motor, making her strong like a locomotive, yet as nimble as an aircraft carrier. Circling (widely) back to the wreckers I parked carefully next to the other boats, and we adjourned to drink beer.
Time and options were running short. Dad suggested I trade in the wagon and take the hearse (the other immediate options being a theoretically-operational Massey Ferguson tractor and a mobile toilet). We made a list of pros and cons and a dozen beers later it was clear that not purchasing a retired funeral car could only be a terrible mistake.
Reliability – Neither of us could recall having seen a funeral possession stranded roadside, waiting for a tow truck. Surely that wouldn’t be great for business, and this old hearse looked to have been housed and maintained with care.
Previous owner – This is an important consideration when buying a used vehicle. Funeral directors tend to be a definitively sombre bunch, so I figured… unlike ex-rental cars, police cars or ambulances, the average hearse probably hasn’t attempted too many land-speed records.
Supply and demand – Apparently all the local funeral directors already had their own cars, and for some reason the other locals weren’t fighting over it, so we could only assume that this particular vehicle was going cheap. It was.
It was decided.
The next morning I packed the new gig-mobile, thanked my dad for his sage council (and emergency cheque book), and set off north for Queensland.
Naturally her name was Silver Bullet because she was silver, and for her awesome V8 power, which I had correctly figured would launch her from 0-60 in under five business days. Bullet wasn’t built for speed. The ride was almost absurdly comfortable though, considering the short journeys she had been designed for and the fact that her thousands of passengers had been dead and rather unappreciative.
Fifteen hours later I arrived at home feeling rather relaxed, to my partner who suddenly wasn’t. I hadn’t told her about the car. Vicky was somewhat superstitious and apparently having a hearse parked out the front wasn’t a harbinger of good fortune. There were concerns it might be haunted.
‘Well, logically, you know… (I was free-styling now) so, Bullet would be one of the last places I’d expect to encounter a ghost. I mean, what kind of boring life must a person have led… haunt the funeral car? Na… there’s no personal connection there.’
That actually worked for a bit, not withstanding some minor backpedaling after letting it slip I’d already named the old girl (cars, like boats, are beautiful machines, and therefore female… aside from Kermit of course. I’ve never heard of a car called Derek. I did once have a Corolla named Lola, after the Kinks song (a bit of a grey area), but that was just rhyme scheme).
Soon enough a nice old guy from the Salvation Army happened by for a chat. We gathered next to ol’ Bullet while he said a little prayer, blessing us and blessing her, and all who sailed in her… and so forth. In laconic outback style, with beers in hand we solemnly chased the ghosts out of my new old car, which was just sitting there minding its own business I thought.
I’m not an expert on religion, or ghost busting, or vehicle maintenance… but nothing ever went wrong with that car. Pulled out of retirement for a three-year, 90,000 kilometer pub crawl, Silver Bullet suffered not so much as a flat tire.
Great storage – For some reason, every hearse has the capacity to transport the body of the world’s tallest man, and a few of his pets… just in case, I guess. If you happen to have a band though, this is a storage goldmine. Also, it has this neat rolling platform from which to retrieve and repack your gear… saves bending your back.
Save on hotels – as a traveler, and knowingly safe from the annoyance of ghosts, the Bullet made for a comfortable rest. When not packed and on tour, a mattress and pillow in the back negated any concern for taxis, hotel rooms or designated drivers.
Meet interesting people – If you happen to be a young single straight man with a hearse (I was now again single… not because of the Silver Bullet, just life) you might have already discovered that a surprising number of young women find such macabre imagery oddly alluring. Young single hearse-drivers, if you’re not already doing exactly this, go to a live gig (must be metal or emo). Strike a conversation with a brooding young woman with dark make-up and too many piercings. Anyway…
Brand recognition – Admittedly this is a niche market and as a business strategy, perhaps not for everyone. Personally, I would prefer my accountant or dentist to drive, say, a nice Audi for example. I was a musician though. There are different expectations. I had long hair, which was working, but the hearse took things to a different level. I became the traveling musician with the dreadlocks and the hearse. Pubs all over Australia offered me gigs now. There was no further question of my abilities as a musician (which then at a professional level were mediocre at best). It didn’t matter… I looked like one.
I was in Sydney in ’98, enjoying the peak hour traffic with my brother. Bullet was fully loaded for a trip, and thirsty for fuel every time we lumbered a few feet forward. I was juggling numbers, trying to figure whether I was getting four miles/gallon, or four gallons/mile, when in a chin-stroking moment of clarity my brother suggested turning the headlights on. Well…
Use what you got – After a few seconds, the mid-afternoon traffic ahead began shuffling to accommodate… then the
waves lanes simply parted. Wow. Most Australians aren’t even aware of just how pathologically polite we are on the roads. This is partly cultural and partly because any observed or perceived infraction costs about a thousand bucks. Anyway, the good motorists of Sydney respectfully made way for the funeral procession, as is customary. There were a range of responses as we cruised through the peak-hour jam, trying to look suitably pious despite our rather bearded, dreadlocked, leather-jacketed vibe.
‘You cheeky bastards!’ yelled one bloke through his open window with a thumbs up. Others, on realising our little subterfuge were less impressed. A quick-thinking woman decided to get in on the action, drafted in behind as we cruised past, and turned on her headlights. Then there were three of us. Soon we had a legit procession (minus the dead person), cruising down Parramatta Road at 30 km/h, about six times the speed of the surrounding traffic. That was the best peak hour ever. It’s funny just how greatly traffic can affect one’s’ mood.
Of course there are a few cons to driving a hearse.
1. It’s not quick.
2. Parking a car with the turning circle of a brontosaurus is a bitch. Avoid cities.
3. Petrol prices are an issue.
4. You may overhear things like, ‘Look at that clown, driving a fuckin’ hearse!’
I did take Bullet off the road in 2000, after only three years. I’d moved back to the coast, and couldn’t afford the $100 dollars to fill her tank. I bought another Ford… an Econovan (minus several hundred style points, but it was practical).
Silver Bullet rests comfortably on my father’s farm, with his train carriage, other old cars, vans, tractors, and… a mobile trailer-toilet. I didn’t even ask where that one came from.