Cadillac ambulances from the 1970s and 1960s are displayed in Mt. Laurel, N.J., on Aug. 5, 2008 at a gathering of the Northeast U.S. Chapter of the Professional Car Society.

­AP Photo/MJ Schear

Hearse Collectors

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Hearses and other professional cars (a category that includes ambulances, limousines, and funeral flower cars) recall a time when most cars were large, luxurious and occasionally even handcrafted. These cars have a kind of mystique to them -- an air of glamour and mystery -- and as we all know, any car that's glamorous or mysterious will attract collectors. And yet, until the 1970s, hearse collectors were somewhat difficult to find. Maybe it's because the idea of a privately owned hearse seemed just a little too morbid or a little too odd? But that didn't stop everyone.

About 35 years ago, the Professional Car Society was formed to bring attention to these vehicles and remind people how beautifully crafted they are. Gregg D. Merksamer, author of Professional Cars: Ambulances, Hearses and Flower Cars, suggests that the society was able to overcome the stigma surrounding hearses by forbidding any display of caskets, skulls or other spooky artifacts at auto shows and club functions, emphasizing instead what wonderful pieces of automotive memorabilia these vehicles truly are.

Whatever the case, the collecting of hearses has caught on among automobile enthusiasts. In addition to the Professional Car Society, organizations like the National Hearse and Ambulance Association and the Last Ride Hearse Society have sprung up, as well as local groups like the Denver Hearse Association and the Tomb. Clearly not all hearse clubs are afraid of associating the vehicles with spooky images. Celebrity hearse enthusiasts include rock singer Neil Young, who at one time used a 1948 Buick hearse to transport his equipment to concerts. Similarly, Domingo "Sam" Samudio of the 1960s rock group, Sam the Sham and the Pharaohs (best known for the song "Woolly Bully"), used a 1952 Packard hearse as an all-purpose equipment vehicle.

Up next, we'll take a look at some of the unusual stories and legends that have grown-up around hearses.