Some livery operators can attribute a significant amount of their business to the funeral trade—providing stretch limousines for the bereaved family and mourners attending the funeral. Many times, funeral cars are adorned with floral arrangements in remembrance of the deceased. On occasion, a highly-stylized, open-well “flower car” is utilized to exhibit the bouquet. A true piece of American culture, the forgotten flower car has a rich and storied past.
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Trio of factory-fresh 1937 Eureka LaSalle flower cars. The Eureka Co., of Rock Falls, IL, introduced their first flower car in 1936.
A phenomenon that began in the mid-1930s, the flower car was produced in North America as late as 1988 before finally being discontinued. Prior to 1936, convertible sedans or phaetons with their tops down were used to carry large numbers of flowers to a funeral. To satisfy this need, the first flower cars were developed. Designed solely for this special purpose during funerals, the flower car has a coupe-style, forward-passenger compartment with an open well in the rear for the purpose of displaying the baskets of lavish flowers being transported to the cemetery.
The first flower cars were dubbed “Chicago” or “Western” style because their only purpose was to carry floral patterns. Livery services in Chicago that typically rented hearses and limousines to funeral homes were first to use the vehicles. The cars soon spread to large Eastern cities such as New York and Boston. For some unknown reason, flower cars never became too popular on the West Coast—even with the ostentatiousness of Hollywood funerals. Usually positioned in a funeral procession directly in front of a hearse, the flower car provided a glamorous sight in a funeral. Some of the bigger gangster funeral processions in the 1930s and 1940s were led by as many as a dozen flower cars adorned with a colorful arrangements. Later, a “dual-purpose” flower car with an adjustable deck capable of carrying flowers or a casket was developed. These vehicles were called “Eastern” style.
The initial manufacturer in 1936 of flower cars was the Eureka Company of Rock Falls, IL. Eureka built its coupe-style, long-wheelbase car on a LaSalle commercial chassis. Quickly, other vehicle manufacturers followed the lead and throughout the 1930s many American funeral car makers were building flower cars, including Hess & Eisenhardt in Cincinnati.
The major manufacturer of flower cars was Henney Motor Company in Freeport, IL, which introduced in 1938 the first Eastern style car dubbed the “Combination Flower and Utility Car.” Henney’s 1948 advertisement included the following, “For ten years…many funeral directors have found this car not alone a source of extra revenue, but a prestige-building addition to their fleet of regular funeral vehicles. “By World War II, the flower car had become an important part of many funeral home and funeral car livery fleets. After a hiatus from manufacturing during the war, the popularity of the flower car peaked in the 1950s, when six manufacturers offered flower cars. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, some funeral homes utilized car-based light pickups like the Ford Ranchero and Chevrolet El Camino as flower cars. However, by 1977, no more flower cars were being produced.
Refusing to die, in 1982 there was a brief renaissance of the vehicle; however, the last flower car offered as a standard production model was in 1988 when the new Eureka Coach Company in Toronto, Canada delivered about 12 front-wheel-drive Cadillacs.
The resiliency of the vehicle was shown again this year when Specialty Manufacturing in Plainview, NY, began converting old Cadillacs and later produced some new flower cars.
Special thanks to Walter M.P. McCall of the Professional Car Society for providing the photographs and the history of the flower car.