Friday, May 16, 2008

In the late 1960s Martin Shepherd’s Boy Scout troop in Alexandria raised money by conducting paper drives. The scouts would collect all the newspapers in their neighborhoods then cash them in at the Alexandria Scrap Yard.

Mr. Shepherd recalls one memorable visit to the scrap yard. “I saw a late 1940s hearse, chrome and paint still sparkling and curtains still in its limousine style rear windows go the crusher,” he says. Even at that young age, he decided that some day he wanted a beautiful coach like the one that he had seen crushed.

Years later, as a Navy Hospital Corpsman, Mr. Shepherd says, “I got to know both ambulances and hearses and yearned for one even more.”

Once more a civilian, Mr. Shepherd in 1997 began to seriously search for a professional car of one variety or another. In the late spring of 1998 the internet provided him with the answer. He didn’t exclaim “Eureka,” but he could have. The Eureka company in Rock Falls, Ill., manufactured professional cars and two of them were located in Lowell, Mich.

Both vehicles were 1958 Cadillac flower cars. One of them, Mr. Shepherd says, was originally delivered to a Pittsburgh-area livery service at a cost of $11,742. It was outfitted with casket rollers in the casket compartment beneath the flower platform. The latest inspection sticker on the windshield was from 1972.

Mr. Shepherd purchased both Cadillacs and had them trucked to what he thought was a reputable restoration shop near Mount Airy where the plan was to make one whole car out of the pair.

During the next 18 months the Cadillac was dismantled and parts were strewn about the shop haphazardly, Mr. Shepherd recalls. In the autumn of 1999 as Mr. Shepherd went to the shop to see if any progress had been made he encountered a traffic jam near the shop. He soon discovered there was a “going out of business’ auction and every car, parts or tools in the shop were sold. As quickly as possible, he gathered some orange-colored plastic fencing and wrapped it around his cars. That, he says, is how he saved his cars from vanishing.

From there he moved everything to Penn Dutch Restorations in Glen Rock, Pa. where the restoration was completed in only two-and-a-half years. “Fortunately,” Mr. Shepherd says, “we had the donor car as a pattern.”

From the wraparound windshield forward, the 21-foot-long car is a stock Cadillac.

From the front doors on back is primarily custom work since Eureka built only four cars like this 1958 Cadillac.

“If you build only four examples of a body style,” Mr. Shepherd says, “there is no tooling involved, just some basic tools and a lot of metalworking skill.”

Because the Cadillac was mostly hand built, Mr. Shepherd had no qualms in making alterations to accommodate modern features and safety equipment.

Some of those additions include purple processional strobe lights, an extra loud “intersection-clearing” horn, a redesigned dashboard that now conceals a modern heater and a defroster and air conditioner.

With safety in mind, high-back front seats from a Dodge Ram pickup were installed because they have built-in seat belts.

Vented front disc brakes now stop the 6,600-pound Cadillac as it rides on 15-inch tires with the proper 2.25-inch white sidewalls. The flower car rides on a 156-inch wheelbase.

A standard 1958 Cadillac 365-cubic-inch V-8 engine develops 310 horsepower.

Mr. Shepherd says that the weight of the coach requires riveted wheels.

High on the rear door a third light now alerts other drivers when the Cadillac brakes.

Beside the air conditioner, the driver in the cab enjoys a state of the art sound system as well as a GPS navigation system.

The height-adjustable flower deck and matching casket compartment below are stainless steel.

The long car is painted Prestwick gray metallic while the roof of the cozy cab is covered with metallic black.

Mr. Shepherd explains that this two tone combination was an option on the Cadillac-build Series 75 limousines in 1958.

Mr. Shepherd marvels at the craftsmanship that went into his 7-foot-wide, 5-foot, 2-inch-tall car.

He estimates that about 70 percent of the metal has been replaced.

From the bullets on the front bumper to the tailfins at the other end of the car, Mr. Shepherd says, “It really is truly a work of art.”

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