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From Camelot to the auction block: President John F. Kennedy’s hearse for sale

Consumer Reports News: January 13, 2012 11:53 AM

Shopping for any used car is enough to make some buyers feel like they’ve entered the netherworld, but how about specifically shopping for a vehicle designed to take you there? On Saturday, January 21st, the Barrett-Jackson car auction company will put on the block the 1964 Cadillac Hearse (lot number 1293) that it claims transported assassinated President John F. Kennedy from the Parkland Memorial Hospital in Dallas to the city’s Love Field Airport, where Air Force One was waiting to take the president back to Washington, D.C.

Don McElroy was a new employee at O’Neal Funeral Home that fateful Friday, November 22, 1963, when the call came in to bring a casket and hearse to the hospital. Just 24 years old, McElroy helped move President Kennedy’s body to the vehicle and pulled down a rear seat for Jacqueline Kennedy so she could sit near her husband. “The Secret Service drove the president to Love Field,” McElroy said, explaining that the O’Neal staff was not allowed to be in the hearse en route to Air Force One. “After they got the president and first lady onto the plane, they just left the hearse at Love Field. It took Vernon O’Neal four hours to find the Cadillac at the airport.”

The hearse was the first 1964 model built by Miller-Meteor Company of Ohio, body number 64001. It was the show car of the National Funeral Directors Association convention, where funeral home director Vernon O’Neal purchased it in October, 1963, just one month before the assassination.

Steve Lichtman of the Professional Car Society (PCS) says that he and other members of PCS are almost 100 percent convinced that the hearse is authentic.

This is a strong endorsement from the participants of the international club dedicated to car preservation and restoration. Last year, Lichtman and others in PCS debunked the Barrett-Jackson auction claim that the company had the ambulance that carried President Kennedy from Air Force One at Andrews Air Force Base to Bethesda Naval Hospital in Maryland. As counter evidence, they presented a 1986 photograph of the ambulance in a Boston junkyard crusher, provided by the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library & Museum.

JFK-hearse-1964-Cadillac-Air-Force-One-wing.jpgAddressing the JFK hearse’s authenticity, Lichtman says, “I am 99 percent convinced that this is the correct hearse." Both Lichtman and former O’Neal employee McElroy also concur in their description of the hearse’s history.

The vehicle remained in the O’Neal fleet for a few more years after the assassination, until the late 1960s when the O’Neal funeral home went out of business. Vernon O’Neal and other family members involved in the business are now deceased.

Henry Thomae, Sr., owner of the Thomae Funeral Home in San Benito, Texas, bought the hearse in the early 1970s. (He passed away in 2000.) About a decade later, the title passed to Arrdeen Vaughan, the proprietor of funeral homes and now a hearse dealer in the Lone Star state. Vaughan restored the automobile and put it up for auction in 2007 at the Lakewood Yacht Club in Seabrook, Texas. He turned down a bid of more than $900,000 for the historic vehicle, since it was shy of the minimum asking price (known as the “reserve”) of one million dollars.

In 2009, the hearse was put on the block again, but the high bid was only $165,000 and not accepted. A Barrett-Jackson representative says that the Miller-Meteor hearse is no longer owned by Vaughan and that the present keeper of the Cadillac wishes to remain anonymous. Specialty auto purveyor Desert Autosport of Arizona is representing the current owner.

For the January 15-22 auction in Scottsdale, Arizona, Barrett-Jackson has no reserve on the hearse, so there is no minimum price to be met. Until recently, the infamously-associated vehicle was listed on eBay for $1.5 million, according to a post on the Antique Automobile Club of America’s website.

If you want to drive around town channeling your inner Herman Munster, and don’t require a presidential hearse, there are other buying options to consider. A search on eBay Motor’s website returned a few Cadillac hearses for sale ranging in price from a “buy it now” $35,000 for a 1929 model to $1,000 for a 1989 Cadillac Fleetwood Hearse.

But realize that a hearse is deathly on the wallet and the environment where gas mileage is concerned. According to the U.S. Department of Energy’s website, a 2011 Cadillac Funeral Coach/Hearse gets just 12 miles per gallon in the city, 16 on the highway, and specialized parts can be a challenge to acquire, depending on age and model.

This begs the question: Is there a hybrid hearse? Leave it up to the Brits. Brahms Electric Vehicles has developed a plug-in electric hearse hybrid that has a battery-only range of 31 miles - hopefully enough to get to the cemetery and back—or at least the grocery store, if you’re looking to run everyday errands while taking advantage of the cargo room.

There are many hearse enthusiast clubs in North America, with a list provided by the Grim Rides hearse club in California.

The Grim Rides website also offers advice on how to buy a hearse and suggestions on where to find one.

For financial tips, offers 10 steps to follow when buying a collector car.

Like any used-vehicle purchase, be sure to have an independent mechanic conduct a complete inspection. And when considering a vehicle purchase for its historical significance, do make sure the paperwork is in order.

Sharon Riley

Photos by Cecil Stoughton, courtesy: White House/John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum

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