Painting your wagon

Jul 12, 2016
Painting your wagon “You can have any colour you like as long as it’s black,” to paraphrase Henry Ford, founder of the Ford Motor Corporation. You might think that quote should belong in the rarefied world of UK funeral vehicle coach building, but in actual fact coachbuilders have worked to accommodate those hardy few undertakers who’ve chosen to stick their heads above the parapet and buck the trend for black.   

For one thing, a sizeable number of firms around the country have always run silver vehicles, but there are others who’ve always sought to be more different still. One well-established firm in Surrey used to run vehicles finished in a two-tone of black over garnet green, whilst another well-known firm in Cardiff has always been known for its aubergine fleet.   

The first really widespread move to introduce coloured funeral vehicles came in the mid 1980’s. This was the era of the first funeral conglomerate gold rush, when corporate money was sloshing round the country like water in a bucket and funeral directors were being offered stupendously over-valued amounts for their family businesses. When Hodgson Holdings (and others) came waving their wallets it was inevitable that funeral firm proprietors would take the money and run.   

Howard Hodgson himself was the young turk who in 1976 bought his dad’s ailing funeral business in Birmingham. Realising he could cater for twice as many funerals without increasing overheads, he bought out a neighbouring funeral business. 16 acquisitions later, Hodgson Holdings was floated on the stock market, going on to acquire over 40 more funeral firms after flotation. Many well-established funeral directors allowed themselves to fall into thinking that if they didn’t sell voluntarily they’d be swept away by the rising corporate tide. History actually records a very different outcome, but that’s a story for another article. 

But getting off my soap box and back to my point, one of the things Hodgson Holdings tried to do – and failed spectacularly in doing it – was modernising the image of funeral directing by introducing a nationwide fleet of navy blue Volvo hearses. Although naturally they achieved a stonking good deal on the cars (well, you can when you’re buying hundreds at a time) Hodgsons assumed that people in every part of the country would join together in thinking “Ooh, that’s different. A nice blue hearse.” But whilst aubergine is widely accepted in Cardiff, it might not go down so well in Colchester. Likewise, black over garnet might have found a receptive audience in Richmond, Surrey, but it could equally receive boo’s and catcalls from an audience in Richmond, North Yorkshire.   

Now you don’t need me to tell you that apart from being an unspeakably dull colour, black is also an absolute *@%#* to keep clean. But many people still like to see it on funeral vehicles and it’s a brave funeral director who tries to stand out from the competition with coloured vehicles without first having done their market research. Having said that, there are many funeral directors who have done just that and are now happily standing out from the crowd and running coloured fleets. Amongst the most popular alternative colours are burgundy and… you guessed it, dark blue. The only downside is when additional limousines have to be hired in. In those cases having a black car tacked on to the end of a coloured cortege does rather spoil the look.   

But things are changing, albeit perhaps too far in the other direction. With the move towards celebration of life funerals you can now hire (and I’m quoting just a few examples here): white hearses; a bubble gum pink Daimler hearse; red or blue hearses (aimed at Liverpool or Everton FC fans respectively); or even, with the advent of vinyl wrapping for vehicles, a Daimler hearse finished in all-over Union Flag graphics.   

Now there’s a powerful bit of symbolism given the current times: a Union Jack hearse. Anyone fancy a UKIP themed funeral? Or maybe as a Remainer you see a different symbolism… Maybe we could use a red one for the Labour Party, which seems about to expire; or perhaps a baby pink one for the ‘Andrea Leadsom for PM’ campaign, which definitely has expired.   

Our European cousins (who it seems are about to become the kind of very distant relations you only see at weddings and funerals) are well accustomed to the idea of every other hearse being a coloured one. Black is of course still heavily used, but white, brown, silver, gold and various shades of blue are equally common. Just one thing though; here’s a little tip if you’re thinking of going over there to have a look: never mind the war, just don’t mention the referendum…   

Meanwhile, back in good ol’ Blighty I don’t think black will ever go out of fashion. But at this rate it could soon become just one more option.   


James Baker owns and runs Fred Stevens Funeral Directors of Nailsworth, Glos.   

He is the author of “A Life In Death – Memoirs Of A Cotswold Funeral Director”

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