In 1976, Roberto Cantinelli did an experiment: building a hearse from a Maserati car. For years he had modified Fiat models, like all his colleagues, and he knew that getting his hands on a significantly more expensive car would be a gamble. The result was sober, elegant and quite luxurious. The first hearse made from a Maserati car left its workshop in Ferentino, in the province of Frosinone, and since then thousands have been built and sold in many countries around the world. Today Cantinelli is 73 years old and continues to cut cars in half to transform them into hearses.
In Italy, only a few dozen companies carry out this niche production. It is a little-known sector, linked to the tradition of the Italian automobile industry, and in which hundreds of mechanics, engineers, bodybuilders, upholsterers and designers work. “There is a widespread misunderstanding,” Cantinelli says. “Almost everyone thinks that car manufacturers like Mercedes, Maserati or Jaguar offer a range of hearses. It does not work like that. Even if we often start from the same car models, each hearse is a unique example, a piece of craftsmanship.”
Before motor vehicles, used since the beginning of the 20th century with the widespread use of cars, coffins were transported on carts pulled by hand or by horses. From the 17th century, carriages became increasingly large, sumptuous and personalized: particularly in the United Kingdom, during the Victorian era, they began to be decorated with precious inlays and curtains. Various technical improvements were also gradually made such as reinforced frames, structures to prevent the coffins from moving and rollers to facilitate sliding when inserting or removing. In the first half of the 20th century, hearses resulting from the transformation of disused military ambulances spread throughout Europe. In Italy, until the 1980s, almost only Fiat sedans were used and although the brands are now different – Mercedes, Maserati, Volvo and Jaguar, among the best known – the work has remained more or less the same.
We start from a normal car which, in most cases, is purchased by companies on commission, after receiving an order from customers. Each manufacturer has a very extensive catalog: in addition to the color of the body and interior, you must decide on the quality of the materials and fittings. Mechanisms can be installed such as automatic sliding of the coffins, manual or automatic opening of the door, special lights or sensors and cameras to facilitate maneuvers. Funeral agencies that work in mountain areas may request four-wheel drive, and those that usually make long journeys often request automatic regulation of speed and distance from other cars.
Once entering the workshop, the original car is almost completely dismantled: the seats, interiors and doors are removed. At this point, there are two possibilities. If the customer wishes to keep only two seats, the driver and the passenger, the car is extended in the rear part by around fifty centimeters. However, if there are only four seats, the work is more complex: the car must be cut into two parts to lengthen the wheelbase, that is to say the distance between the two wheel axles. “I can’t tell you how much we lengthen the chassis, each company does it differently: it’s a secret,” says Rosanna Scandiuzzi who works in the administration of the Zanardo car factory in Mareno di Piave, in the province of Treviso. “Our particularity is that we make almost the entire structure in carbon, even the roof. This process costs more, but it is unique. »
Until around ten years ago, Cantinelli used sheet metal shaped with hydraulic presses. It was a job that required a lot of time and a certain amount of experience. “Now, like most of my colleagues, I have adapted: I use fiberglass modeled in molds. This can be done much earlier and production can be better organized. » The additions must have the same thicknesses as the two sections of the car. The chassis parts are welded, while the fiberglass parts are applied to the supporting structure as well as to the new body parts. When you cut the car in two, you have to redo the electrical system, the brakes and all the connections. The suspension also needs to be changed.
For several years and until 2009, certain car manufacturers, including Mercedes, offered kits to lengthen the frames, which made the work of mechanics easier. The small number of requests, however, led Mercedes to discontinue the sale and since then all companies have done as in the past. “Every time a model is changed or updated, it’s a struggle and exhaustion for us,” Scandiuzzi says. “We have to redo all projects from scratch and modify many components. The supply chain must be rebuilt.
When the structure is ready, we move on to the interior design. Beyond personalized requests, certain rules apply to everyone. THE mortuary police regulations of 1990 requires all companies to provide fully washable interiors. This directive, explains Wainer Righi of Renova in Modena, applies above all to vans used for the recovery of bodies in special cases, because in reality the coffins are already sealed and there is no risk of leakage of organic substances. However, each year the provincial health company must inspect the vehicle to verify that the requirements are met.
However, before sale, the car must be registered as a hearse. “Many checks and tests are carried out according to the parameters introduced by European directives,” continues Righi. For example, the effectiveness of brakes and suspensions is measured. “We are not required to have authorizations from car manufacturers for modifications, although in some cases we have managed to have contact. The responsibility for the safety of the vehicle lies with us and for this reason we must work very carefully.”
In recent years, some Italian companies have started to modify hybrid cars, and some have also tried to transform electric cars, for example Teslas. In this case, however, it is not possible to cut them in two due to the systems and batteries: they can only be extended in the rear part. In general, Italian workshops are favorable to experimenting with new technical solutions. On the setups however, there is some sort of code that is not written and shared between the producers. “Funeral directors are very demanding,” says Cantinelli. “They often make unusual requests regarding colors and lights, but we try to assert our philosophy and our style. Some things we accept, many others we don’t. »
The price of hearses varies considerably depending on the chosen installation and the basic car: they can cost from 70,000 euros to more than 150,000 euros. The versions most often chosen by funeral agencies range from 110 to 130 thousand euros.