by Harry Pope

Queen Mother kicking the wheels

Queen Mother kicking the wheels

When I entered the funeral profession in 1977, the first vehicle I was allocated was a 1966 Austin Princess limousine. I hated that car, it was 11 years old, so as in the intervening eleven years the column gear change linkage had worn considerably, as first was next to reverse it was a lottery if you progressed forward or backwards. You pulled the lever towards you and up for first, closer towards you for reverse, then down for second, away and up for third, then away and down for top gear. No power steering of course, with air conditioning a thing to be anticipated a long way into the future. The Austin Princess limousine version of air conditioning was 2/40. Two windows open at 40 mph.

Bog standard Austin Princess limousine in black

Bog standard Austin Princess limousine in black

It had a leather bench front seat, when driving round a corner too fast you had to hang onto the steering wheel while securing the left foot behind the brake pedal. There was a sliding glass partition, separating chauffeur from family. There were two rear doors, a wide leather back seat that by the time I was responsible had cracks that required considerable attention. There were two fold-down seats for three further passengers, they were high-backed so could have easy sightline of what the driver was doing. I well recall performing an emergency stop and their three heads went bang bang bang as they hit the glass.

Grosvenor limousine by Coleman Milne coachbuilders

Grosvenor limousine by Coleman Milne coachbuilders

The carpet was worn, impossible to keep clean when on a muddy interment. A couple of times I dropped passengers off, confused the drivers door with that of the rear passengers, and tried to get behind the non-existent wheel behind the partition. I would then casually sweep the floor with my gloved hand, then get in the front as if it was natural. After a year with that limousine, the daily orders had the entry ‘harry to remain in garage all day cleaning his limousine.’ I also managed to reverse it into a lamppost. I had dropped the family after the funeral back at their house which was in a cul-de-sac. The limousine had a long boot overhang from the rear wheels, with small round rear view mirrors on the front wing. The back window was as small as a letter box, so I misjudged the distance. There was a loud clang, I had creased the metal bumper.

highly polished black Daimler limousine

highly polished black Daimler limousine

I returned to the garage, found the guvnor who was with the mechanic, and owned up. They looked at the bumper, the guvnor asked the mechanic if he could fix it, and when he said yes, told me there would be no repercussions. The Royal Family had these Princess limousines in their garages, I would not be surprised if there is still one lurking in the back of a Mews waiting for an imperial summons. When the Daimler DS420 was popular, I know that the Queen Mother had one adapted so there was a motorised step so she didn’t have such a long drop to the ground. Bearing in mind that they were rust traps it is a wonder to me that the weight of the motor didn’t erode the step. Some years ago this limousine was placed for sale, the price reflected the Royal ownership, twice as much as the commercial rate.

pretty basic Ford Dorchester

pretty basic Ford Dorchester

In the early 1990s I became a carriage master, buying my first Daimler for £6,000. I also used it for weddings, so had to be particularly careful to examine every interior area for confetti before taking it on my first Monday funeral. Rust was a constant problem for those owning the Daimler limousine. You filled up with two tanks, each on either side high up on the bodywork close to the boot. Each was accessed by a locked flap, rain would gather in the small area alongside the petrol cap under the flap. There was a small hole by the cap, so rain water could easily flow away via a rubber tube attached, but where the tube attached itself to the bodywork was prone to rust, so water would access the petrol tank. As a three-time Daimler limousine owner I had to drain this tank on a regular basis, and when I sold the last one I said to my wife ‘if ever I tell you that I am going to buy another Daimler limousine, lock me in a darkened room until I come to my senses.’

that tiny window was handy for flicking ash out

that tiny window was handy for flicking ash out

In the 1980s Volvo decided to enter the limousine market. They stretched their executive saloon, welding it back together with the extra part. I well remember being at Surrey and Sussex Crematorium one day with this limousine in the way, parked outside the main chapel. The coachbuilder Volvo had used might have taken it out for a test drive before delivering to the funeral director, but that would not have involved passengers in the back. During the journey from house to crematorium the chassis shifted, so when they got there, the doors would not open, everyone stuck in the limousine. I have an idea that a crowbar was used to extricate.

Ford entered the market, with stretched versions called the Dorchester and Grosvenor. The first was pretty basic, with hearse to match, the latter was very well appointed, a prestige vehicle with electric windows, power steering and air conditioning, maybe standard these days but luxury extras then not included in the purchase price.  Mercedes Benz started setting the standards with extras being basic, their second hand vehicles reflecting their desirability.

Chauffeurs of funeral limousines these days have sat-nav, air con, power steering, stereo radios, all as basic. Just remember what it was like for us pioneer drivers, who got soaked when we opened the window to let some air in as it was getting all steamed up when we couldn’t see to drive. The quarter-light was to flick the ash out.

Harry Pope has had a varied funeral career, from chauffeur to arranging repatriations for Kenyons, the Royal undertakers, to now being a celebrant. He has written Buried Secrets, a hilarious book full of anecdotes, Amazon at £2.99 e-version, or £6.99 printed.

 

 

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