To many people, a hearse is an unpleasant reminder of that inevitable final ride. But for a group of dedicated car collectors, funeral coaches are works of the coachbuilder’s art, and it’s even better if they’re small enough to park several on a shelf.
Nigel Parker, managing director of Brooklin Models in Bath, England, recently visited Toronto to introduce a new collectible model of a 1934 LaSalle — a long-defunct, less-expensive Cadillac brand — into the company’s line of “professional cars,” which includes funeral cars and ambulances.
“We look for subjects that have not been modelled before, and this fits the bill,” Parker says.
“The long-wheelbase funeral coaches and ambulances are fascinating and beautiful. What surprised me was the sheer depth of this business. There were dozens of coachbuilders designing these, and if I had four lifetimes and three factories, we still wouldn’t scratch the surface of all that’s out there.”
The company takes its name from the town of Brooklin, northeast of Toronto, where it was started in 1974. Back then, most model cars were large plastic ones that buyers put together. Founder John Hall wanted to make tiny, preassembled metal ones.
His first was a 1933 Pierce-Arrow, crudely made of resin and reinforced with Popsicle sticks. By 1979, when Hall returned home to England and set up a factory in Bath, the cars had reached a level of quality that made them very popular with collectors: made entirely of metal except for plastic windows and rubber tires, and detailed right down to windshield wipers and licence plates.
Parker, who started in the company’s paint shop in 1982, bought Brooklin Models with a partner in 1998. His goal was simple: to continue making 1930s to 1950s vehicles that no other company was depicting, including such rare models as a 1953 Oldsmobile Fiesta and a 1941 Hupmobile Skylark. The little cars, all 1/43rd scale and about 13 cm long, cost about $135 on average, primarily due to all the work involved in making them.
“We do everything ourselves, with the exception of the electroplating,” Parker says. “Ingots of metal, tins of paint, and boxes of rubber go in one end, and finished models go out the other end.”
Mass-produced models are made by die-casting, in which components are cast in automated steel dies. It’s efficient but very expensive, and companies must sell a lot of models to make a profit.
“The die-cast guys tend to pick subjects that they’ll amortize over volume, so they do a lot of racing or contemporary cars,” Parker says. “I can’t compete with these for pricing, so we pick subjects that aren’t economical for the big guys.
“I don’t do Volkswagen Beetles, Rolls-Royces, Jaguars, all the bloody obvious that have been done by the big manufacturers. With a car like our 1955 Packard, even if we produce it for five years, our total sales will be less than 1,000 pieces worldwide. We’re a niche business and we look for the niche subjects.”
The professional cars are certainly that. Expected to feature a new model each month, the collection will include a 1960 Cadillac Guardian coach, a 1938 Buick ambulance and 1953 and 1954 Packard ambulances.
The British-built models have a further Canadian connection: Parker relies heavily on Tom McPherson, a Toronto historian considered by many to be the world’s foremost authority on professional cars, and author of a half-dozen books on them.
Creating the little cars is a painstaking process, using specifications from McPherson’s extensive collections, as well as photographing and measuring actual vehicles to ensure that every proportion is correct.
Parker unveiled the LaSalle model in February at a meeting of the Professional Car Society, an association of about 1,000 members worldwide, dedicated to collecting and preserving these cars.
He also made stops in Windsor and Ohio to measure two full-size 1952 and 1977 Cadillac coaches for future models.
“We’d been batting around the idea for professional cars for quite some years,” Parker says. “It’s a niche market that’s big enough for us, but too small for the die-cast boys. We look for a piece that deserves its place in automotive history.”
In Toronto, Brooklin Models are sold at Mini Grid at 608 Mount Pleasant Rd. (minigrid.com) or go to brooklinmodels.co.uk.