KEARNEY — Jeff Knapp’s 1939 Buick Century looks larger than an eight- or nine-passenger Suburban, but it never hauled that many people at a time.
As a hearse, the Buick’s mission was to carry only the driver, an assistant and their guest — who rode feet first in the horizontal position.
“This Buick gets a lot of attention at car shows,” Knapp said.
Swinging open the rear door, Knapp reveals a cavernous space.
The Buick was built large because, in its time, a lot of hearses did double duty as ambulances.
As a result, there was a respectable amount of space in the rear compartment for an attendant and patient.
Knapp’s Buick isn’t a fast-mover, but if the patient didn’t survive the ride to the emergency room, well, the funeral home was the next stop.
For the past several months the ’39 Buick has been on loan to the Classic Car Collection. It’s one of the 70 or so cars on loan to the attraction on the east side of the Cabela’s building on U.S. Highway 30. Currently, the collection is displaying 200 cars.
Knapp knows from his travels to automobile shows that his black behemoth is a curiosity, but it’s not loaded with automotive technology.
The hearse’s most visible contributions to engineering are the fender-mounted rear turn signals. For reasons Knapp can’t explain, there are no front-mounted turn signals — only the rear signals. They’re controlled by a switch on the steering column.
“Maybe they were just scared of being rammed from behind,” Knapp said.
The in-line eight-cylinder engine is mated to a three-speed transmission with a shifter on the steering column. The Buick is solidly built, and its heft contributes to a smoother ride. But don’t expect much in the way of cornering. With all of that weight, coupled with the long wheelbase, the Buick handles straightaways just fine, but it gets docked for poor cornering.
“The hearse rides like a lumber wagon,” Knapp said.
The Buick is shod in period-correct eight-ply Firestone blackwall tires. They look good on the hearse, but the tires don’t inspire confidence when Knapp takes his Buick for a spin.
“They hold air, but I don’t go very far on them,” he said.
Knapp trailered the hearse to a car show in Rapid City, South Dakota. He didn’t want to risk a breakdown.
“Where are you going to find replacement parts for a 1939 car?” he said.
He paid $15,000-$16,000 for the hearse. He’s done very little restoration, which pleases him because fixing old cars can be like tossing money into a hole. The Buick still has its original paint, and there are blemishes and a few rust spots, but those don’t bother him so much.
He said his greatest joy is that his old Buick hearse has a stable mate, a ’39 Buick Limited sedan he purchased in California. “I bought the hearse because it matches my other Buick. It’s black, too.”
Knapp said he’s drawn to large luxury cars. His collection includes several other Buicks, a couple of Lincolns and a couple of Cadillacs. Knapp said his blue 1983 Mercedes two-door coup has been in the shop almost four years.
“Restoration can be a real money pit. You can pour a lot of money into it,” he said about his Mercedes.
Knapp said there’s an explanation about all of those Buicks. “It’s a disease. My folks had Buicks when I was growing up.”