One of the most remarkable vehicles in all of Albany is back on the road again thanks to the skill and determination of Neville Koch.
Sourcing and fitting a new gearbox is only the latest achievement of his long and sometimes testy relationship with the beautiful, yet often troublesome black hearse belonging to the Inggs Funeral Home on Hill Street.
The 1957 Plymouth Suburban is among the most stylish means of transport for anyone’s final journey. You can see your reflection in the shiny black bodywork and you need sunglasses to admire the heavily chromed front-end with double headlights, a substantial bumper and a latticed grille.
The elegant tail-fins sweep backwards under a long viewing glass toward the chrome-trimmed tail-lights. It is an enormous vehicle that exudes power and panache from a time when car manufacturers concerned themselves with horse-power and bold impressions while nobody outside a laboratory had ever heard of ‘carbon emissions’.
Koch reminisces that many years ago, the owner of the funeral home, O.D. Inggs used to work on the Plymouth himself, but as he got older he handed over a lot of the repairs.
One day, ‘Uncle OD’ as Koch fondly recalls, brought him the hearse to make an exhaust, “… but there were many bends, so I decided I’ll just drive it down quickly to the exhaust people, let them bend me some pipes, and I’ll fit it”.
A few minutes later, an absolutely livid O.D. Inggs went storming off to the exhaust workshop and berated the young Koch, “You do not drive a hearse around town, and if I take it to you, you will repair it. Don’t take it to somebody else”.
Koch said there were some surprising problems that caused him to stretch his ingenuity to find a solution. For example over the years the rubber blocks that allowed the tailgate to rest horizontally against the bumper had gradually worn away. It is important for the tailgate to be straight in order to remove caskets without any risk of slipping. His solution was to fix wooden blocks onto the rear bumper – not ideal, but it works.
The latest and one of the biggest repair jobs had to do with the gear-box. Koch said he first had problems with the gear-box some years ago when the gears started slipping. Although he admits he is no specialist, he managed an overhaul that lasted 15 years.
Then one day the current funeral director, Mary Bowker had promised the Plymouth for an important funeral but the reverse gear broke. The car would not go backwards.
Koch explains, “It had no reverse gear. I stripped it down, found that the gear or one of the band clamps had broken, which I was not able to repair”.
He said they had to make a plan so that Bowker could keep her promise. “We plotted the route so that we didn’t have to have any reverse gear, and I drove it and it was successful. We went right through, and we had to park in front of the cathedral and it worked, that’s the main thing”.
After that funeral, Koch says he stripped it down and “unfortunately it took eight months to locate parts and fix it at quite a heavy price”.
The Plymouth is now back on the road and with Neville Koch’s loving-care it will stay that way for many years to come.