This is the first in a new occasional series called Long Beach Noir, telling tales of the city’s creepy, crawly underbelly.

One recent afternoon I found myself in the parking lot of a Long Beach Boulevard smog test shop with my fingers crossed, hoping my jalopy would receive a passing grade.  As the shop owner Tony put it through the paces, my eyes were drawn to two rusty old vehicles parked in the corner.  The vintage ambulance on the left was an unusual sight, but it was the car on the right that froze me in my tracks: a decaying hearse with gothic-metal church panels welded to the sides.  It looked to be from the early ’40s, and it had seen many miles of bad road since then…    

Some quick research revealed one funeral home that matched the name on the hearse’s family crest:  Johann and Sons, College Point, New York, in business since 1857.  I sent a note there to try and find out how the hearse got to California and got a reply from a Mr. Bill Johann, who informed me that although his family did originally own and operate hearses, they stopped when union pressure forced them to employ outside “livery” services sometime around 1940.  He also told me that anyone who could give visual confirmation about this particular undertaker’s limousine is either “dead or in dementia.”  

I dug a little deeper and learned about the car:  It’s a 1938 Meteor.  ’38 was the first year Meteor included the cathedral work on its hearses.  So it seems very likely that this funeral coach was one of the last ones the Johanns ever owned, and that over the last 75 years it has somehow traveled 3000 miles to its current resting place at the smog shop in Long Beach.  

It’s more unnerving than anything a Hollywood horror movie prop person could ever create, and it begs for a nickname, like “Zombie Mobile” or “The Death Wagon.”  But you won’t hear me saying that stuff.  Having been up close to it, I definitely do not want to disrespect its one-time passengers.

If you have any ideas for future Long Beach Noir subjects, email [email protected]