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End of the road rides

Published:   |   Updated: May 13, 2013 at 02:01 PM

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Pat Brewer offers a service that some of his customers will literally die for: The opportunity to make one's final journey on earth, from the church to the cemetery, in a 1938 Packard hearse.

The deceased's family also can be treated to a retro ride in a 1937 Packard limousine.

Brewer, 71, is the founder of Brewer and Sons Funeral Homes in Brooksville and Spring Hill. The company also operates funeral homes in Tampa, South Tampa, Clermont and Groveland. His son, Barry, now runs the business.

Now semi-retired, Brewer spends most of his time in a garage on U.S. 41 north of Brooksville restoring old vehicles. Some of them are for boyish fun, like his 1958 super-stock Corvette. Picture actor James Dean cruising the beach for chicks. Brewer, a dedicated family man, cruises it every year in the Christmas parade.

The Packards, however, aren't just for show and parades; they're a part of the family funeral business.

"These cars are drivers, they're not trailer queens," said Brewer.

There is no extra charge to have the Packards at your funeral, but you do have to make a special request, Brewer said. Most of those requests come from men who enjoy old cars and want to ride in one at their own funeral. The Packards are driven in processions at least once a month, he said.

"Unfortunately, I'm really well-known," Brewer said about being a popular guy in the business of dying.

With their two-tone gray and black paint jobs, the Packards look stylish - like something a movie star or gangster Al Capone might ride in.

That attention to style, however, has actually been a hindrance whenever Universal or a movie studio has called with an inquiry.

Brewer said they are always looking for 1930s cars that are plain and black, and his are "too fancy."

He's well aware the pair look like gangster rides, so when he takes them to car shows, he brings along a Thompson submachine gun just for a good laugh.

But when he took them to a car show several years ago in New Port Richey, the "Tommy" gun on the back seat got him into a bit of a pickle.

Vice President Al Gore happened to be a guest. When the Secret Service got word of the gun, they weren't amused. They confiscated the Tommy gun, even though the barrel was filled with lead and it couldn't be used as a weapon.

The story had a happy ending. The Secret Service gave the Tommy gun back after the VP left.

Brewer bought the first Packard, the 1938 hearse, in the mid-1980s. The car had been built by the Henney Corp. of Freeport, Ill., which had a contract with Packard.

It was used for years as an ambulance by a hospital in Boston. In the early 1950s, a rock and roll band bought it to haul equipment. The musicians eventually blew the motor, and it sat in a garage for about two decades.

Brewer explained how he found out about the Packard, which was stored near Martha's Vineyard in a town called New Bedford.

"I finished playing golf one day at the (Brooksville) country club and was talking to a man from Cloverleaf who said his brother had one," Brewer said. "I flew up to look at it. The man rebuilt the engine and then it took me two years to restore it."

He discovered the 1937 limo at a dealer in Orlando in the early 1990s. At the time, one of his classic rides was a Model A roadster.

"The kids loved the rumble seat, but it was too dangerous," he said.

Brewer traded the roadster for the limo.

"It came out of Miami," Brewer said of the limo. "A land sales dealer used it for driving people back and forth. It had sprung a leak in the roof and rotted out all the material."

Brewer believes the limo could have been owned by boxer Jack Dempsey, but he hasn't been able to prove it yet.

If that's true, Brewer said, that would double the value of the vehicle.

He estimates each Packard is worth between $40,000 to $50,000.

Brewer replaced the limo's Super Eight engine with a 500-cubic-inch Cadillac motor. He said that motor was a favorite among hot rodders because it pretty much had more power than anything else on the road.

The Super Eight engines are known for overheating, especially with modern gasolines that have lower octanes than the days of yore, he said.

"We have to use these cars so they have to be reliable," he said. "The limo has dual air conditioning and two batteries. You have to have two batteries when you pull that much power with dual AC."

The hearse does not have AC, but that could be a future project, Brewer said. Both of the Packards now have automatic transmissions.

The front seat of the limo still has the original leather. The folding center jump seats and the rear seat were originally wool. The roof leak severely damaged the entire interior behind the front seat, so Brewer replaced that with burgundy nylon velour.

Brewer loves his Packards and his 'Vette, but his favorite restoration is a 1947 Lincoln Continental that was a recent find on eBay.

Only 400 models were made, and Brewer calls his a "pure hot rod" because it has been customized so much.

"It has a Chevy 350 engine, a Mustang II front end, a Camaro rear end, Buick seats and a GMC steering column," he said. "The only thing Lincoln is the body."

With its brawny chrome grill and low profile, the vehicle looks menacing and perhaps even more gangster than the Packards. Not surprisingly, Brewer quipped a 1947 Lincoln was driven in the "Godfather II" movie.

Brewer's '47 Lincoln had a nefarious past: It was used as a moonshine runner in West Virginia.

Once he gets all the kinks worked out of it, like the touchy steering, Brewer said it will become part of the business like the Packards.

"It will be the front vehicle and the minister will ride in it," he said.

Community News Editor Timothy P. Howsare can be reached at 352-544-5284.

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