By Dan Truttschel
What grew from a simple interest has turned into somewhat of an obsession for Waterford’s Rocky Fluegge.
And he admits it’s a bit on the odd side.
Maybe even morbid.
Fluegge is a full-time car restorer, but that’s not anything different – the fact that he also restores hearses, however, certainly is.
“There aren’t a lot of people into it around the country,” he said. “It’s a narrow market, but the people who are into it are very passionate about it.”
The market for his work is varied, Fluegge said, from people in the funeral/ambulance field to members of the public who may just have a deeper interest in Halloween and things that border a bit on the macabre.
For Fluegge, it’s a combination of the two, which actually began as an interest in special effects and makeup, which almost led him to go to school in California to pursue that career path.
“I’ve always been a big car junkie,” he said. “I always built a lot of (hot) rods and did custom (builds). … I always kind of had that love of Halloween. I have a pretty huge collection of funeral collectibles and oddities that go along with that.
“… My love of custom cars (connected) with my love of Halloween, special effects and custom coach work. That’s kind of what drew me into it. It’s not just building, it’s a lifestyle. You find that with a lot of hearse owners and drivers.”
Taking it national
Fluegge, who said he currently owns 16 hearses, had his story move onto the national scene when a 1964 Cadillac hearse was featured on a new Discovery Channel series, “Sticker Shock.” The show featuring Fluegge’s hearse can be watched at discovery.com.
That didn’t come without a bit of a hiccup, however, as the vehicle was damaged in transport, and when it was returned, his insurance company determined it had to be totaled.
So now he’s redoing the restoration.
“I ended up having to buy the car back from the insurance company, and I am going to go through and rebuild it,” Fluegge said.
Even with that disappointment, the chance to be on the set of a television show was memorable, Fluegge said.
“It was really kind of a cool experience, just to be able to see some of the behind-the-scenes on how the filming is done,” he said. “I got the chance to meet a lot of other interesting car people. I’m looking forward to seeing what this show is about because there’s going to be an array of really interesting, not normal, run-of-the-mill vehicles on it.”
The oldest hearse in his personal collection is a 1934 Oldsmobile and the most current – that he drives year-round – is a 1996 Cadillac. Fluegge’s wife has caught the bug as well, and he’s in the process of restoring a 1948 Cadillac for her.
Fluegge worked for 19 years with the family business, Fluegge Optical in Waterford. But he also owned his own body shop, and in the past year, began to dedicate his efforts full time to car restorations.
“I needed to get back to doing what I do best, and that’s building stuff with my hands,” he said. “I do a little bit of everything.”
One constant hurdle that Fluegge said he runs into is finding parts, as he can’t just run down the street to the local auto parts store to find what he needs.
“They really are some amazing works of art when you can actually just pull back the camera and look at the craftsmanship in them,” he said. “… You either have the option of finding something else that you can make work to fit for it or you end up having to custom make it. They’re definitely tough to get parts for, and that’s some of the stuff you learn as time goes on.”
Classy final ride
Fluegge said it’s not unusual for a funeral home to purchase a restored vehicle because of the style and class it can add to its service.
When his time eventually comes, Fluegge has made his desires clear to family and friends.
And it better be in one sharp ride.
“When I pass away, I want my buddies all driving one of my cars to the cemetery,” he said. “If I get hauled in a mini van, I’m going to haunt everybody around. My last ride is not going to be in a prosaic vehicle, it’s going to be in one of my vintage coaches.”
He’s the first to admit that his obsession is an odd one, right down to personalized license plates like “Dust to Dust,” “Soul Taker,” “Dead Sled,” “Dirt Nap” and the like.
“It’s definitely a little bit morbid,” he said. “That’s the fun part about driving the (hearses). When you’re going down the road, you see people look over and give you the thumbs up or they’ll be freaked out and look in the other direction and pretend you’re not there.
“I’ve had the cars parked on the street, and you’ll literally watch people cross to the other side because they don’t want to walk by the car.”
It’s clearly a labor of love, albeit an unusual one.
This article was included in the November 2, 2018 issue of The Beacon