All eyes turned toward the white 1940 Cadillac LaSalle hearse when it pulled up carrying Aretha Franklin's body early Tuesday at the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History in Midtown Detroit.
The vintage two-door, three-speed LaSalle is the same vehicle used to carry the Rev. C.L. Franklin, father of the Queen of Soul, in 1984; David Ruffin, baritone for the Temptations, in 1991; and Rosa Parks, civil rights icon, in 2005.
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Steve Arthur, a driver for 30 years who is often seen behind the wheel of the LaSalle, said the classic car is kept in storage in Detroit and used only for special occasions upon request. He said his boss has owned the vehicle since the Swanson Funeral Home opened in Detroit in 1958.
A hearse is seen outside of the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History as fans gather to pay their respects to Aretha Franklin during a public viewing on Tuesday, August 28, 2018.
“I’m the one that drives it, but I didn’t drive it this morning,” Arthur said. “You need to know how to drive a stick. The shifter is in the steering column.”
O’Neil D. Swanson, owner of the funeral home, could not be reached for comment as he drove Tuesday morning to the first day of public viewing for Franklin.
The Cadillac LaSalle has always been a sign of success but not excess, said Jonathan Klinger, spokesman for Hagerty Classic Insurance, the Traverse City-based company that specializes in classic cars.
“It was a very cool car and absolutely speaks of Detroit,” he said. “The LaSalle from that era had a perfect combination of sportiness and luxury. It’s just very fitting that a classic icon of Detroit, Aretha, was driven by a classic automotive icon of Detroit.”
Steve Arthur said the death of Aretha Franklin on Aug. 16 at age 76 is a great loss.
“She is an icon,” he said. “I thank God for having her in our city with us.”