Building The ‘Harold and Maude’ Jaguar E-Type Hearse Was Quite The Undertaking
Photography by Ted Gushue
Seeing a Jaguar E-Type today is a treat. Seeing one that’s been turned into a hearse though? That’s truly rare. The morbid machine first came into existence in the cult classic film Harold and Maude, and, wanting a movie car of his own, Ken Roberts decided to recreate the famous slab of black Jag for his collection. With years and untold amounts poured into bringing this car to life, it is now touring the country, reincarnating the movie car’s aura for new audiences.
Is it a little macabre? Sure, but it’s also just plain old cool too. Purpose aside, doesn’t the shape of the thing just, work? It’s at least as close as we’ll get to an E-Type shooting brake, and anyone with a pulse should take an interest in that.
Ted Gushue: How did this whole project get started Ken?
Ken Roberts: Well, the way the thing came about- I knew George Barris for 13 years. The Batmobile was of course a big part of his life, and around the time of its sale I really started to fall in love with the idea of having a “Movie Car.” I’d always loved Harold and Maude and the little Jag hearse from that film, and I was in a position to take on a new project, so we got started with my friend Don Kessler.
We started by scouring the United States for what we assumed must have already existed, we wrote letters to Jaguar clubs, looking for somebody who may have made one already. Couldn’t find anybody though, so Don and I said stupidly, “Why don’t we build our own?” That’s what got it started.
In the movie, Harold builds his in about two days. Well, it took us four years, and more money than I even want to admit to.
TG: So, for the movie hearse, who built the actual car they used?
KR: The same guy that built the Batmobile. Most people think George Barris built that Batmobile. He did not. He owned the title to it, and sold it for a handsome profit. He didn’t even design the Batmobile. He contracted that out to another builder in Hollywood, and he was just a teenager at the time.
They built the Batmobile in three weeks, and a few years later, the same person built the Harold and Maude Jaguar, not knowing it was for a movie company. He built it simply for a client, which ultimately was the production company that was operating out of Europe for some reason, perhaps to throw people off. But it took him six months and $32,000 to build it.
KR: I asked him at one point if I could use his name in promotion with the car, and gave him some legal papers to sign. He’s never signed them, so I I can’t give you his name unfortunately. We’ve actually become very good friends though. He’s attended two shows with the car. In fact, the Jaguar club flew this guy in for the international Jaguar festival because we were screening Harold and Maude. It was a sellout. We only had 150 dinner movie tickets, but 350 people showed up for the event. We couldn’t fit them all in!
He got up and delivered a speech that was very well received before the movie started, and the interesting thing is that this was the first time he’s ever even seen the movie. The very first time he ever saw it was that Sunday night when we screened it for the club. Incidentally, it’s a little off the subject, but he also built the motorcycles for Easy Rider. To this day he’s never seen that movie.
TG: That’s quite the portfolio of star cars, and bikes. So, how did yours start its life though?
KR: I bought a little Roadster from a Jaguar dealer in Las Vegas, out of his private collection. A little black, 1970 Roadster, with the thought that I was going to convert it into the hearse. Once I got it home to Arizona, we started doing our research and discovered that Paramount Pictures actually used a 1967 2+2 Jaguar, which is the extended hard top version E-Type, and it’s 13 inches longer than the Roadster. So, then we had to go out and find ourselves a 2+2 Coupe and start in again.
TG: What were some of the biggest challenges in building the car?
KR: Finding competent people. The group that I got involved with initially turned out to be very incompetent, and crooked besides. Because I’m not giving you their names, I’m not slandering them, but that was a bad experience. I finally joined the Jaguar Club, and thanks to them I was guided and steered toward some people that knew what they were doing. The cost of the car was astronomical, partly because of the false starts that we had in the beginning.
TG: How does it drive, compared to your regular E-Type? Must be quite a bit heavier.
KR: How does the hearse drive? It actually drives better than the Roadster! It was a little stubborn this morning, but it hadn’t been started in a couple of weeks, and I forgot to put the choke on. Normally when I get in it and hit the button, it fires right up, so it’s a sweet running car. It really is.
TG: The reactions you must get driving this thing around must be priceless.
KR: Frequently, somebody will recognize the significance of it, especially with the license plates on it—Harold abbreviated and Maude abbreviated: HAR+MOD. Kind of gives it away. But truthfully, I have other cars in the collection that get more attention when I go down to the gas station. The little Jaguar hearse, it’s sort of like a black paneled truck. It’s not as flashy as my 1934 Mercedes Benz, or my 1987 Rolls Royce, or my wife’s Corvette to be honest. They’re very flashy cars, and truthfully, they get more attention than this on average.
TG: This is certainly more understated than some cars, but there’s so much to take in as well. When can people see this car next?
KR: We’ll be showing the car in Culver City in a few weeks at what used to be the George Barris Show. I think that’s the one he started. It no longer has his name on it, but it’s in Culver City.
I’m doing a private showing the next day, and those people are sponsoring the trip. I’m actually getting paid to show up on this one!
Then after that, six days later, we’re due in Kansas City, so we’re going to go 2,000 miles across the country in six days, and we’re going to do a sanctioned Jaguar show in Kansas City on May the 20th, then we’re going to go on the road, have a little fun in Branson, end up in Oklahoma City, and finally put the car in storage for a little while. Then we’ll fly home, fly back to Oklahoma City, and we’ll go to another Jaguar sanctioned Concours d’Elegance on June the 10th, and from there we come back to Phoenix, which is our home.
We’ll rest up for a while, and then we’re doing the Jaguar show in San Diego. We did it last year and not only took first place, but we also took best of show, which was unusual for a club to hand that trophy to somebody that’s an “interloper” from another state and another club.
Needless to say, we like to show the car, share the build, talk to those who appreciate it. It is certainly a unique thing to see at a Jaguar show or otherwise.