Classic Car Collector Eric Bell Lives with One Foot in and One Foot out of the Past
When you think of someone who is a funeral director and owner of a funeral home, I’m willing to bet that your first description wouldn’t be of a witty and jovial person by virtue of their rather peculiar profession. Over the years, I have found Zionsville resident Eric Bell is not what I would expect a funeral director to be. He is outgoing and engaging but is genuinely compassionate when duty calls. Many know Bell to also be a talented trumpeter, a doting husband and a father with a penchant for collecting classic cars.
As the 15th Annual Artomobilia is cruising up on the calendar, I thought it was appropriate to feature Bell on this month’s cover. Bell has shown his 1955 Buick Roadmaster, which won its class at Artomobilia, and owns a remarkable collection of classic cars — and hearses— that he refers to as “anchors to memories.”
I spoke with Bell about his life as a classic car collector and how it has tied in with his career path as the director and owner of Eric M.D. Bell Funeral Home located in Pittsboro, Ind.
An Uncanny Synergy between Cars and Caskets
Bell was raised in the small town of Frankfort, Ind. Bell, his father and his uncle would leaf through the pages of the automotive buyers guides that were popular and published in the pre-internet era. The Bell men would bond over their aspirations, and as Bell shared, it’s one of his most cherished memories from his youth.
Unaware of his destiny, Bell would hang around the town’s funeral home, Goodwin Funeral Home, to admire its classic car collection.
“My ‘career’ actually started at 13 when I started hanging around the funeral home,” Bell said. “I was just fascinated with the classic cars. I was really a nuisance — for a lack of better words — and had to find something [productive] to do, so I started mowing the [funeral home] yard, washing cars and spreading gravel. By the time I was 16, I was in a suit and parking cars. In fact, one day after I got my driver’s license, I was tasked with picking up a person at a nursing home who had passed — by myself.”
As a proficient trumpeter, Bell picked up the honorable gig of playing Taps at the local funerals for the funeral home when he was in high school.
“They would come pick me up in the funeral home flower van from school, and we’d go to the cemetery and play Taps,” Bell recalled. “Then they’d drop me off back at the school for the exorbitant sum of $10. And that was my high school experience.”
After graduating high school, Bell earned a bachelor’s degree in business from Marian University in Indianapolis and an associate’s degree of Funeral Service from Mid-America College of Funeral Service in Jeffersonville, Ind. After serving the communities of Carmel, Ind., and Indianapolis, Bell acquired the historic David A. Hall Mortuary, which is currently the Eric M.D. Bell Funeral Home.
“I’m so happy being a country undertaker,” Bell expressed. “It’s easygoing out here, and through a series of events, I’m just happy to own my own place. It’s given me an opportunity to kind of replicate my childhood, and I have my own little classic car collection. We’re always one foot in and one foot out of the past, and that really resonates with what makes my funeral home special and the classic cars.”
The Joy of Collecting Classic Cars
Bell and I discussed his collection and the importance of exposing the younger generations to classic car collections in hopes of cultivating future stewards and enthusiasts of classic cars.
“We have three generations of hearses,” Bell shared. “I’ve got a brand-new Cadillac [hearse], a 1948 Packard and a 1907 horse-drawn [hearse] that is made from hand-carved wood,” Bell said. “The Packard was originally used in a tiny little funeral home in South Dakota.”
All of Bell’s cars come with history and fascinating stories, from their originations to how they ended up in Bell’s garage, which is one of the reasons Bell fancies the classic cars over newer productions that come fresh off dealers’ lots.
“The ’55 Roadmaster is a very special car to me,” Bell said. “I was 26 or 27, and I took out a $20,000 loan — from my uncle — and did a lot of restoration, putting it back to all original. That’s how I got started [collecting and restoring], and it’s been with me ever since. To me, it’s the most beautiful car that GM ever made, and it always will be.”
Featured along with Bell’s 1955 Roadmaster in this article is his 1955 Cadillac Fleetwood.
“Now, the reason why I’m drawn to the ’55 Cadillac is because that was the car in ‘Driving Miss Daisy,’ and that movie was a big deal to me when I was a kid,” Bell shared. “It was also in ‘The Godfather.’ This car was originally owned by a funeral home in California, and that’s why it has air conditioning, which was an $800 option on a $3,000 car at that time. So, somebody really wanted that [option]!”
Bell continued, “The restoration of them has become easier since I was in high school, with the internet. The good thing about owing vintage GM cars is that they used parts across 15 different cars for 30 years, so a lot of stuff is interchangeable. The parts for my ’55 Buick, the break cylinders for example, are like $4 parts and are $4,000 for a Ferrari. I have every original sales brochure and magazine ad for my cars because that stuff is very interesting to me. What I wish younger people knew about classic cars is that the cars in my collection are not expensive. You can buy a Buick like mine for $25,000 easily. And the enjoyment and pleasure that you get out of just running around in these cars — experiencing history in your hands — is so wonderful.”
To contact Eric Bell, visit ericmdbellfuneralhome.com.