Shaffer: Harley hearse offers one last ride

jshaffer@newsobserver.comSeptember 3, 2012 

  • Streets of Gold Mike and Tammy Wall operate Streets of Gold Hearse Co. from their Rocky Mount home. Pricing is calculated by the distance from Rocky Mount. Anything within 50 miles is $350, costing more up to 250 miles. Service for law enforcement officers, fire fighters, emergency personnel and military killed in the line of duty is free within 50 miles. Contact Streets of Gold Hearse Co. at www.harleydrawnhearse.com.

— ROCKY MOUNT -- In his leather vest and boots, Mike Wall serves as a biker’s usher into eternity, towing them to glory on his big black Harley.

He drives North Carolina’s only motorcycle-driven hearse, and when he leads a funeral procession with his 1584 cc engine rumbling out a requiem, every car pulls to the shoulder.

To Wall, the bikers of the world would want one last ride, knees in the breeze, rolling to the grave with a motorized version of “Taps” blowing out of chrome pipes. The idea struck him so forcefully that he left a prosperous sales job, offering a Harley hearse to any departed rider within 250 miles.

“It’s the most gratifying thing I’ve ever done,” said Wall, 54. “For a motorcyclist to be able to go to the grave the way they lived their life, it means more to them and their family than riding in a Cadillac coach. I’ve never been a Cadillac guy.”

The idea of ferrying the departed in a hearse that tips its leather cap to bikers is spreading across the country like a 3,000-mile skid mark. From Santa Ana, Calif., to Auburn, Mass., grieving families are opting for a coachman who shares their joy of a wind-burned life behind the handlebars. In 2010, the nationwide tally of motorcycle-drawn hearses came to nearly 50.

Wall had a successful career as a sales manager for Merita Bread, but he ran at the hearse idea after spotting one at Biketoberfest in Daytona Beach. He found two companies building bike-hearses in North Carolina, but one wanted $100,000 for the combination and the other made its coaches out of wood.

So Wall, a rider for 40 years, opted to convert his 2007 Harley Electra Glide Classic into a trike. He wanted metal for the hearse, not wood, so he cut and fabricated much of the steel himself – a 10-month project.

Sleek and glossy on the outside, the hearse features an oak laminate interior, a cross hung at the rear. Its jewel, though, is a pair of rear fenders taken from a 1959 Cadillac hearse. Wall bought them from a junkyard and sandblasted them for 50 hours each.

“That hearse will stop every car on the road,” he said. “I’ve been chased down, had horns blown at me. I’ve been pulled over by sheriff’s deputies and state troopers who just want to take a look.”

He named his service Streets of Gold, a nod to his own mother, who died of cancer in 2008 and always spoke of walking on a gilded pathway. The day Wall unveiled the hearse last fall, a car followed him all the way home – a detective for the Rocky Mount Police Department who wanted it for his father-in-law.

Another time, Wall rode it to Goldsboro on a referral from a funeral home there, and when the customer saw it for the first time, he handed over an extra $50. When Wall offered change, the man told him, “Naw, man. You keep it.”

You get nervous driving a coffin to a graveyard, knowing there’s somebody inside, wanting every to move to be perfect. But it’s an honor, Wall says – much more than landing a big account in the bread business. If he won the lottery, he’d pull his hearse for free.

Wall jokingly refers to his own bike as a $20,000 stress reliever. Every biker knows the feeling of sun on your back, wind in your face, bad day left miles behind.

On the last day, before the sun sets for good and the engine goes cool forever, it’s good to feel the thrill once more.

Shaffer: jshaffer@newsobserver.com or 919-829-4818

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