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Rarity riders

The next time you see a hearse going by, it might be headed for the hardware store instead of the cemetery.

And the man behind the wheel might be Cary Livingston, not a funeral chauffeur.

Livingston, who owns a 1972 Oldsmobile hearse-ambulance car and is president of the Florida chapter of the Professional Car Society, uses his auto investment as a handy carry-all vehicle the way some people use their pickup trucks.

"It's great for going to Home Depot," Livingston said, noting that the back of the hearse provides plenty of room for lumber, groceries or even napping on long trips.

The Professional Car Society, founded in Columbus, Ohio, in 1976, encourages the preservation of vehicles used in funeral, rescue or livery services. That includes hearses, ambulances, limousines or cars that are custom-built to include two or more of these functions, including hearse-ambulances, sedan ambulances or hearse-flower cars.

They must be custom-built with regular passenger car styling. Taxicabs are excluded because they are not as a rule custom-built, Livingston said. In other words, too common.

And while Livingston thinks of the Oldsmobile as his "toy" car, he is quite serious about the business of accumulating professional cars. So serious, in fact, that he has bought and sold 30 such vehicles in 10 years. He even bought the Olds twice. He likens those cars to "wayward children."

"The owners get tired of a car with limited gas mileage. The novelty wears off. I sold (the Olds) to a girl who sold crafts at medieval festivals. Over a period of five years, she lost interest in (the car)."

In 1995, after repurchasing it Livingston found his work cut out for him. The car was in bad shape; it had been vandalized, its windows were broken and there was interior water damage.

"I didn't mind buying it back," said the self-employed painter. Yet, after making repairs, he hesitates to place a value on the Olds. "It's worth whatever someone's willing to pay for it."

Livingston's fascination for professional cars was inspired 20 years ago when a high school friend traded a broken motorcycle for a hearse. Though it took him a while to obtain his first professional car, he says he has "no particular goal for a dream car."

He drives his other vehicles more regularly. They include two 1987 Mazda pickup trucks, a 1965 Chevy Nova and a 1948 Packard four-door sedan.

The Professional Car Society, an international club of people sharing an appreciation for the unusual automobiles, is not your usual oldies car club.

Any professional car, whether it's a 1964 Cadillac nine-passenger sedan limousine (like the one chapter vice president Chris Bailey owns) to 1996 models, belong as long as they are privately owned, taken out of service and are driven regularly, Bailey said.

"It's the rarity of the cars that sets us apart (from other car collectors)."

The Florida chapter meets every other Saturday at a Burger King on U.S. 19 in Pinellas Park, where onlookers can munch onion rings while wondering just how many bodies _ dead or alive _ these nifty vehicles have transported through the years.

"I like them because they're unique, custom-built and there's limited production; the craftsmanship is there," said Bailey, 34, of Tarpon Springs. "We try to go to local (car) shows and educate a lot of people who didn't know this or that about hearses and limos."

Bailey also owns a 1976 Miller-Meteor Cadillac hearse, sort of "like a limo but without the divider web," he explained.

As far as hearses go _ you can't ignore one parked in your neighbor's driveway, much less one going down the street.

"Very few people have the personalities that coincide with driving something as unusual as a hearse," Livingston said. "Usually, you're the only person on the block that has one. At the car meets, you can be assured that no one else will pull in with a car like yours."

Livingston insisted, "There's no skull on the dashboard," but he plans his wardrobe carefully when he drives the car, which is about three times a month. "I usually wear a white shirt, so I don't get any comments" that peg him as a funeral home worker.

But club vice president Bailey works for a funeral home _ he's a staff associate for Moss-Feaster Homes in Dunedin _ and knows hearses and flower cars like the back of his hand. He drives his every day.

To the members of the Professional Car Society _ which in Tampa Bay numbers around 30 _ there's nothing weird or spooky about their hobby, Livingston said.

"People make the correlation between a hearse and death with morbidity. I shrug that off."

_ The Professional Car Society is an international association of people sharing an interest in antique limos, ambulances and hearses. The group meets at 6 p.m. on the first and third Saturday every month at the Burger King on U.S. 19 in Pinellas Park. For information, call 937-6657.