Down the Freeway of Love in a Pink Cadillac, Up the Stairway to Heaven in a White LaSalle

Ronnie Schreiber
by Ronnie Schreiber
down the freeway of love in a pink cadillac up the stairway to heaven in a white

As someone strongly identified with the Motor City, it’s not surprising that the music of Detroit’s Aretha Franklin had some association with cars. While she first gained superstardom in the 1960s, the Queen of Soul roared back into the Top 10 in 1985 with Freeway of Love, featuring the lyric “We goin’ ridin’ on the freeway of love/In my pink Cadillac.” Franklin, whose voice was likely unmatched in her generation, had a good ear for lyrics. A little known piece of music trivia is that Mack Rice changed Mustang Mama to Mustang Sally at Aretha’s suggestion.

If Detroit is famous for two things, they are indeed music and automobiles. Ms. Franklin’s career combined them both, so for her funeral the Motor City gave its Queen ‘Retha a proper automotive sendoff.

The funeral services themselves were held at Greater Grace Temple in northwest Detroit, site of many of the city’s highest profile funerals. When Detroit Police Dept. officers die in the line of duty, Greater Grace usually hosts their memorial services, with the street in front of the church, Seven Mile Road, lined with police cars.

For Aretha’s funeral, the church invited more than one hundred owners of pink Cadillacs from around the United States and Canada to do the same for her, and also attend her funeral (originally, the service were going to be private, but the church allowed 1,000 regular folks in, too). Fortunately, there already exists a network of people who own pink Cadillacs. It’s called Mary Kay Cosmetics. The multi-level marketing company has for decades rewarded its top sellers with bonuses of new cars, usually painted pink.

DuPont Automotive Coatings (now Axalta*) developed a special pearlized pink paint that General Motors calls “Mary Kay Pink,” which the cars receive a coating of at the factory — where GM also applies Mary Kay badging. At the peak of that perk are the Cadillacs themselves.

Perhaps it helped that Greater Grace’s “First Lady,” Crisette M. Ellis, wife of Bishop Charles Ellis III, who heads the $35 million church and its ministries, is herself a National Sales Director for Mary Kay. She has her own pearl pink Escalade, one of a number of cars she’s been awarded by the cosmetics company. I won’t say that Ms. Ellis was consciously exploiting Franklin’s funeral for financial gain, as the t-shirt sellers and your humble scrivener were doing, but I’m sure the Mary Kay folks weren’t upset with their brand being mentioned in connection to an event covered by the international press.

Speaking of the international press, there was a photographer from Agence France-Presse shooting the pink Cadillacs, which were lined up at the east side of the church campus. It had taken me awhile to find them, as the Detroit police weren’t letting anyone except people representing big media companies go in front of the church. I had parked on the west side of the facility. As I drove around to the other side, I briefly considered going home and grabbing one of my media credentials from an auto show, just to look more official and maybe get a break from the cops. When I finally found the Caddies, I noticed the French photographer had a press credential issued by the NYPD hanging from her neck. I asked her, “You’re from France. You do know that that New York credential means absolutely nothing here in Detroit, don’t you?” She flashed a guilty smile.

Before the DPD finally shooed me away, I counted something like 102 pink Cadillacs. There were some vintage models from 1956 to 1960 but about 95 percent were late-model Mary Kay Escalades, XT5s, and SRXs, with a couple of STS sedans and XLR roadsters in the mix.

The atmosphere was not exactly funereal, so one could be excused if they forgot, for a second, that they were at a funeral and instead were attending a cosmetics convention. During the procession to Woodlawn Cemetery (the eternal home of Edsel Ford, Roy Chapin Sr., and the Dodge Bros, by the way), it occurred to me that I’d never seen so many well put together women in one group in my life. Their makeup was better than that of some brides I’ve seen.

Normally, I wouldn’t joke about a funeral, but the Franklin funeral had a festive, almost carnival-like atmosphere outside the church. People watching the big video screen outside the church cheered when celebrities like President Bill Clinton and Detroit basketball legend Isiah Thomas appeared on the red carpet.

Celebrities and Mary Kay ladies weren’t the only folks who came in for the funeral. A handful of crazies from the Westboro Baptist Church were on the fringe of the crowd, holding signs demeaning Franklin and “lukewarm Christians.” Louis Farrakhan was an invited guest, and sat on the dais next to Al Sharpton, Jesse Jackson, and Mr. Clinton. That probably explains the large number of bowtie-wearing Nation of Islam members outside the church handing out copies of The Final Call newspaper. For a few seconds, some of the NOI fellows were interacting, peacefully it seemed (several Detroit Police Dept. officers were standing close by), with the Westboro folks at the corner of Seven Mile and Telegraph Rd. I wondered if they realize their groups are more similar than different.

Franklin had been sick of pancreatic cancer for some time and it wasn’t as though her death was surprise, so perhaps the atmosphere was appropriate. Inside, the funeral was more a celebration of a life than a bemoaning of a death.

It did strike me as a bit ironic that while many of the speakers at the funeral took the occasion to make clear their political differences with President Donald Trump, the vast majority of the owners of those Mary Kay Caddies were upper-middle class business-owning white women, a demographic that did pretty well with The Donald. I have to say, however, that it was heartening to witness the thousands and thousands of mostly black Detroiters who crowded onto the procession route cheering on the mostly white Cadillac owners.

Whatever the ethnicity of the Cadillac owners, they seemed thrilled by the experience, waving to the crowds, and blaring Aretha’s music from their car stereos (which will most likely get my videos on YouTube demonitized for copyright issues).

After the ceremony at the church, the 100-plus Cadillacs lead Franklin’s family and hearse to Woodlawn. While the pink Cadillacs did not ride on any of Detroit’s freeways, they did take the overpass over M39, the Southfield Freeway. Following all those pink Cadillacs, I almost expected her coffin to be in a Cadillac hearse wrapped in pink for the occasion. However, Aretha’s final ride was not in a pink Cadillac, but rather in a white LaSalle. Detroit’s Swanson funeral home, which has organized the funerals of many of the city’s most prominent residents, has a carved panel 1940 LaSalle hearse — used in many of those same funerals. Civil Rights icon Rosa Parks was carried to her final rest at Woodlawn in that hearse in 2005, as have been Aretha’s father, the Rev. C.L. Franklin, and other Detroit musical luminaries like David Ruffin (The Temptations) and Levi Stubbs (The Four Tops). The Swanson’s have owned the LaSalle for 60 years.

The LaSalle hearse also shuttled Ms. Franklin’s remains to the public viewings at the Charles Wright Museum of African American History and at New Bethel Baptist Church, where her father had a pulpit and where she first sang in public.

[Images: Ronnie Schreiber]

* Has there ever been a worse rebranding? DuPont had billions of dollars worth of brand equity in the car paint business, both OEM and refinish. Axalta sounds like a pharaceutical company, not a firm that makes car paint.







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  • ToddAtlasF1 ToddAtlasF1 on Sep 04, 2018

    It is interesting seeing a 1959 Cadillac seemingly being dwarfed by a recent XTS. The '59 makes the Impallac seem like a CUV with a trunk.

  • RHD RHD on Sep 05, 2018

    I don't think Aretha was singing about a Mary Kay Cadillac in her most famous song. (And if you know about the double entendres behind the lyrics, she really wasn't singing about a car at all.)

  • Tailpipe Tommy Ask Tyler Hoover, Jason Cammisa, Joe Raiti, Sreten @ M539 Restorations (he's really spectacular), and oh yeah, that Doug DeMuro cat. For better or worse, automotive journalism has moved to YouTube.
  • Ajla A lot of journos liked to sh*t on the NAG1 but I never had an issue with its performance and the forums don't really show it as a trouble spot by the time it got into these. It probably needed just a touch shorter gearing in base form (I think the Magnum offered that on a tow package and the Charger offered it with a performance package or Daytona trim).
  • Fahrvergnugen NA Miata goes topless as long as roads are dry and heater is running, windscreen in place.
  • 3SpeedAutomatic As a side note, have you looked at a Consumers Report lately? In the past, they would compare 3 or 4 station wagons, or compact SUVs, or sedans per edition. Now, auto reporting is reduced to a report on one single vehicle in the entire edition. I guess CR realized that cars are not as important as they once were.
  • Fred Private equity is only concerned with making money. Not in content. The only way to deal with it, is to choose your sites wisely. Even that doesn't work out. Just look at AM/FM radio for a failing business model that is dominated by a few large corporations.
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