It’s a well-established fact that in 1981, Clemson walked away with it’s first and only — so far — National Championship. That year also marked the birth of one of the Tigers’ most endearing fan creations: The Paw Bearer — a 22-foot-long steel salute to Clemson athletics that’s been mentioned by Lynn Swan, the Wall Street Journal and numerous tailgating reviews.
Since then, its presence has nearly been a given at home games, and the vehicle has followed the team around nearly all through the Southeast and beyond.
The project was the brainchild of Jeff Herbert and his late father, Dick. In the late ‘70s, Dick had sold off a cemetery and closed a funeral home. However, the family was having trouble finding a buyer for a 1967 Cadillac hearse. The family decided to keep the car instead and turn it into the Paw Bearer, drawing inspiration from the customized van craze of the era. The vehicle was first painted by a Columbia sign painter, and the rear of the car was fitted with orange shag carpeting that still remains.
Since then, it has been to nearly every bowl game that Clemson has played, and has visited all the old ACC schools. It also makes regular appearances at parades, Halloween events and car shows. The family has parked it in the same spot on campus since 1983.
Operating the car isn’t cheap, and Jeff estimated the fuel economy was about 10 highway and 8 city. The tank carries a compact-car-like 14 gallons, and with its hefty curb weight and 429-cubic-inch V-8, that empties quickly. The fuel gauge is about as reliable as Congress, so he makes sure that the car stops every 100 miles for a fill-up. It also has an appetite for water pumps that can make a road trip a bit more harrowing. In fact, Jeff said, coolant leaks are a caveat of taking it on the road.
The ride is typically classic Cadillac, with a pillowy glide that soaks up most bumps.
“It floats on the road,” Jeff said.
The steering is quite vague but very light, and lane changes could happen with the flick of a pinky. Hills, however, suck the power from the engine, and the car slacks a bit climbing inclines. Chalk that up to heft that would likely make a dually pickup seem svelte.
The Paw Bearer
These days, the Paw Bearer has been getting long in the tooth, and areas of rust are creeping up on the body. A few trim pieces have fallen off, and more are showing signs of age.
Jeff has a few plans that would certainly involve repainting the car again — perhaps even a frame-off restoration. He would like to replace the 429 V-8 with something a bit smaller and more efficient. He also floated plans of installing a better air conditioning system — one which would help cool the cavernous rear compartment.
Over its 30-plus years on the road, the Paw Bearer has collected a treasure trove of great stories, like the time the Clemson mascot rolled off the hood, lost his tail in the tire and had to duct-tape it back on.
Or the time that Jeff’s company nearly lost a loan from a UGA-loving banker when he showed up in the Paw Bearer on the way back from a bowl game.
It even inspired UNC’s “Heel Raiser.”
Some folks even think the Paw Bearer is still working as a hearse.
“People would pull over thinking there was a funeral,” Jeff said.