This is an account of my trials and tribulations, successes and failures in the process of restoring a 1959 Cadillac Series Sixty Two Sedan. I wrote this article largely to chronicle many of the (now) humorous events and misadventures as well as to share some of these experiences with interested readers. This article will probably not provide you with many technical details and is not intended as a guideline for anyone attempting a similar restoration. It is merely light-hearted reading material for any one who has owned an older car (that they are proud of) and can relate to many of my experiences. I hope you enjoy it!
It certainly wasn’t the graceful silhouette or the subtle body lines of the late fifties Cadillacs that fueled my unprecedented attraction. These machines were far from graceful and certainly not subtle when it to came to styling. A 1959 Cadillac strolling by in a busy stream of modern day traffic catches a lot of eyes, not necessarily because of it’s beauty but because of the enormity of it’s proportions. Although size is most definitely a contributing factor, its not the most outstanding feature. Those striking fins probably create the majority of the captivation, followed by the huge bumpers and then by the long sculptured fenders. The onlooker’s notice more how much the car sticks out than how beautiful it is.
The attraction is not all in this cars body lines. It is not necessarily under the hood although its power plant is not to be slighted. Its not in lavish upholstery and interior design (despite the fact that the car is exceedingly roomy, comfortable and has a charming interior). The attraction is in the car as whole, the sum of its parts, how it came to be and what it came to stand for. More appropriately, the beauty of the 1959 Cadillac is in how accurately it represents the era it was designed in. It was inspired and built in an age of excess. An age where freedom of expression was starting to take on new meaning. An age where limits had to be tested and tried. A period where your social status was iconified by the vehicle you drove. It was a time where bigger was most assuredly better. The ‘59 Cadillac was a car built to out-style its competition, to push body design to the extreme, to go just one step more than anyone else dared and with little regard to practicality. This was an innocent time for me; a time that I scarcely remember.
The reasons behind the styling of the Cadillac may not have been apparent to the new car buyer in 1958 and 1959. What was apparent, however was much the same eye catching features and proportions that caught our modern day on lookers, but with one difference. Back then, those fins weren’t outlandish and the sculptured fenders (both rear and front) were a perfect mixture of progressive style and luxurious elegance.
I have long since passed the point where I have to look for beauty in the design of this car. I get a thrill out of starring and it’s bold styling and it’s bizarre trimming. I still get a rush of adrenaline when I see a profile of it’s fins with their illuminated bullet lights against a darkened background. Every time I look at the car I see something new, something I didn’t see before. Each angle gives a completely different prospective. In my opinion there is no other car that makes a styling statement quite like this one. Life would be so mundane without my ’59 Cadillac.
In the Beginning
I purchased my car in September 1989 and it has since been in a constant state of restoration. It is currently about 90% complete, with only minor trim installation and re-chroming of bumpers yet to be done. I originally spotted it in Huntsville Ontario and purchased it without having any understanding of what kind of service, maintenance and repair it would require. I found myself attracted to the car and simply overlooked all it’s flaws dismissing them as minor imperfections. Not knowing a solitary thing about automobiles (let alone restorations), I calculated to buy the car, take it home, wax it and cruise around on nice sunny summer days. (I have been accused of being a little naive at times.)
This particular Cadillac seemed to be a rather odd shape. I’d seen a few ’59s in pictures and the odd movie flick, but none that I could remember had this strange flat top with a rather unusual overhang at the rear window. (I latter learned that this was a body style shared by all GM divisions for the years 1959 and 1960.) I also learned that this was a rather common model of Cadillac and certainly not a rarity. It wasn’t even a Sedan DeVille—it was just a plain Series Sixty-Two Four Window Sedan. (Really it is a hardtop, but Cadillac called it a sedan.) Apparently this model was so common that later one restorer condescendingly told me that cars like mine were bought to be butchered for parts to re-build the real ’59 Cadillacs: the Coupe DeVilles, the convertibles and the Eldorados. Well, that’s a great position to be in if you can afford it. As for me, I was quite happy with the one I owned, despite the innumerable problems that came with it.
The Adventures Begin
My problems started early; in fact they began the first time I tried to start my newly acquired toy. The car had a bad starter motor; the overrun clutch was worn and as such it wouldn’t always catch the flywheel. As a result, the car didn’t start on the first or second (or third) attempt. Eventually the car started and was ready to make the long journey home down Highway 11, around the east shores of Lake Simcoe and eventually to its new home in the Township of Georgina.
To say the least I was nervous driving the Cadillac home that hot Saturday afternoon. After all I was driving a car that I was totally unfamiliar with and had no idea how it was going to behave on the road. I hadn’t driven a car this wide (or long) since I drove my father’s 73 Chevrolet Bel Air. Furthermore, home was about 100 miles away and my first ride out of the parking lot was going to be directly onto the highway. Although I really didn’t know much about cars, I could tell that this Caddie wasn’t running right. It was idling rough and didn’t respond well but it did go forward when I pushed the accelerator pedal and no blue or black smoke trailed behind me, so I decided to press onward.
After many speeding cars and much perspiration, I managed to pull out onto Highway 11 and started a painfully slow acceleration towards 80 km an hour. The tedious acceleration was accompanied with many unusual and unfamiliar noises; groaning, creaking, clicking and swishing sounds were coming from every corner of the car. I realized that my four year-old son, sitting in the back seat had rolled the window down. I ordered him to close it, and he quickly obeyed. To my dismay, none of the sounds disappeared.
The car handled very poorly and rode very rough on those wide white wall biased ply tires. The steering was sluggish and it seemed that I was continuously over compensating with the large steering wheel. My arms were in a constant state of motion trying to keep the car straight. It handled a lot differently than my 88 Buick, but I eventually got the hang of it. As I become more and more comfortable with it’s awkward handling, a chilling thought suddenly crossed my mind. I never really tested the brakes before I left the parking lot. Two and half tons of steel roaring down the highway at 80 km/hr is not a good idea when you have questionable brakes. However the Cadillac was in fact certified and theoretically fit to drive, and as it turned out, the brakes were okay.
About 5 miles north of Gravenhurst, the old Cadillac started misbehaving. It seemed to loose power and squeezing the accelerator pedal didn’t seem to correct the problem or make any difference. Very soon after, the oil and generator lights came on; the engine had shut off. I pulled over to the side of the road and opened the hood pretending I knew were the engine was. Now, its not often that I do bright things, but once in a while I do come through. Before we left I decided to take a container of gasoline with me just for emergencies. Not having a clue what could possibly be wrong with the dead car, I figured adding the extra gas to it’s tank couldn’t hurt. Sure enough, the car was out of gas despite the fact that the fuel gauge was still reading just over quarter tank. In fact, the fuel gauge read the same even after adding 40 dollars of gasoline at a station in Gravenhurst. The rest of the trip home was more or less uneventful, although I had no fingernails left in anticipation of something else going amiss.
War On the Home Front
Once at home, I could instantly tell that my wife did not like the Cadillac, and she confirmed this when she started talking to me again a month or so later. Her dislike for the car may have been related to the fact that I sold her Delta 88 to buy the Caddie and gave her an old beater to drive until I could afford to replace it. It may have been that it occupied the most strategic point of entry into our driveway and caused her some grief to maneuver around. It may have been the fact that she was convinced that I had just bought a rusted out, worthless piece of ugly scrap metal. It may have been that over the next six year period I would pour about $20,000 into this “unnecessary” vehicle. What ever the reason, till this day the Cadillac is not her favorite topic, and as a rule I don’t bring it up at the dinner table (or immediately prior to romantic moments).
After carefully inspecting the car, I came to the conclusion that it was indeed in poor shape. The engine was a greasy, messy pit and would take some real hard work just to clean up and sort through the many problems it had. The body was also a mess. It had been painted white and had a lot of very unprofessional body work done to it, especially on the passenger side rear quarter. The inside was relatively clean, but smelled of mildew and must. The driver bench seat was worn right through the dark cloth brocade material [which was once probably very attractive]. There was one small tear on the shiny teal-colored seat vinyl, also were the driver sat. The interior aluminum trim was covered with fine scratches but was still in acceptable condition. The dash had no major cracks in it but the color had started to peel off. The carpets were mildly stained but mostly faded. The trunk was a disaster, filled with rust holes that were patched with sheet metal, tar and even newspaper. I began to think that purchasing this Cadillac was probably a mistake. I was starting to get mixed feelings, one of which was regret.
I’m not exactly sure when or at what point I decided that I would keep the car and take it on as a serious project. I don’t think I ever made a conscious decision to do so. I just started fixing small broken things and found myself becoming more and more demanding of the repairs that I performed. I caught myself fixing the same thing two or three times over, mostly because I really didn’t know what I was doing. I came to the conclusion that it was costing more time and money doing this than if I just did it right the first time. In some cases this meant giving up trying to repair something myself and send it out to be rebuilt by professionals.
My First Venture
The first time I ventured out of my own drive way with the Cadillac was on a late September evening. The neighborhood was quiet and it seemed like a good night to stroll along the peaceful Lake Shore Road not far from our house. There was no moon that night so the road was dark and there were very few street lights to illuminate the way. I felt a lot more confident driving the car now because of my proximity to home; if something went wrong, I could probably just walk back. Even though this really didn’t make any sense, being closer to home some how gave me a stronger sense of security.
The drive started off innocently enough, but about 10 minutes into it, the head lights suddenly went out! Outside was pitch black. My heart skipped a few beats…primarily because I couldn’t see the many small but sharp drop-offs at the shore side of the road. So I quickly stopped the car and to my surprise the head lights came back on! It must have been a loose connection in the head light circuit. Reluctantly I started to drive on and again the lights went out, but this time they were going on and off repeatedly. Was I doing something wrong? Had I accidentally triggered some fancy feature that was now malfunctioning? No, but I had to cut my cruise short and return to the main road where the road was significantly better lit.
When I got home, a quick investigation revealed that the head light switch was worn and broken and was causing resistance at the terminal points. The resistance caused by this weak connection was generating a fair amount of heat. The head light circuit is protected by a built in bi-metallic circuit breaker which would open when the head light circuit draws too much current. This is known as a heat activated circuit breaker. In my case, the heat generated by the resistance of the poor connection was actually tripping the circuit breaker. When the breaker cooled down, it would close and my head lights would come on. The head light switch had to be replaced.
It turns out that the Cadillac needed a lot more electrical work than just the head light switch. Most of the problems consisted of worn switches, contacts and brushes, but there were sections of wiring that were dangerously close to becoming a disaster. Luckily, one of the few things I do understand is electricity (I have an engineering degree in that field). So for the next 2 months, my free time was spent rewiring and repairing sections of harnesses, rebuilding turn signal switches, neutral safety switches, fuse boxes, horn relays, voltage regulators, interior light switches, ignition wiring, etc. I decided, to resolve that annoying starting problem so I pulled off the starter motor and had it rebuilt. I cannot convey the pleasure that it gave me to start that old 390 cubic inch engine on the first attempt. To complete my electrical work, I found it necessary to also rebuild the generator and ultimately replace the voltage regulator and the battery. I was once again all set for the open road.
No Joy Ride
It was late October by now, and my father was to accompany me on this particular journey. My father liked cars, too. Although he could never afford anything more than a basic Chevrolet, his cars were always clean on the outside, immaculate on the inside, and ran like clock-work. Cadillacs (especially ones that apparently needed lots of work) were definitely beyond his means.
That October night was chilly and I could tell that my father was starting to feel the cold, so I slid the dash control lever to the far right to provide maximum heat and turned up the fan. To my disappointment no heat came out. After a short while, it started to become uncomfortably cool even for me, so I decided to cut our trip short and head home.
The Lake Shore South is a rough road because previous winter frost had heaved it so many times that the asphalt refuses to revert to its original, level surface. As a rule I never go very fast on it, always keeping the speed below 30 km an hour. However, it would seem that it was not quite slow enough, because just before I turned off the road, the last bump spawned a new and unusual noise in the Cadillac. This noise was loud and irritating and sounded ominous. It seemed to be synchronized with the speed of the vehicle, becoming louder and more frequent with acceleration, and it stopped when the car stopped moving. I was worried because the scraping sound seemed to be coming from underneath the engine, so I drove the rest of the way home very slowly and very carefully.
The lack of heat was directly related to the complete absence of a thermostat; a problem which was easily remedied. The noise, however, turned out to be the front universal joint of the drive shaft; it had come apart and in retrospect, we were quite lucky to make it back home without any damage to the car (specifically the rear end of the transmission). In the following few weeks, the drive shaft was dismantled and all three universal joints were replaced, the hanger bearing was replaced and the rubber on the hanger itself was re-vulcanized. The rear transmission seal and the front differential seal were replaced. The latter contributed greatly to the preservation of my drive way and eliminated the offensive odor of heavy weight oil around the garage. The rear axle had been leaking fluid that was slowing eating away at my drive way and leaving unsightly holes and stains.
As previously mentioned, I am not a very skilled mechanic. I did not know my way around an engine or any other part of an automobile short of the driver’s seat. If I wanted this car to run right without significant expenditures, I would have to start learning how it worked very soon. So, I acquired a factory shop manual for the car which certainly helped me find my way around but it assumed I had been previously trained in automotive repairs. To further my education I purchased a hard copy of Automotive Mechanics which provided great insight despite the fact that many of the systems it described did not exist on my vintage of automobiles, so I was left to improvise. Blindly I trudged forward on my own, backtracking on each mistake that I made and learning something new each and every step of the way. (I must have looked awkward at times puzzling over this and that, fumbling my way through).
November does not provide many fair whether days to enjoy a comfortable weekend cruise, but I managed to sneak in one last venture, however, my success rate did not improve. During a brief acceleration attempt to merge with traffic, the carburetor decided that it had mixed enough fuel and air and would work no longer. Once again those tell tale dash lights came on and once again I found myself at the side of the road with the hood up. (I was becoming good at looking at the engine.) I could tell the problem was serious this time by the volume of gasoline that was pouring down the intake manifold and the side of the block. Foolishly I made several attempts to restart the engine and managed to kill the battery. (The good part was that I didn’t blow myself up!). A boost from a dispatched tow truck managed to start the badly flooded car and by using both brake and gas pedal in unison, I managed to get the crippled vehicle, home. It was clear that the old girl would need the carburetor rebuilt.
Getting Down to Business
It wasn’t until much latter that the carburetor was back on the engine, meanwhile I had managed to disassemble just about everything in the engine compartment but the block itself. A week of degreasing, scrubbing and steam cleaning managed to get the inch-thick layer of grease off the K-member, the upper and lower control arms and the block. It was now easy to paint the firewall and the block itself. Since the power steering pump, radiator, water pump and windshield wiper motor were out of the car anyway, I decided it was best to have them all rebuilt and avoid further frustration and embarrassment on the side of the road. It was necessary to replace all the high-pressure hoses for both power steering pump and the transmission, (the old ones leaked slightly and looked worn and cracked). Both upper and lower radiator hoses were soft and starting to rot, and therefore replaced. Since I had the water pump off, I decided to replacing the timing chain and gears at the same time.
Both oil pans were removed, cleaned and repainted. The pan gaskets were in desperate need of replacement. A poor grade of silicon had been used for the transmission pan and it was leaking so badly that the under carriage and middle frame were soaked with the red transmission fluid. The engine’s oil pump was disassembled, and the parts inspected by a mechanic. It turned out that it had very little wear and no parts were replaced. Another two days were spent degreasing the bottom end of the engine and the transmission. Unfortunately, more problems crept up during clean up. The frost plugs were badly corroded and the engine started to gently drip anti-freeze.
Re-inventing the wheel
The frost plugs were a challenge because I simply could not find a supplier that carried them. When I did get some they were the wrong ones and did not seal properly. So after weeks of searching, I decided that I would build my own. After much though, I decided to copy an idea that was used to seal the water into the drum of my lawn roller. First, I welded a strip of steel to a fine threaded stud to form a “T”. A hockey puck (yes, hockey puck) was carefully cut down to form a dough-nut shaped disc about half an inch thick and made to fit exactly into the inner rim of the frost plug opening. The disc, along with a fender washer was fit over the stud and inserted into the block with the rubber outside the block and completely covering the frost plug opening. A nut was then used to secure the hole thing into place and as the nut tightened onto the washer it compressed the rubber creating a perfect seal. These complex widgets took a week to build and install but they have endured 4 years of cold and heat and have not yet leaked or cracked. A week after I installed them, I saw the very same gadget (designed to replace old frost plugs) on sale for $1.99 each at my local hardware store. ) I wonder if they got the idea from their lawn roller?
While detailing the engine compartment, I noticed that there was some corrosion on the brake lines as they passed under the harmonic balancer. To give myself complete peace of mind, I decided to replace it along with all the other brake lines. Of course this lead to the discovery of the worn flex-hoses, leaky wheel cylinders, worn brake-shoe pins and corroded return springs. The pins and springs were replaced but the wheel cylinders themselves were honed out and fitted with rebuild kits consisting of new springs, seals and bleeder valves. Each wheel was latter equipped with a new flex hose.
The Learning Curve
Now, all this might sound straight forward and easy to a mechanically inclined individual, but to an electronically minded bookworm like myself it presented a significant challenge. Needless to say I had to read and re-read my Automotive Mechanics and often had to do the work several times over before getting it right. (As an example, always double flare brake lines…the car does not stop well if you don’t!)
My good friend Wesley Kerr (who often accompanied me on various trips to wrecking yards and other mosquito infested Cadillac grave sites ) provided a lot of excellent mechanical advice. I also received a lot of very good advice from my local parts supplier, who still shudders when I walk through the doors of his business establishment. Most of his Cadillac parts catalogues only go back to 1963, and although they list a 390 cubic engine for that year, there are some significant differences from my ’59 built motor. So, the poor man would spend his valuable time phoning around for this part and that. Oddly enough, the only part that he could not get was the vacuum advance actuator on the distributor. Thank you, Keswick Auto.
By now it was 1992, and the engine’s various accessories were rebuilt, painted and slowly re-assembled. There was a lot of time spent ensuring that all hoses, wires and electrical harnesses were placed just right. Great care went into this work partly because I wanted to be a little fussy, but mostly because I began to hate doing work over and over again. I was starting to learn how to do it right the first time. Original clips, retainers, clamps and fasteners were acquired from specialty stores from all over Canada and United States to replicate (as closely as possible) the original engine compartment set-up. After three long years of grease and oil (not to mention blood, sweat, tears and lots of money), the Cadillac was ready for the road. Surely, there was nothing else that could go wrong. How could it, everything was either new or rebuilt!
The End of the Beginning
Admittedly, that car was now running like a Cadillac should. It idled very well, and accelerated like it did when it was new. There was heat in the car and all the electrical conveniences (like the head lights, tail lights, turn signals, dash gauges and wiper motors) worked as they should. The brakes were solid and responsive….everything worked! For the first time ever, I felt safe driving the Cadillac and had almost totally eliminated the feeling of paranoia that I had rightfully acquired. I was quite pleased with myself, but (as I was about to learn) the hardest part was yet to come: the rebuilding of the body. This was the single most important and challenging job of the entire project. No matter what the previous efforts were, if the body wasn’t done right, it wouldn’t really matter.
I thought I had accomplished quite a bit, rebuilding and re-assembling engine parts that were almost as old as I am. But my problems were not yet realized. That body (and chassis) of this vehicle had apparently been through quite a bit. It became rather obvious that the rear passenger quarter section of the car had endured a significant impact. There were cracks on the paint surface and one could see that the body was far from smooth. I remember thinking to myself, “I might have to have a little body work done.” The operative (and most incorrect) word here is “little”. As I started to chip away at these cracks, I found myself digging into what looked like hardened pink and green cheese. It started breaking off into clumps about an inch thick revealing a badly crumpled rear quarter. The damaged area got larger and larger eventually consuming the entire side starting at the bumper all the way into the dog leg of the rear door as far up as the striker. Three pails of body filler were removed from the rear quarter. This car had at one point been destroyed in (I assume) an accident. The damage was extensive and rust had managed to eat away many holes and had completely consumed the lower fin. (The ’59 Caddie, has a small “lower” fin at the bottom of it’s rear fenders. They are always over shadowed by the larger and more prominent upper fins and are by comparison, inconspicuous).
To make things worse, the damaged area had not been prepared correctly before it was repaired. The original factory turquoise paint had not been removed from the wrinkles and folds; it had not been sand blasted properly. It would seem that filler was piled on thick enough to be able to re-established the shape and contour of the rear quarter. A piece of sheet metal was bent into a long “U” shape and riveted into the lower quarter to form a crude lower fin, the inner portion of which had long since rusted away and was no longer attached to the trunk. It was becoming clear that this section of the car was not salvageable. I would have to replace the entire rear quarter starting from a foot into the rocker panel all the way into the bumper, the entire wheel-well, and a good section of the trunk floor. I can still remember the feeling of desperation that came over me that particular day. Where was I going to find a tail fin and a rear quarter section of a 34 year old car and how was I going to get it home? If and when I did manage to get one, how was I going to replace the one that was there? What a monumentous job!
A Needle In a Haystack
I accumulated quite a telephone bill soliciting the many salvage yards south of the Mason-Dixie line. Most of them were fresh out of ’59 Cadillacs. When I did locate the odd yard that had one, they would only part with the whole car or could not guarantee that the piece wasn’t full of rust and body filler. A year and a half of searching brought me to North Hollywood, California. This particular supplier advertised in Hemming’s that they specialized in Cadillac parts (even hard to find Cadillac parts like mine). A long distance call to them revealed that they had two cars that were being “parted-out” that week; both of them four doors. Although they too could not guarantee the quality, the manager assured me that he personally could not find any rust damage or filler on one of the two. I was running out of wrecking yards, and so I decided to take a gamble and purchased the better of the two quarters.
I reviewed with him very carefully my requirements making absolutely certain that there would be no mistakes. I needed the passenger side rear quarter for a 1959 Cadillac model 6239. I required the cut to be a third of the way into the trunk; I needed the entire wheel-well (inner shell as well), and it had to include about a foot and a half into the rocker panel. I was reassured that I would be satisfied with my purchase and that it would meet my demands exactly. So I sent my money order and waited.
The cost of the quarter itself was very reasonable. Three hundred American dollars was a great bargain for all that stamped sheet metal. I had no problem with this; what I did have a problem with was the $1,000 in shipping, handling and logistics fees that were required to haul it across North America. It may have cost me the same to ship the whole vehicle back! and I would have had a multitude of parts to pick and choose from. None-the-less, I ordered it and waited, hoping that I wasn’t going to get another mess of rusted metal.
Bigger than a bread box
Several weeks latter, my wife called me at work to inform me of the arrival of my package. I got home that night to find a wooden box in the drive-way the size of my sister in-law’s Micra. (I’m exaggerating! The wooden crate was actually longer than the Micra). I carefully pulled the wooden slats to expose a near perfect example of a passenger side, rear quarter for a four door 1959 Cadillac. I was indeed pleased with it, because it had no rust (short of minor scratches and weathered trim holes), no dents and it was cut just like I wanted. There was only one minor complication…it was for the wrong model!
The part was for a Six Window Sedan (model 6229) and had a completely different rear window pillar arrangement. However, after contacting General Motors, the manager of the salvage yard informed me that all four door Caddies that year used the same sheet metal stamp. The difference was the awkward pieces of metal that connects the trunk with the rear windshield and the pillar. I would have to retain my original supports and struts. This arrangement (though difficult) would indeed work.
The Depressing Years
The year and a half I spent searching for a replacement fin, was a disappointing time, because it was spent making the car look much, much worst than when I had bought it. The outside trim and all the chrome work was stripped, labeled and packed away in boxes not to be re-open for another 3 years. The interior was totally dismantled: the seats and door covers were removed and reassigned to a clean, out of the way corner of the basement. The dash was removed and both the soft pad and the lower metal structures were sent away to be repainted. The front windshield and window glass were faded and the lamination was starting to come apart. As such, the glass was sent away to use as templates for replacement glass. A new windshield was ordered.
What was left was barely recognizable as a vehicle. The damaged fin-section had been cut out so the car was missing a significant portion of it’s body. All four doors were removed to be worked on individually. The front fenders were also removed partly for better access and partly because they too needed work. All the body filler was removed exposing many rust spots and crumpled sections here and there. The 4 coats of paint and primers were removed using the most obnoxious chemicals known to man. I used a jelly-like slime that burnt my hands even through rubber gloves, followed by a lacquer thinner which could knock you into unconsciousness after just one whiff. (Till this day my hands glow dimly at night.) Once the carpet and rotted under-padding was removed, the floor pans were exposed. The odd spot of light shone through the cracks at the seams in both the back and front seat areas. The trunk floor had two large sections rotted out, allowing me to stand in the trunk, but with both feet still on the ground.
The car (if you could still call it that) looked like a carriage from hell! It reminded me of the burnt out hull of an abandoned automobile. It was very difficult to imagine that this heap of rust and iron was the car that once caught my attention and that at one point, found so attractive. Many times I stood in that cold, cold garage wondering how I was ever going to rebuild this mess. Would it ever look presentable again? Many visitors and friends were curious to see the progress of my project. In most cases I persuaded them against seeing it, but those who insisted and ventured out to the garage would look at me silently and smile. It was the same sympathetic smile that one gives to seriously demented individuals. They all thought the same thing: an insane man who owns an absolute pile of junk! I tried desperately to re-assure them that the mess would eventually look like a presentable car, but I wasn’t very convincing.
The Hard, Cold Truth
I finally came to the realization that this was the lowest point I would reach in this project. It could not get any worst. On the positive side, this really meant that things could only get better. As psychotic as this may sound, it was probably the one thought that kept me going forward at this point: from here on in the project could only improve. At about this same time, it became rather apparent that I was going to have to do this project largely on my own. No one wanted to take on the job of re-assembling the Cadillac; it was simply too big of a job and more importantly they could not make any money at it.
To complete the job myself, I would have to acquire certain skills and purchase some specialized tools. I needed to learn how to weld and of course, I needed a welder. So I enrolled in a night school course and purchased a MIG welder. Previous to this course, I had never actually held a welding torch in my hand. It was a lot more difficult than I ever excepted. At first I did more damage than good to the car, so I decided that I would practice on scrap sheet metal for the first couple of weeks. I did get better; in fact by the end of the first month I was learning some very helpful techniques. By the time I finished my first large spool of welding wire, I could replace a section of fender and even make it look professional.
A Painful Experience
My newly acquired skill was going to come in handy, because there was a lot of sheet metal repair to be done. Most of it was not on the panels or outside fenders. No, that would have been too easy. Most of the work was on the floor panels in the passenger compartment.
I spent months fabricating new floor panels, making sure that they looked exactly like the ones they were replacing. With crude instruments and no metal working tools this process was difficult. I made frequent trips to local body shops asking them if they would bend this and that. Weeks of welding, grinding and re-welding were spent ensuring that the joints looked like the originals. I wasn’t always as successful as I wanted to be and sometimes had to compromise exactness for skill.
But all in all, when the interior floor was complete it looked very much like the original. It had the same ribs and contours and had definitely regained it’s original strength and rigidity. It was a shame to cover it up with carpet! The panels on the trunk floors had much more uniform ribs and had to be built by professional body men. I created drawings and paper patterns for them to use as guidelines. Once fabricated, I would make slight alterations to shape and contour and then welded the panels one by one into position.
The rear section of the trunk was badly rusted out, probably due to the position of the rear bumper forcing it to retain more water than it should have. But regardless of the reason, it needed to be mended. Similarly, all four doors had rust spots that had been previously repaired. The poor workman ship had to be replaced, so new door skins were made completely replacing the old patches from the belt line down. Surprisingly, the inner door lips were not rotted and afforded a good edge on which to weld and attach the new skin. The front fenders, immediately behind the wheels were also rotted and needed repair. Unfortunately, repair was also needed on the reinforcing brackets that supported them. This took much time and many attempts to ensure that contour matched the original fender perfectly. The top bracket of the driver side fender which is formed by a sturdy “u” shaped rack running its entire length was rusted. It could no longer be used to attach the wheel well. The channel was re-fabricated using the opposite fender support as a template.
The rocker panels had more plastic in them than metal. So they were cut off and replaced with new ones that were locally sourced. The new panels (although listed for the right car) were a little short but unfortunately were the only ones available. They were extended by grafting sections of a spare rocker purchased for just that reason. The rockers were MIG welded into just the right place by first assembling the doors and front fenders, and then positioning them to make a perfect contour. It only took an hour to weld them on but three days to get them aligned properly.
Repairing the Foundation
Short of the rear passenger side quarter most of the metal repairs to the body were complete by mid 1993. The rear quarter was a big job and would have to be done by professionals later on. Meanwhile, I geared up to tackle yet another dirty, thankless task: the repair of the frame and suspension.
The rear frame of the vehicle had experienced some corrosion. There were spots in the frame just under the trunk where I could poke a hole into by jabbing a heavy screw driver. This was not acceptable, so the sections were cut out, and new pieces fashioned from heavy plate steel and were used in their place. After many days of welding and grinding, the rear frame looked as good as new and just as strong.
While repairing the frame, a close look at the spring towers showed that they were fatigued and needed work as well. So with the same gauge of steel used to repair the frame, new crowns were built to support the rear springs. The rear trailing arms were disassembled, while the rear springs were out of the car and although their bushings were clean and healthy looking, both front and rear pivot pins were replaced. The original pivot pins on both rear control links had seized inside the bushing and needed to be drilled out. This was no small task as they were made out of hardened steel to handle the stress imposed by the vehicle’s massive rear end. The rear shock absorber casings were rusty, but the shocks themselves functioned very well. As such, rather than being replaced, they were removed, cleaned up, repainted and re-installed.
With the fenders off the car, the front suspension was easy to get to. The work started off by disassembling the steering linkage which involved separating the tie rod ends from the wheel, disconnecting the idler arm as well as removing the Pitman arm from the steering box. The steering linkage would be serviced at some latter date prior to re-installation. The upper A-arms shafts were disconnected allowing the arms to swing around and out of the way. The lower ball joints were not riveted to the lower A-arms which indicated that they were not original. The bolts were removed and the joint remained attached to the spindle assembly of the wheel. The upper A-arm was finally separated from the top of the steering knuckle and the remaining wheel components were then disassembled, sandblasted and repainted. Although the ball joints were still good, the wheel bearing races were worn and scorched. New wheel bearing were purchased, packed in grease and installed according to the service manual.
The end threads of the upper A-arm shaft on the passenger side were significantly worn. This condition originally lead me to believe that the upper ball joint needed to be replaced, as some play was noted. The shaft, along with it’s bushing were replaced and the slack disappeared. It was interesting to note that the driver side experienced no such deterioration. I have subsequently learned that this was a common occurrence in cars of this make and vintage. Disassembling the front end and the replacement of significant components (such as the Arm-shafts) will throw the front end out of adjustment. The Cadillac will have a four wheel alignment as well as a camber and caster adjustment done in the Spring of ’96.
Overall the front suspension was surprisingly good and showed very little sign of aging and wear. Similarly, the tie rod ends (both inner and outer) were inspected and found to be well within acceptable limits. The steering linkage required the replacement of a few grease nipples and a cleaning. By the December of 1993, the front end was reassembled and the fenders, doors, and rear suspension were re-installed. The dash components had previously been painted and were ready to be reassembled. The electrical harnesses, vent cables, vacuum lines and various climate control devices were inspected and replaced as necessary. The rear passenger side quarter had been stored in the rafters of the garage since summer and along with the rest of the numerous interior and exterior body parts and accessories, the Cadillac was ready to start the cosmetic facelift. From here on, it would be in the hands of professional carriage builders and body men.
A False Start
A long list of “to-do” items was prepared and included items such as a remainder to preserve sheet metal tabs that would latter be necessary for re-installing trim. It identified all the dents, bumps and rust spots that I could find. Although I had completed the vast majority of metal work and welding, it was necessary to iron out my rough edges and finish areas that I could not do without the specialty tools that a body shop would have.
The Caddie was hauled away on a flatbed truck in early December of 1993 to have the body work completed. Progress was slow and often times I would not see a change in the car’s appearance for months. Although the workmanship was of good quality, my patients had worn thin and the car was brought back to my garage in August of the following year. The rear quarter had been replaced but only a small fraction of the intended work was complete. This gave me an opportunity to do some more of the work that I had planned. This time the focus was on door mechanisms, and glass frame work.
The manual window lifts were in rough shape. Most of the window channeling had rotted to the point were the glass was actually slipping out. The lift mechanism, including the spring, gear and cam were worn and were way out of tolerance. The rollers had long since seized and caused the windows to jam as they attempted to slide within their guides. The “no-draft” vents did not close properly and could be partially blamed for all the wind and road noise in the interior. The door lock mechanisms were in the same worn-out state, and needed to be disassembled, cleaned of rust and re-installed.
The front window channel was so badly deteriorated that replacement was the only option. The support brackets were carefully removed and welded in the exact same position but on the new channels. Since the windows could potentially be raised to the point where the channel was visible above the door trim, the channels themselves had to re-chromed before being fit on the new glass. New felt linings were installed in the window guides to minimize the resistance caused by friction. All final adjustments of vents, windows, locks and strikers would have to be performed after the car was painted and all the new weather stripping was installed.
The list of “to-do’s” was updated, and now included assembly instruction for the sections of the trunk which I had carefully fashioned. By December of 1994, the Cadillac was again ready to go and once again hauled away to a more reputable body shop. With less expectations I took the free time on my hands to refinish all the bright work. This included three months of endless polishing of the stainless steel trim. Countless hours were spent in a cold empty garage listening to the steady hum of the motor that spun the polishing wheels. Each pieces was carefully passed through three phases of polishing using a course, a medium and fine compound, with each pass averaging 2 hours. This was such an incredibly tedious job that I would frequently doze off only to be awakened abruptly by the sharp sting of stainless steel striking my hands.
The bright work also included re-anodizing the interior pieces that covered the roof pillars and the headliner trim. These pieces are not stainless steel but instead are made of polished white aluminum. They are very easily scratched and flimsy in construction. The front grill needed a lot of work as well. It is made of the same material as the interior trim but of heavier construction. The grill that came with my car was missing several of the ornamental bullets and was badly tarnished. Some of the horizontal support pieces had been deeply gouged by sharp objects (probably stones flung by passing vehicles).
The Grill Adventure
Finding replacement parts for the grill was not an easy or pleasant task. By word of mouth, I learned of an individual who collected scrap metal (in the form of cars) and had a couple of ’59 Caddies that were laying around as scrap. So, on the coldest day of January I drove to some remote corner of Ontario, to a frozen swamp where I saw automobile carcasses of different vintage strewed every where. Accompanied by an apparently proud owner I walked through frigid winds and waist-deep snow for what seemed like an eternity. Finally, we arrived at a site where the severely rusted remains of two Cadillacs (definitely ’59) lay one on top of the other. It was difficult to make out where one car ended and the other began. The bottom one had sunk deep into mud which had now frozen solid. Two feet of snow had accumulated on top of them and made it difficult to find the pieces, let alone extract them. I have no idea what models they were, but I suspect one of them was a convertible due to the lack of rear roof pillars. This really didn’t matter because all ’59s shared the same front bumper and grill ornamentation.
My frozen hands now numb with cold, managed to clear away the snow from what I suspected was the front end of one of the cars. The bolts used to support the grill on to the bumper where rusted and seized and could only be sheered off. Each one had to be twisted until it snapped off or broke through its retaining clip. I don’t know whether the grill of the other car was any better. I didn’t really care at that point, I just wanted to get out of there before frost bite claimed any of my fingers. I was starting to wonder whether all this trouble would be worth it in the end. The bitter cold, the frustration, the disappointment and the agonizing delays were really starting to get the better of me. But I felt that I had to keep going no matter what obstacles I encountered. This was no longer a project….this was an obsession.
The grill of a single 1959 Cadillac consists of some three hundred (plus) pieces, not counting the snowflake shaped retaining clips of the individual bullets. Both grills were taken apart, and laid out carefully on a long table in the basement. Most of the precious retain clips broke in the extraction process, but I wasn’t really worried so long as I ended up with enough of them to eventually rebuild one whole grill. A lot of the pieces were badly tarnished others were just broken or severely deformed. Enough good pieces were selected and sent away to be re-anodized and upon their return, the job of rebuilding started. It was not a difficult task, but one that required some degree of patience.
Just a Little Longer
By the Spring of 1995, the Cadillac had still not progressed very far and I was seriously beginning to doubt whether I’d every see the car finished. But this body shop had an excellent reputation and was notorious for producing high quality finished products, so I waited. Anyhow, at this point what difference would a few extra months make after five years of patience?
The extra time gave me an opportunity to organize the work on the interior. A large portion of it was done by professional upholsterers. All of the teal-colored vinyl in the seats was replaced. This insured consistency and avoided the unsightly contrast of faded materials. It also simplified the replacement of the piping and stuffing material. In addition the front seat cushion needed the worn brocade cloth replaced. The cloth comes in a straight sheet and had to be sown into individual pillows to look exactly line the original.
The carpeting was expensive. This was because the required nylon loop pile was difficult to find in just the right shade. I could have ordered less costly pre-fabricated carpets, but I needed additional pieces for the kick-pads and doors which required the skilled hand of an upholsterer anyway. I decided that I would have the carpets made from scratch and tailored to fit. The new carpet was fashioned based on the original one which had been taken out and stored a few years back. Of course the final fittings had to be done on the actual car some time latter.
The next detail that required attention was the weather stripping. There wasn’t any original piece that could be salvaged. Consequently, all the rubber (except the tires) had to be replaced. Almost a thousand dollars of weather stripping was shipped in from the United States. From door weather stripping to trunk seals. From hood spacers to handle gaskets, every piece arrived in individually labeled plastic bags; some pieces I couldn’t even recognize.
Over the years, I retained an accurate record of the trim clips that would be required for the re-assembly process. I would take the old rusted clips to the local Flea Markets and relentlessly hunt through mounds of dusty hardware looking for replacements. I managed to find about 95% of the ones I needed but had to use substitutes on the really difficult ones. I even managed to find exact copies of the crown molding retaining clips. (This is for the stainless steel strip that outlines the top of the fins.) A rare find indeed!
To avoid the tedious task of disassembling the doors twice, I decided to re-chrome the handles and the outside rear view mirror in advance. The rest of the parts that were either pot metal or steel, could be removed from the car relatively easily and would be re-finished as I could afford it. In fact this would account for the remainder of my unfinished restoration. The bumpers are in excellent shape despite being covered with fine surface scratches. Pitting is restricted to a small portion of the rear bumper and accounts for less than 5% of the total surface. They are presentable but will ultimately be re-chromed.
The finishing details had been carefully planned out and all that I needed now was the completed car. Late in June of 1995, I received a call from the Northview Collision; they wanted me to go and select the exterior colors. This was easy—the original colors. I had previously contacted Cadillac Motors Historic Vehicle Division who had given me exact color descriptions and names based on my vehicle’s identification plate located at the bottom of the windshield on the outside cowl of the driver side. The car had left the Detroit plant in April of 1959 as a two tone vehicle: Las Vegas Iridescent Turquoise on the bottom and Dover White on the roof. This surprised me a little, because I personally had not seen that many two tone Cadillacs for that year. What’s more, is that I’d never seen this particular shade on any 59 or 60 GM. It may not have been a popular color. But this was irrelevant—-for one thing I liked the color and secondly, I wanted the original tones.
The original paint that was used by Cadillac was lacquer based. It provided a mirror like shine and a hard smooth finish, however, I was warned against re-using this type of paint. Our Canadian climate of extremes and vast temperature fluctuations may cause lacquer finishes to crack and peel. Instead I used a paint that was more durable and could provide almost the same shine if done properly and cared for correctly. The paint is affectionately known as base coat/clear coat and requires more work to apply but may be wet sanded and buffed to a finish that compares to lacquers. The doors, trunk and hood had once again been removed from the car this time to be painted individually. This would also provide easier access to the door jams , door bottoms and pillars. While this was being done the car roof was painted and within a week, the rest of the car followed.
It was very hard to believe that the car that was being once again hauled into my garage was the same pile of scrap metal that rolled out a few short months before. The difference was astonishing. Glancing at earlier photographs of the car, I have a difficult time believing that this is the same vehicle. No more bare metal; no more raw welding seams; no more missing body parts. Although still bereft of trim, the Cadillac had once again taken on it’s familiar form. The color looked a lot different on that enormous body shell than it did on the tiny paint chip; but I was definitely not disappointed. It is one of those hues that’s very difficult to describe and what’s worse is that it appears to change with different light sources. In the poorly lit garage, the color seems dark and looks like a deep blue green. Outside the garage the body appeared to be a cross between teal and light blue. Regardless of the color classification, I was satisfied and content.
The summer heat sometimes made the difficult re-assembly work even harder. I had now started to become impatient. I hadn’t driven this vehicle in almost 4 years, and the possibility of driving it before the end of Summer was very real. I had to constantly remind myself to slow down the pace otherwise I would run the risk of scratching or damage the excellent job that the body shop had done. To avoid accidental damage to the finish, I taped all handless and shanks of my shop tools with cloth electrical tape.
Even the smallest of jobs had to be carefully thought out and planned and took far more time than it should have. I remember one particular piece of stainless steel trim taking several hours to install. This was largely due to the fact that I was working alone and obviously couldn’t be inside the trunk while holding it in place on the outside. Sometimes the work was frustrating, and sometimes it was just down right aggravating. I often worked late into the evening and on weekends would frequently work through the night. I took a week’s vacation and spent it mostly in the garage “playing with my car” (as my wife appropriately put it). By mid September 1995, enough of the car had been assembled to make it drivable. Both front and rear bumpers were installed, along with the grill and the majority of the trim. The weather stripping had carefully been snapped and/or glued into place; the front and rear lights assembled; the front and rear windshield installed. On the interior, the only thing missing was the front window glass and the front door panels along with the small dash pad ends. It had taken almost 5 years to rebuild a car that was once built by GM workers in less than three hours (start to finish). I could take it no longer! On Saturday morning, September 17 I fired up the Cadillac, and drove it out of the garage.
One in the driveway, and on the way!
It felt awkward maneuver the huge car around the family sedan and out on to the street. I felt like a little boy driving his new bicycle for the first time. Or more appropriately a little boy driving a new yacht for the first time. The neighbors (who were just as eager to see the project completed) cheered as I putted by. At first I just drove hesitantly around the block, still too anxious to go any significant distance. After all, it had been quite some time since this car had seen open road. But this did not feel (or look) like the same Cadillac that I had first driven from Huntsville. It felt like a brand new car, it smelled like a brand new car, and if it wasn’t for the tell-tale body shape….it even looked like a brand new car. So, I did another lap around the block and then drove out to the highway and onto the neighboring town. I must have done a pretty good job reassembling the various parts because nothing fell off and for the first time ever, I didn’t need to stop at the side of the road and stare at the engine. [I don’t often admit this, but I actually stopped the car anyway, opened the hood and made sure that everything was still really there!]
One soon forgets the frustrations encountered on the long road to a final destination. It is difficult for me to recall all the individual adventures and events, the good and the bad, the success and the failures I experienced on the way to completing this project. However, each detail of the car brings back its own specific memories. In the 5 years spent restoring the Cadillac I learned more about myself than I had in the previous 33. I learned that one can endure more frustration and aggravation than one initially believes. I learned that error will eventually be circumvented given enough trial. I learned that nothing really comes easy and to strive for perfection and settle for reality. I learned that everyone will have an opinion and that it would not always agree with mine. It doesn’t matter what anyone else thought of my Cadillac—whether they laughed at its ridiculous shape or they marveled at it’s incredible construction. It doesn’t matter that it’s not a rare specimen or that it isn’t the best of its breed. What matters is that I did the best job I could with what I had–this alone was something I could be proud of.
There’s not much left till project completion; a few pieces of trim here and an emblem there. Will the Cadillac ever be truly finished? Eventually. In my lifetime? Hopefully. Was all the hard work worth it? Yes, but never again! I busted my a– back to get it to the state its in today. I vowed never to do it again. My wife has threatened to have my appendages broken if I even so much as look at another Cadillac. I could never take on another project like that. Absolutely not. Nope, not for me! Never.
“Debbie, look at the great price of this ’59 Seville. A little paint here, some new carpets….!”
Additional work on the Cadillac has already been schedule for the Fall of 96. The entire drive-train will be pulled out to simplify the replacement of the rear main seal, manifold gaskets (both intake and exhaust) and to correct improperly painted engine and firewall. Correct frost plugs have located and ordered since the initial writing of this article and will be installed at the appropriate time.
Detailing work in the trunk has also started. The trunk lining cardboard sections have been cut and installed and will eventually be covered with material that originally lined the trunk.
My long term objective is to maintain a functional, derivable and enjoyable vehicle that is as original as I can possible achieve. Obviously “original” here means as close to factory production as possible. Cars with rebuilt floor panels and patched fenders like my Cadillac don’t qualify as fully “original”. So I tend to shy away from serious competitions but this doesn‘t discourage me or prevent me from driving (or talking) about my car every chance I get. I quickly remember that the reason I did all this work is because I genuinely like the car. I apologize for my selfishness: but I built the car so it can be enjoyed in every aspect. If you care to enjoy with me, you’re more than welcome to visit and ride with me, but you’ll probably have to hear more of my story. I fell in love with the 1959 Cadillac, and I’m afraid its chronic.
Vic Brincat, 1997
Francis X. Brincat, Feb. 23, 1925 – Nov. 13th, 2001
All Pictures of this article can be seen in full size at Vic’s photo album.
This article was published for the first time on Vic’s homepage.
Thanks for the contribution and your permission to repost it here.