COAL: 1963 Cadillac Fleetwood Sixty Special – Chapter 2, Never Buy An Old Luxury Car

In August of 1978, my grandma had a heart attack.  I was preparing to head off to college and was sure that it was not the worst news – after all, it was the 1970s and lots of people had heart attacks and recovered.  I turned out to be wrong, because she died just two or three weeks after I started school.

In the midst of mourning our family’s loss, we got to spend some time with my mother’s Aunt Alma.  Without intending to do anything of the sort, she solved both of my car problems.  Recall that I had a gorgeously refurbished 1967 Galaxie 500 convertible and needed a garage to keep it out of the weather while I was off at college.  I also needed (at least that was the word that came to my mind) another car to use over weekends and holidays at home.  Aunt Alma, it seems, had a car and a garage.  She wanted to keep the garage, of course, but wanted the car to be out of it.  A perfect solution appeared to me – her car goes out, my car goes in.  And her car becomes my (other) car.


My mother’s Aunt Alma had bought the car new in 1963.  Her late husband, my mother’s Uncle Carl, had been a successful physician who died in his mid 50’s, not long after he had purchased a new black 1955 Fleetwood.  Aunt Alma did not drive but kept the car anyway.  Her son would drive her places in it and so would my mother on occasion.  By 1963 the Miss Daisy-style Fleetwood was looking old fashioned so she gave the ’55 to her son and had him take her to Means Cadillac in downtown Fort Wayne so she could buy a new one.  Another Fleetwood, of course.  It was black with gray cloth upholstery bolstered in light gray leather.

I still remember the visit to Aunt Alma when she took us out to the garage to show us her new car.  I was about four years old and recall seeing what looked like fifty interior lights come on when the door opened.  As I started to clamber in (as was my practice) I was halted by my mother’s order to get back out before I got my shoes on the seat.  “Hush Mother, I’m gonna be the next owner of this car” was something that did not come to mind for all kinds of reasons.

It was extremely well equipped, even for a Fleetwood.  It was air conditioned and fitted with cruise control, a power antenna for the AM signal-seeking radio, vacuum power locks and the famous Autronic Eye automatic headlight dimming system.  And eight (count ’em) power window buttons!  I think an FM radio may have been the only box not checked on the order sheet.

After probably a decade in her garage and seeing use perhaps once or twice a month the car was “adopted” by her son (an only child) for use in his family.  The household included two high school boys who did what high school boys will do to a car.  (Ask me how I know.)  By the summer of 1978 they had finished with it and the Fleetwood was back in Aunt Alma’s garage, looking pretty forlorn.  Where I saw it.  It faintly called my name, pleading to be rescued.

I had just poured heart, soul and (lots of) money into body and paint work on my first car, the 1967 Ford Galaxie 500 convertible that I was sure I would own for decades to come.  It was beautiful.  So beautiful that I was reluctant to subject it to the harsh conditions of the Indiana winter I knew was coming.  It was a perfect plan, really – I would buy the Cadillac from Aunt Alma and park my Ford in her garage for the winter.  In the spring I would swap them out, one car for each season – didn’t everyone need to do something like this?  What could go wrong?  $400 changed hands and the Cadillac was mine.

These are the only 3 photos I took of my car, all one dreary morning in March of 1979 – the morning after a friend and I had spent an evening cleaning and waxing both of our cars in his parents’ garage.

The Cadillac fulfilled a dream of every gearhead – get a decrepit, old, neglected car awakened from slumber.  It was amazing how far my wrenching skills had come in less than two years, and this time when an old car failed to start I knew what to do.  New plugs and a new battery got it running.  It was loud because of the rusted exhaust. Oh, and the transmission made funny noises until quite a lot of transmission fluid was added.  But that couldn’t be serious, I was sure of it.

The interior looked much like this random internet shot, although in nicer condition with just some darkening and a couple of frayed spots on the seat fabric, as would be expected over about fifteen years and 87,000 miles.

A hundred bucks here, a hundred bucks there and I was in business.  There was a full exhaust system, and several more bottles of transmission fluid.  Which leaked back onto the ground with some gusto.  A bottle of stop-leak fluid slowed it down, but a “seals and service” at Russ Moore Transmission had the old Jetaway Hydra-Matic in fine fettle.  I had fretted about the need for a rebuild, but the transmission guy was quite sure that it needed nothing beyond seals.  He was right, thus validating my magical thinking.  Optimism born of this positive experience with a transmission would cost me some money in future years.

The a/c didn’t work, but that didn’t worry me because it was going to be my winter car.  But then the blower motor quit, which was a problem.  The motor for ’63 and earlier was not available through normal sources so a trip downtown to Means Cadillac was in order.  Ouch.  Oh well, a hundred bucks was a small price to pay for a warm Cadillac during a northern Indiana winter.  Then the constant velocity center U joint got noisy and there went another hundred smackers.  Funny, my Ford only needed two regular ones that Vic’s Brentwood Marathon could replace for $20.  Cadillac-fixing was a problem as I was in my first year of college and had little time, which required paying others for most of these repairs.

My best friend’s father – Howard – had looked over his glasses at me when I told him of my purchase.  “Never buy an old luxury car” was all he would say.  OK, “When are you going to get rid of that Cadillac” was something else he would say, with some frequency.  My other mentor Bill didn’t say much, but I could tell that he was not crazy about my selection either.

There was the stuff I didn’t fix – the carb was out of whack, which caused occasional hard starting and 7.5 mpg on premium fuel.  There was an odd short in the wiper wiring so that wipers would not start working on a cold day until the inside of the car warmed up.  If you actually got them to start they would not shut off until the inside of the car warmed up.  No, it was not the switch, which I replaced.  And of course there were the ubiquitous rusted lower front bumper-ends.

The gears were worn on the power front vent windows so that you needed to give them a push to start them opening or finish them closing.  (But the back two power vent windows worked perfectly, which was my favorite party trick with the car.) And there were the rusty pockmarks on the passenger side, along with the crease across the rear fender and the missing fender skirt on that side.  I replaced the skirt, but the crease and bad paint from an earlier body repair were still there.  Which is why all of the pictures I took were on the driver’s side.  There were also the beginnings of some rust holes along the edges of the chrome pieces in the fender tops, another common rust spot for these cars.

But when it was running my Cadillac was a joy.  It was heavy (5,200 pounds!) and big and luxurious and everything a Cadillac used to be.  I felt like a million bucks behind the thin, two-tone gray steering wheel and its gorgeous center hub with the rich, red background that surrounded the jewel-like Cadillac coat of arms – augmented by the wreath reserved for we select Fleetwood owners.  The seats were both sumptuous and supportive in a way “normal” seats were not.  And the feel and sound of those doors closing is still the best of anything I ever owned.

Everything about that car said “money”.  It was, simply, the most dignified car I had ever been in and probably that I have ever been in since.  My paternal grandfather had owned a 1962 Cadillac up until my adolescence but that white Sedan deVille 4 door hardtop with its black and white interior had seemed almost sporty compared to this one.  Granddad’s was the kind of Cadillac you drive to the country club for golf.  My black Fleetwood was the kind of Cadillac you drive to the bank and nose into the parking place marked “President”.  Or in my case, to the bank for the withdrawal of another $100 to fix something.

I learned certain Cadillac skills.  “Do you have premium?” was one of the first questions when buying gas.  I learned that the Autronic Eye was virtually useless on anything but a rural 2-lane road.  And I learned that phrase that every Cadillac owner needs to know when others are helping put things into the trunk:  “Don’t slam the trunk lid!”  I did not want to know how much a vacuum-powered trunk pull-down cost.  Probably $100, because everything else did.

Mechanically, the car would really scoot when I stabbed the gas.  I tried that on the street in front of my house once and left three streaks on the asphalt – two from the spinning studded snow tires (it must have had a limited slip) and one long black carbon stain from the super-rich exhaust.  It was funny how 390 cubic inches in a 5200 pound Cadillac was so much faster than 390 cubic inches in a 4000 pound Ford.  I enjoyed the obsolete feel of the 4 speed Hydra-Matic (in its final year) with its extra-short low and immediate upshift to second, then the abrupt shift into third and finally the nearly imperceptible glide into 4th. The shift quadrant with “R” all the way at the bottom took a little getting used to.  As did every “normal” car I occasionally drove during that time when I would mindlessly shift to “1” or “L” for reverse before catching myself.

And it was a fabulous snow car – I think only one car since has beat it for getting through snow.  With the studded snow tires I had for it, I never got it stuck.

And it was black, the way these were meant to be.  Did you ever look at a car and simply *know* the color that was in the mind of the stylist as he sketched the lines for the first time and of the modelers as they shaped the surfaces into their final forms?  If ever a car was intended to be painted black it was this one.  Even the advertising people knew.  This ad, by the way, hung in a frame on my dorm room wall.  This had been my mental vision of a Cadillac from the time I began paying attention to cars – and now I owned one.

The previous summer I had quit my job at the Public Library after my friend Dan got a job at a local funeral home.  They hired students to vacuum and set up/tear down rooms for funeral services and visitations in the evenings and to park cars for funeral services and drive limos during the days.  It was a large place with two locations, four funeral coaches, two limos and a half dozen big sedans, in addition to some trucks and vans and even an old International Scout.  Every car got driven through the car wash every morning there was a funeral (which was almost all of them) and went to a gas station for a fill-up every evening.  As would be expected, I got plenty of wheel time in modern Cadillacs.  The deep quality and expensive trim pieces of my old Fleetwood would forever sour me on the newer ones.  There was just no comparison when it came to the quality of the interior.  There were some nice things about the two silver Fleetwood sedans (a 76 and a 77) that the funeral home owned but put either of those Cadillacs side by side with mine and only one of them truly measured up as one of the best cars built.  Even at its advanced age, my old black ’63 made me feel special whenever I got behind the wheel.

By early spring I developed a deep appreciation for dual chamber master cylinders when a rusty rear brake line gave out, so the Cadillac went in for new brake lines.  For about $100.  By the beginning of March my supply of money had dwindled and presented me with a dilemma.  First, I could not afford to keep this car. I did not know what the next repair would be, but I knew that one would surely occur sooner rather than later, and that it would probably cost another $100 that I was going to have trouble finding.  The second thing I knew was that the Cadillac would never command enough coin to buy anything decent.  In six months I had more doubled my investment in the car and had no doubt that I could triple it if only given a little more time.  Everything must go, as they used to say on late-night TV, and I came to the hard realization that I would probably have to sell my convertible too.  Somehow I was introduced to a guy who was into old Cadillacs and was interested.  When he saw how nice my Ford was he was interested in that too.

I had not intended to sell both of my cars that day, when I learned a hard lesson in bargaining.  I did not start high enough on my package price because he said OK to the first number I threw out.  Someone taking your first price in selling a used car means either that the buyer is gullible or that the price isn’t high enough.  And this buyer was not gullible.  To make things worse, I told him about the literature I had collected for the Galaxie and threw that in too.  There are no do-overs in selling a car, sadly.  In retrospect, I ran out of money just in time because about six months later, skyrocketing gas prices and a souring economy would have made a 7.5 mpg-on-premium Cadillac virtually unsellable at any price.

The car was maddening in more ways than one and proved Howard right – something he would mention from time to time (with a big, knowing smile).  I was happy to be rid of the money pit, but missed certain things about it.  That big, black Cadillac had been many things, but ordinary was not one of them.  I also missed my convertible.  It was my first car and also the receptacle into which so much blood, sweat and money had been placed.  And being a 1960’s Ford, it always kind of reminded me of my childhood in Dad’s Country Squire.

I had been relieved when my cousin Dave stepped up to buy Grandma’s 1969 Pontiac Catalina – I loved my grandma, but never really liked that car much.  But hindsight tells me that a simpler car in better condition like that one might have made my two-car plan work out differently than it did, or at least stretched it out longer.  As things happened, I (suddenly and quite unexpectedly) found myself without a car.  Which simply would not do.  No car and money in my pocket is a condition in life that remains one of my favorites.  So it was time to go shopping.  For what?  I would know it when I saw it.