COAL: 1963 Cadillac Sedan deVille — The Tale Of The Fin

From a child’s perspective, possibly the only automotive illustration where the artist didn’t exaggerate the width of the car.


Ah, to be four years-old again. I quickly landed on 1971 as I pondered the “If you could go back in time . . .” scenario (again) one afternoon. At four, I was free to roam (no pesky kindergarten) and I had wheels! Real wheels! My parents coordinated (rather brilliantly) with one Mr. S. Claus, who delivered a Jaguar E-type pedal car to our Unadila New York home for Christmas.

While our Casper-faced driver is ready to roll, his mechanic looks a little fatigued.


The only image I could scrounge up of our home in Unadilla, NY.


This coordinated quite nicely with a memorable event from earlier in the year. My father brought home one well-used, but still proud 1963 Sedan deVille, courtesy of his brother, my Uncle Henry. (Unlike the Jag and Mr. Claus, some money exchanged hands with the Cadillac.) It made such a strong first impression, cheerfully resplendent in pale yellow (possibly a custom order; not on the 1963 Cadillac color charts) with a white painted hardtop and light emerald brocade interior. I was deliriously giddy over its unexpected arrival. Everything made perfect sense then — the Jaguar was my “training car” before I stepped up to the Cadillac one day.

We’ve “arrived”… to where we already

There was an annoyingly appealing junkyard a mile or two from our house. I believe the legal term for such places is “attractive nuisance” – a venue both tantalizing and potentially lethal to intrepid four year-old automotive investigators, among others. I was mesmerized by the numerous automotive “faces” that peered out behind the chain link fence as we drove by: ’58-’60 Thunderbirds, bullet-nose Studebakers, Tri-Five Chevys, stepdown Hudson, older makes I didn’t yet recognize. Periodically, I’d “tell” my mother I was going to the junkyard to look around. To her, I might as well have said, “I’m gonna sit in ‘Old Sparky’ and ride the lightning!” Visiting the junkyard (with or without her) was an emphatic “NO!” So, I didn’t – but boy, I sure wanted to.

The Cadillac’s arrival took some of the edge off my thwarted junkyard exploration. It also told me that we’d been identified as, if not exactly royalty, then a “very special family” to have acquired such an exquisite automobile. The ominous rust bubbles under its fender top trim strips meant nothing. I viewed them as the price of elite features like the turn signal indicators at each fender’s leading edge. Style has a cost, baby, and at age four my bankroll was limitless.

Peak Cadillac, but I may be biased

There was plenty of style to admire, with a 223 in. length on a 129.5 in. wheelbase. Its many fetching exterior highlights included the heavy-browed, “all-business” front end, subtly sculpted flanks, abundant exterior trim (excellent at capturing and retaining road salt), pillarless roof line, and those lovely mini-fins. Looking back, I probably loved the fins most of all.

Sicnag, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons


The elegant interior was no less intriguing, with its power driver’s seat, a beautiful dashboard short on actual gauges but long on idiot lights and injury-inducing surfaces, and abundant use of tasteful metal trim. The clean two-spoke steering wheel, with its jewel-like wreath and crest in the center, seemed ideal for helming this machine while navigating the unusual (to me at the time) Hydramatic shift pattern with Reverse at the bottom.

The Guide-Matic Autronic Eye was also unusual and, frankly, a bit creepy: “Was it a real ‘eye’? Did it watch us during the day when the high beams weren’t on?” For all my refined automotive taste, I was still a four year-old who needed a nightlight to fall asleep.

My father, the impresario

Speaking of unusual, my father was not a conventional career man. His restlessness brought advantages and disadvantages to our family. (More on that later.) In this career iteration, he was a talent manager/booking agent when we lived in Unadilla (1970 -1973). He booked bands and concerts around central and southern NY (Binghamton, Elmira, Cortland, Oneonta, some Catskill towns, etc.).

The Impresario posing for a quick pic with a reluctant kindergartner, 1972.


With no direct experience, he combined his experience in community theater promotion/PR, real estate, and contract engineering services sales with a love of show business, and took a flyer. As expected, the results were “uneven.” We revisited this period many years later, with (mercifully brief) conversations such as:

Me: So, how did this whole Oliver concert come about again?
Dad: Well, I was deciding between booking Oliver or Gary Puckett.

Me: (Trying to stay casual) Um, what? You booked Oliver instead of Gary Puckett and the Union Gap? Hmm, . . . why was that?

Dad: Oliver had the number three song in the country at the time. (“Good Morning, Starshine” from the musical “Hair” — a gagger of a song to my taste.)

Me: (Still not quite recovered from the Gary Puckett revelation) Ok, yeah, but . . . Gary Puckett, Dad. Great voice, um . . . he had some . . . hits. Wow.

Dad: Oliver had the number three song. And two songs in the top 10.
Me: Yeah, wow. Hmm, . . . ahem, . . . I’m gonna grab something to drink. You want something?

I know my perspective included 25 years of hindsight, but I’d like to think that even in 1970, I would have doubled-down on booking Gary Puckett over Oliver. Anyway, if you’re curious about Oliver and his music, check out the link below:


Let’s get back to the car

One does a lot of driving when booking bands and managing talent. In retrospect, I expect the Cadillac was terrific for traveling on I-81, Route 17, Route 7, and (partially completed) I-88. It offered grace (if you like the look of 1963 Cadillac), pace (325 hp 390/Hydramatic combo), and space (an aircraft carried on four wheels). My Uncle Henry revived a wrecked ’36 Lincoln Zephy in his early 20s, and drove it until drafted for WWII. He liked working on cars, so the Cadillac was well-maintained. Everything worked – the air conditioning, radio, the power seat/window, etc. It was a reliable and dependable car regardless of the season.

A couple of particularly memorable events:

  1. On one grocery store run, my father and I consumed a good portion of our purchased luncheon meat and bread by constructing improvised “sandwiches” on the way home. (The store was a bit of a hike in those days.) With all four windows down, we could have kept driving until we ran out of groceries, as far as I was concerned. My mother was not amused.
  2. The “door incident” — We lived in an old farmhouse with a barn, which was our garage. One morning my father backed the car about halfway out when suddenly, it would move no further. In my father’s day, some drivers opened the driver’s door and looked back through the open door to back up. (You can see where this is going.) Unable to proceed, he erroneously concluded the car was stuck in a rut in the barn’s wooden floor. To him, this was a problem best solved by torque. Eventually, he floorboarded the gas pedal and unleashed the 390’s full 430 lb-ft of fury. When the car first moved, I imagine he initially thought, Yes! I won! (for a nanosecond) until the real culprit — his open driver’s door caught on the barn door threshold — was yanked outward and partially “liberated” from the rest of the car as it shot out of the barn.  Then, I imagine he thought, Nope. I lost. Finally, no imagination is needed to summon the subsequent stream of profane consciousness he must have uttered on his way to Oneonta, in search of someone to reunite the door with the rest of the car. Again, my mother was not amused.

The scene of the “door incident” circa 1972. The cat wanted a front-row seat for the next show.

Like all good things . . .

The Cadillac’s time with us ended after maybe 20 months or so, on a rainy night and a slick stretch of Route 17 in Binghamton. An adjacent car slid into the Cadillac, knocking both cars off the road. Neither my father nor the other driver were hurt, but the Cadillac’s front passenger door now sported a near-wrecking-ball-size dent and refused to open. Concerned that once opened it may not close, we just didn’t use it. The car got fussy shortly afterward. Sometimes it was reluctant to start; it stalled intermittently; an electrical issue arose. . . . It became an incredibly styled (some things don’t fade with age), somewhat unreliable, rusty, nine year-old car with three functional doors. My dad started looking for another car, which we’ll reveal in the next installment.

We parked the Cadillac in our backyard for a couple of months. It was strategically placed behind the pine trees and not readily viewable from the road. I played near there and saw it sitting ignominiously. Grass grew up around the tires and lower body; its chalky exterior paint was peppered with pine needles and spattered with bird droppings. Its aged, handsome face was defiant. “So, a couple of tough starts and a door dent, and I’m done? Fine. I want out.” Not long afterward, off to the junkyard it went.

A child’s logic, in the end

I have a lone souvenir from the Cadillac after 50 years: its “special” key. As a child, I’d never seen such a fancy key — so shiny, with the crest at the keychain end, too! (At one time the key’s crest was colored to match the emblem.) It was a magic key, like a Wonka golden ticket.

As a child, I was pretty sure that possession of this key would allow me to start any ‘63 Cadillac.


Today, the key takes me to a long-ago conversation in an old farmhouse. Unprompted, I told my folks that I knew we were “rich.” Well aware of our un-richness, they asked how I knew. I replied, “Because we live in a big white house and drive a Cadillac.” The unarguable simplicity of a child’s logic. Ah, to be four years-old again.