Cohort Pick Of The Day: 1963 Cadillac Fleetwood Sixty Special – A Lump Of COAL

Dean Edwards has been serving up a Cadillac feast on the pages of the CC Cohort.  I took a peek and was stopped in my tracks with these pictures of this lucious black beauty.  Because it was just exactly like the one I owned for about six months during 1978-79.

I suppose I should make one thing clear – this is exactly like my car only in the way my car existed in my mind.  In real life mine was fifteen years old and well worn when I bought it.  Aren’t those the cars that make for the best stories?

My mother’s Aunt Alma had bought the car new.  Her husband was a successful physician who died in his mid 50’s, not long after he had purchased a new black 1955 Fleetwood.  Aunt Alma never drove but kept the car.  Her son would drive her places in it and so would my mother.  By 1963 it was looking old fashioned so she gave the ’55 to her son and had him take her to Means Cadillac in Fort Wayne, Indiana so she could buy a new one.  Another Fleetwood, of course – not one of those sporty DeVilles driven by the Don Drapers of the world.  It was black with gray cloth upholstery with light gray leather bolsters.

I still remember Aunt Alma showing it to my mother when it was new.  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 obsession) I was halted by my mother’s order to get back out before I got my shoes on the seat.  “Shaddap Ma, 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.

One of 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.

After probably a decade in her garage and seeing use perhaps once or twice a month the car was “adopted” by her son for use in his family.  The household included two high school boys who did what high school boys will do to a car.  By the summer of 1978 they had finished with it and it was back in Aunt Alma’s garage, looking the worse for wear.  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, a 1967 Ford Galaxie 500 convertible.  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.  What could go wrong?  $400 changed hands and the Cadillac was mine.

The Cadillac fulfilled a dream of every gearhead – get a decrepit, old, neglected car awakened from slumber.  New plugs and a new battery got it running.  It was loud because of the rusted exhaust. Oh, and the transmission made a funny noise sometimes.  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 few bucks here, a few bucks there and I was in business.  There was a full exhaust system, and several 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.

Then there was the blower motor that quit.  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 the 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 – my car-mentor 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.

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 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.  Fortunately, I spent most of my time approaching from the driver’s side.

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.  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.

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.  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 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.

Examine, if you will, an internet picture of the interior door panel.  A thick leather-like vinyl across the top to stand up to sweaty arms likely to rest on the sill.  Then the high-gloss woodgrain trim with the thick, heavy chrome door pull (which included a courtesy light).  Below that was fabric that matched that used on the seats, which was, in turn, above the armrest and control panel with both shiny and brushed chrome.  Finally it was finished at the bottom with the same thick carpet that covered the floors.  This, gentlemen, is why I will never be fully satisfied in any Cadillac of the 1970’s or beyond.  Four of these door panels probably cost more to make than the entire interior of my ’67 Ford.

By early spring a rusty rear brake line gave out, so it went in for new brake lines.  By the beginning of March my supply of money had dwindled to the point where I knew that 1) I could not afford to keep this car and 2) it would never command enough coin to buy anything decent.  In six months I had 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.  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 did not start high enough on my package price because he said OK to the first number I threw out.  There are no do-overs in selling a car, sadly.

The car was maddening in more ways than one and proved Howard right.  I was happy to be rid of the money pit, but missed it too.  About 20 years later I would buy another elderly Cadillac – an ’89 Brougham.  But it was not the same.  Even when new it had been an ordinary car.  Its 1963 ancestor had been many things, but ordinary was not one of them.  Thanks Dean, for two photos that brought up many great memories.