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Reminiscing – Crazy for Cadillacs

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1963 Cadillac Fleetwood 75. Brochure images courtesy of Old Car Brochures.

[Editor’s note: This “Reminiscing” story, edited by Richard Lentinello, comes to us from Hemmings Classic Car reader Rev. Frank Lattimore of Ionia, Michigan.]

There was just something about those Cadillac ads in the National Geographic magazines in the early 1960s. They dripped of elegance, wealth, and beauty. You would think the photos were taken in some kind of paradise by the way the women dressed with the men looking so super confidant. I would sit by the hour and sketch out those long Caddy lines and fins on white paper as perfect as a 9-year-old could get them.

It was about seven years later when my best friend, John, stopped by the pizza place we worked at. He knew my weakness for fins and said, “There are three used Cadillacs for sale at Lape Ford in Countryside.” This was a sleepy suburb back then about 20 minutes west of Chicago. We hightailed it over there the next day and there were two decent coupes and one beautiful black 1963 Fleetwood.

The salesman questioned me on my selection of the Fleetwood. I said, “It’s black, it’s huge, and I dig the driver’s door row of eight power window switches with wood veneer.” I convinced my widowed mother to let me buy the car and she did the dealing. The salesman wanted $500 for the car and in disgust my mother got up to leave. She said, “The price is $350, or no deal.” He said, “OK”.

1963 Cadillac Fleetwood

I pulled out of the dealership and the first thing I did was nail it. A huge howling noise gurgled up from under the hood as the quad carb opened up and the 390-cubic-inch V-8 jumped into action. It was like pouring nitro down an elephant’s throat. However, there were a few things working against me in this moment of teenage glee. There was a stop light 300 feet down the road and the full depressed accelerator was stuck to the floor! I did not know what adult diapers were at the time but I probably wished I had some. Someone was looking out for me that day because between the howling V-8 and my screaming, the gas pedal popped back up after a few moments of shear panic. I soon had the accelerator linkage cleaned and repaired; I also had the transmission resealed due to leakage.

There were never any mechanical issues with the engine except a nightmare water pump replacement I did on my own. I had the valve covers chromed and also added a 360-degree intake air filter. One can never get enough of the unmatchable sound of a four-barrel carburetor opening up.

I drove the sleek Cadillac everywhere because it was the largest available car and we could pack the pals in; that car was all comfort. The power steering was very light, and it had heat vents under the front seats for rear passengers. The transmission was fairly smooth and you only felt it shift a little harder as it went into overdrive. Due to rust one of the rear shock mounts eventually broke off the frame, but that problem only improved the fun factor of that black juggernaut speeding over little hills and railroad tracks. As the rear end went high off the ground and came down it bounced up and down on those soft, worn-out springs for a city block. You should have heard the laughing and howling from inside the car.

Of course the aging Cadillac developed a few oddities. The horn began to “stick” on, and let me tell you, Cadillac had some wicked horns in those days. Cars came in two-tones but Caddies came with two-tone horns. They sounded like two locomotives coming at you. When the horn malfunctioned in the “on” position I learned to quickly reach under the dash and pull the fuse. However, one night I had the windows up and the newly installed cassette player was on really loud. Being a teenager in the early ‘70s I think I was in some altered mental state that night, just sitting in the car at a stop sign listening to music. I sensed a noise nearby, like a train coming at me. I kept looking around trying to figure out if a train or a police car was about to go by. Out of the corner of my eye I noticed a guy walking towards my stopped car with a look of concern on his face. I rolled down my window and realized the noise was my horn that had self-activated, probably waking up four city blocks! I quickly pulled the fuse and drove away.

1963 Cadillac Fleetwood

Another neat trick was to use the car as a “rolling noise cannon.” On longer stretches of road you could simply turn off the ignition and roll for about a quarter mile. When the ignition was turned back on the car became a stealthy M80 that snuck up with an ear booming explosion on more than one unsuspecting pedestrian who probably thought they were under attack by local mafia agents. I wonder how many pacemakers skipped a few beats? However, this little bit of fun got expensive; eventually the muffler blew out. I had very little money at the time as $1.25 per hour did not go very far. I asked the muffler shop to give me a bargain exhaust system, and after the job was done I pulled onto Ogden Avenue with half of a new exhaust system. A new muffler had been installed followed by one custom exhaust pipe sticking out from under the right rear passenger door. You never heard such a roar when the car accelerated with that set up. It sounded like a 747 rolling down the runway for take-off. The rushing bombing noise turned plenty of heads.

One night heading into Chicago we were on the Eisenhower Expressway and tried out the new tougher exhaust system under the Chicago Post Office, which was at that time built over the expressway. It was like driving through a huge cement cave. Approaching the building at about 65 MPH I would turn the ignition off, and when we rolled in under the Post Office I turned the ignition back on. Well, let’s just say anybody driving under the Post Office at that same time must have thought the place was getting nuked. If anyone did that now there would be roadblocks and bomb squads everywhere.

On another Chicago trip a friend said he wanted to hear the Cadillac backfire and watch the flames shoot out the special side-mounted exhaust pipe. I shut off the ignition and all was quiet as my friend lowered the rear window and leaned out over the tailpipe. Then I “lit her up” which, of course, produced the usual sweet kaboom! Milliseconds later there were shrieks and screaming from the back seat. My pal fell back into the cushy seat yelling that his glasses had been blown off his face. We stopped the car and back-tracked on foot to miraculously find his intact glasses lying on the grassy median.

A few years later I got “called to the ministry” and adopted a somewhat calmer lifestyle. The Cadillac remained a very dependable and enjoyable ride due to my buddy John’s continued expert mechanical skills whenever something needed attention. That car plowed through many snowstorms between Chicago and Grand Rapids along Lake Michigan. At the end of three years of training there was a wedding followed by a sad decision. Due to the price of premium leaded gas being 85-cents per gallon, and a cash shortage, the Cadillac was sold. Almost 40 years later that car is still unforgettable.