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Classic cars 1928 Cadillac Town Sedan

Al Capone’s Caddy a heavy-weight armoured vehicle Add to ...

Mobsters still take to the streets in armoured vehicles, a precedent pioneered by notorious gangster Al Capone and his 1928 Cadillac when bullets began to fly on the streets of Chicago in the 1920s.

In those days, the battles were between rival gangs for the booze and broads business in the Prohibition-era Windy City, with a dash of federal agent Elliot Ness and his “Untouchables” thrown into a lethal cocktail of violence epitomized by the St. Valentine’s Day machine-gun massacre.

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Today’s escalating criminal conflict is more about control of narcotics and money laundering. “The traditional mafia power structure in Quebec is under challenge from groups in Ontario,” says Antonio Nicaso, a Toronto-based expert on organized crime, “so more criminals in Toronto are now using armoured cars and wearing bulletproof vests as part of an increase in personal security.”

And like Capone, they’re doing it discreetly, sourcing high-tech armoured vehicles – which look disarmingly normal – from a number of companies. One offers not only heavily-armoured Range Rovers, Cadillac Escalades and Men In Black-style Suburbans, along with Mercedes and Lexus sedans, but also the virtual invisibility of a bulletproof Toyota Camry.

Capone was among the first to order a vehicle that would deflect rival gunfire, but likely could also safely claim to be the first to adopt street-stealth technology. His choice of a 1928 Cadillac Town Sedan might seem a little flashy, but it was painted green and black, just like the 85 virtually identical Cadillacs used by Chicago police.

There doesn’t seem to be any record of the car’s life of crime as part of the Capone gang, with which it remained until shortly after his conviction for tax evasion in 1931, but it has led a peripatetic existence since, including a lengthy stopover in Canada. Its latest Canadian connection was its sale in the United States last year by RM Auctions for $341,000, or just more than half of what it sold for in 2006.

The Series 341 Cadillac was new for 1928, and equipped with a larger 341-cubic-inch, L-head, V-8 engine rated at 90 horsepower with a three-speed manual gearbox. The wheelbase was also extended, to 140 inches, and the body was the creation of newly hired General Motors stylist Harley Earl, who would go on to head its design department into the 1950s. The car rode on a steel ladder chassis with solid front and rear axles, supported by under-slung leaf springs – that allowed the body to be mounted lower – and had big 17-inch mechanical drum brakes, hydraulic shocks and a weight of 4,875 pounds.

RM’s research into the car indicates Capone had it dropped off at a Chicago body shop where, according to the owner’s son, he told the mobster’s boys – after they’d told him what they wanted done – that “we don’t do that kind of work here.” Only to be informed, “You do now.”

The modifications included the installation of 3,000 pounds of armour plate and inch-thick bulletproof glass. The armour was placed in the cowl, body and door panels and behind the rear seat. The side glass could be lowered, along with the rear window, to allow the occupants to return fire if being chased.

Probably a good idea, as with only 90 hp available – just enough to manage 70 mph in standard form – and all that extra weight to tote around, performance must have been lethargic. Its police green-and-black paint job’s stealthiness was enhanced by red lights behind the grille and an official-type siren. It also had what was reputedly the first police band radio receiver installed in a private car.

The car’s first post-Capone owner, in 1932, was part of a travelling carnival and exhibited the car as part of the show. It then went to another buyer who promptly sold it to Southend-on-Seat Amusement Park in England. The car eventually moved on to the Blackpool Fun Fair and the Belle Vue Zoological Gardens, before a dance hall owner purchased it at an auction in 1958 for $510 and promptly sold it to Harley Neilson of Todmorton, Ont.

A photograph in the April 5, 1958, issue of The Globe And Mail shows the car being readied for shipment to Neilson, then vice-president of dairy and chocolate firm William Neilson Ltd. in Toronto, and a keen car guy. He set about giving the now rather-tired-looking Cadillac a complete restoration, during which much of the heavy armour plate (which couldn’t be seen anyway) was removed, but not the bulletproof glass.

The car was sold to the Niagara Falls Antique Automobile Museum in the mid-1960s and, when the museum failed, moved on to the Cars of the Great Museum in that town in 1971, for a princely $37,000. A museum in Pigeon Falls, Tenn., bought it in 1979 and it was purchased by Texas collector John O’Quinn in 2006. Its latest owner is an American collector.

A somewhat unlikely side note to the Capone Cadillac saga is the legend that a car, supposedly identical to this one, was used to transport U.S. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt on Dec. 8, 1941 – the day after the attack on Pearl Harbor – to petition Congress to declare war on Japan.

On the “day of infamy” itself, a suddenly nervous Secret Service apparently decided the president’s official limousine wouldn’t offer enough protection and that an armoured car was needed. It reputedly dragged a 1928 Capone Caddy, supposedly confiscated by the U.S. Treasury Department in 1931, out of storage, refurbished it overnight, and used it for the president’s trip the next day. Not helping the story’s veracity is that no photos seem to have survived or the car itself.

 

Back in 1928
The American Bureau of Prohibition’s Elliot Ness establishes a force of 11 agents to tackle Chicago crime, and launches raids on stills and breweries, with Al Capone’s operations a main target. Bribery attempts proved the agents to be incorruptible and they become known as The Untouchables.
A German single-engined, monoplane, Junkers W33 Bremen, takes 37 hours to fly from Dublin, Ireland, to Canada’s Greenly Island in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. It was heading for New York, but was blown north by strong winds.
High-flying history of another sort was made by Walt Disney, who produced a silent, animated short called Plane Crazy – introducing Mickey Mouse as the inept pilot of an aircraft contrived by adding wings and a turkey’s tail feathers a roadster.

 

globedrive@globeandmail.com

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