Steve Plunkett’s 1949 Cadillac Special Fleetwood Coupe concept car may not have been a fully “baked” design when it headlined General Motors’ first post-war automotive extravaganza staged in New York’s Waldorf Astoria early that year, but it was comprehensively “cooked” when he acquired it a couple of years ago.
The only survivor of four prototypes from the event – the precursor of GM’s Motorama shows of the 1950s – it had suffered considerable damage during a fire before being dragged out of the Connecticut barn in which it had slumbered for decades, by the London-Ont.-based Cadillac enthusiast.
“It wasn’t charred remains,” he says. “It was 95 per cent complete, but it was cooked. It had been super-heated, which blew the glass out, the leather was crispy, the speedometer cluster ruined, and the taillights melted.”
Plunkett says the custom hardtop was the “superstar” of GM’s 1949 New York, and later Detroit, Transportation Unlimited shows. It served as the styling inspiration for the 1949 Coupe de Ville, hurried into production in response to the concept’s enthusiastic reception. The late intro resulted in only 2,150 1949 Coupe de Villes – priced at $3,497 – being built, but one of them was the millionth car produced by Cadillac.
Following two years of effort by Ontario restorer Bob Chauvin, the car returned to the public limelight, after a 64-year hiatus, at the Amelia Island Concours d’Elegance in Florida this spring.
And on Sept. 14, it will be among the fascinating assortment of cars taking part in the inaugural Cobble Beach Concours d’Elegance – on the manicured golf links of the Cobble Beach Resort Community, which overlooks Georgian Bay north of Owen Sound, Ont.
The 1949 show at the Waldorf touted the charms of 32 of GM’s mass-production models, seven Cadillacs and four concepts, but the coupe concept by Fleetwood drew the most attention.
And no wonder. The out-sized but eminently elegant coupe was hand-built, based on a 1948 convertible, over a two-month period at a cost of $30,000 (about $300,000 today). Its wheelbase stretched out to 133 inches (versus 126 on standard models), with much of the extra length at the rear, where plywood and ash were used to form the substructure, with sheetmetal formed and fixed over that.
Plunkett says the painstaking, $120,000 restoration revealed that two teams of skilled coach-builders, each with slightly different approaches, and each responsible for one side of the bodywork, constructed the car. “And there’s a lot of wood in it, like car bodies in the 1930s,” says Plunkett. Features such as armrests and door panels were shaped in wood and leather-covered.
As a concept car, it was designed to gauge public reaction to new ideas and features, which included Cadillac’s new 331-cubic-inch, 160-hp, overhead valve V-8, and four-speed Hydramatic automatic transmission. Plunkett says it was the first to have a curved, one-piece windshield, and also showed off 15-inch wheels, chrome wheel arch trim, power (bench) seat, and power-operated vent windows. It was also equipped with a two-way radio telephone, and compartments in the rear armrests held vanity items, such as a makeup case with bevelled mirror, lipstick holder and perfume atomizer.
Replacing the windshield was one of the trickier aspects of the restoration, with a wooden template, or “buck,” being hand-made and then shipped to a Western Canadian company specializing in yacht windshields, which produced two. Matching the leather and cloth interior trim originally specified by GM styling involved working with the company that provided them in 1949.
When the concept coupe’s show duties concluded, it became the personal vehicle of General Motors president Charles “Engine Charlie” Wilson. When he left to become U.S. secretary of defence in 1953, he gave it to his secretary, who took it to California.
The car ended up in the hands of a California restorer who, at some point, decamped to Connecticut, where the by-then-badly-scorched Cadillac – now the oldest surviving Motorama Dream Car – was rescued by Plunkett.
It couldn’t have ended up in better hands as he counts 49 Cadillacs, covering the years from 1907 to 2010, among his 72-car collection.
Plunkett, who worked on the sales side in the picture framing business, has been a car nut from the cradle. He says his physician father wasn’t a car guy, but something triggered a “fascination with all things mechanical” that eventually led to his extensive involvement in the old-car hobby.
And in 2002, to the creation of the Fleetwood Country Cruize In, a classy event that welcomes all types of cars, and annually attracts 3,000 vehicles and 25,000 spectators to his London-area estate.
So Plunkett knows a thing or two about high-calibre car shows, and concours d’elegance events. Like the one at Cobble Beach, that has set its sights on one day becoming Canada’s international level concours, and in the same league as Amelia Island, St. John’s and Pebble Beach. Plunkett is assisting as an adviser.
Concours such as these are far removed from the shopping mall cruise nights, and not something staged, at this level anyway, in Canada. “They are the highest end of the hobby,” says Plunkett. Entries can be from any era, from brass cars to muscle cars, but are usually restored to an extremely high – read expensive – level.
“But people can still participate as spectators, and see cars they’d never see at a cruise night. It’s exciting. And the cool thing about the Cobble Beach event is, it’s in our own backyard.”
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