At home, I drive a minivan, and when I rented the black 2019 XTS Cadillac at Newark Airport, I wondered whether it was worth the extra cost (almost double that of a Ford Focus). Now, there is not a doubt in my mind. We’re on a New Jersey Odyssey – final destination: Atlantic City – and there is no better vehicle, no more “New Jersey” ride than what New Jersey-bred Bruce Springsteen immortalized in his song Cadillac Ranch as “long and dark shiny and black.” My Caddy glides east along the Atlantic City Expressway. We’re doing 130 km/h and you can barely feel it.
As a car guy, I honour milestones with drives. This trip celebrates my eldest child’s graduation from university. We’re going to Atlantic City to see Stevie Wonder in concert – and Elvis Presley’s 1963 Rolls-Royce Phantom V. Stevie Wonder is playing at the Borgata Casino and, since June, the King’s 1963 Rolls-Royce has been housed in the newly opened Hard Rock Hotel & Casino Atlantic City. Elvis was also a car nut. He owned hundreds, among them Jaguars, BMWs and Cadillacs – his first Caddy was a pink Fleetwood Series 60. He valued fine automobiles. If they had minivans in Elvis’s day, he probably would have bought one just so he could shoot it.
The most Elvis vehicle of them all was his six-metre-long 1963 Rolls-Royce – which he had customized with a microphone, electric windows and a telephone. The car has a 6.2-litre V-8 engine and was originally painted midnight blue, but the King had it painted a pale silver. Apparently, when he visited his mother her chickens would see their reflections on the blue paint and peck at the Rolls aggressively. The car is so iconic that it’s the motor (sorry) for the new documentary The King, in which filmmaker Eugene Jarecki drives across America in Elvis’s 1963 Rolls-Royce, picking up musicians, politicians and celebrities along the way.
The trip is also a chance to get a glimpse of New Jersey. The Garden State receives its share of derision but it has produced its share of cultural icons – Meryl Streep, Jerry Lewis, Frank Sinatra and of course, Bon Jovi among them. We drive past mile after mile of drive-thrus and outlet malls. We stop for lunch in Princeton and then head to our next landmark: the Pinelands National Reserve. It’s the setting for my favourite Sopranos episode, Pine Barrens, in which mobsters Paulie and Christopher attempt to execute a Russian thug in the Pinelands Reserve. An optimistic Paulie explains, they’ll be “twenty minutes from A.C. We get a room, freshen up, little blackjack. We’ll go to Morton’s, have a steak.” Things go awry, they get lost in the woods – and afterward, Paulie’s 1998 Cadillac DeVille is stolen.
While the drive to Atlantic City in a Cadillac is sweet, arriving is even better. Atlantic City was built on the worship of good old-fashioned American pleasure, money and materialism. A Cadillac embodies all three. We pull up at the Hard Rock and hand the valet the keys. The car is shiny and new and it gets respect. Regular readers of this column will know that I am neither a deep nor spiritual person – so this superficial regard based solely on surface appearances is extremely gratifying to me.
We check in and navigate the Hard Rock’s casino floor. It’s packed. The Hard Rock has 2,000 rooms and 20 restaurants and it feels like every occupant is there. We circle round the slot machines and blackjack tables and finally make our way to make our way to Elvis’s Rolls-Royce.
A small crowd is assembled there. In fact, during my stay, I make daily trips to the Rolls and there is always a congregation of music buffs inspecting the car, which sits near memorabilia from the Beatles, Kurt Cobain and others. I’d seen the Rolls-Royce in photographs but it’s much more impressive in person. The lustre of the paint job, the utter over-the-top nature of its interior – it all screams unabashed opulence. It truly is a car fit for “The King.” It also provides a look into a long-gone era of American culture. Elvis’s 1963 Rolls-Royce is a creature created in a time when the automobile epitomized freedom, movement and possibility. It’s hard to imagine anyone ascribing those attributes to today’s automobiles.
After a few days soaking up Atlantic City and Stevie Wonder, it’s time to get back in the Cadillac and on the highway. We take a detour into Philadelphia to visit the Rocky steps and statue, which are located just outside the Philadelphia Museum of Art. The trip is a reminder of what driving is normally like – frustrating. There’s a 40-minute wait to get on the Benjamin Franklin Bridge and no parking near the statue. We’re in a rush so I circle the block while my daughter gets her picture with Rocky. Then it’s back onto the I95 to Newark. We have left a lot of New Jersey undone. We have not had a New Jersey Bagel or gone to Maggie’s Town Tavern in Little Falls for what I am assured by my New Jersey connections is the best pizza in North America.
Maybe next time.