[last update: 05.26.2020]
The Saga of "59 Shark"
Unless otherwise specified all
photos and illustrations are from Yann Saunders'
collection of Cadillac photos, advertisements and product catalogs,
reproduced courtesy of the Cadillac Motor Car Division and the Cadillac-LaSalle Club
(en bas de page on trouvera un court résumé en français)
An international tale of a Cadillac buff from the former Yugoslavia
and his blonde wife from Denmark who, on a lead from a Scotsman
residing at the time in Switzerland, bought a 1959 Cadillac convertible
in Monte Carlo, Monaco, through an English bank, from its
American owner who traveled extensively in France and Germany
Thursday, 16 January, 11 p.m.
The Paris-Ventimiglia night train pulls slowly away from the platform at Geneva's Cornavin railroad station. It clatters noisily across the maze of points. Gradually picking up speed, it thunders off into the frosty night. Its lighted shadow, cast by a cold white moon, slides like a speeding snake up, down and all around the snow-covered embankment.
François and I have booked two berths in sleeping car #83, due into Monte Carlo next morning at 10 a.m.
This story begins 18 months earlier. A "want" ad placed in the Self Starter [magazine of the Cadillac-LaSalle Club of America] had brought a reply from a gentleman in Long Beach, California. He had the very car I was looking for: a 1959 Cadillac Series 62 convertible. It was located in Monte Carlo, Monaco, where he used it on vacation trips.
A few weeks later, the owner called me from Münich, Germany, where he was on business. He was going to spend a few days in Monte Carlo. Did I want to join him? It would give me an opportunity to see the Cadillac for myself. I accepted the offer. By the way, the hair-raising drive from Geneva to Monte Carlo in just five hours could be the subject of another story!
When I viewed the car later that afternoon, I was impressed with its condition. We took it for a spin to Eze-Bord-de-Mer on the lower Corniche - the three coastal routes along the French Mediterranean are called the Grande (upper), the Moyenne (middle) and the Petite (lower) Corniche.
We stopped for drinks at the majestic Cap Estel hotel. Built in the thirties and restored in 2003, this former romantic residence of a Russian Prince is now a first class (5-star) hotel in a dream-like setting. It sits perched on a craggy headland that drops straight into the Mediterranean. Its luxurious facilities include both an indoor and outdoor pool, a private beach and a pleasant garden.
I was very happy to see beautiful, blonde Mireille D. there, for the second time. At that time she was the owner-manageress of this gem on the French Riviera (Mireille and I studied hotel and catering management together, in Scotland, in the late fifties).
I thoroughly enjoyed the day spent in Monaco. Nonetheless, I had some misgivings about the Cadillac. Although the interior was like new, it had been restored with vinyl (Naugahyde) instead of leather. With some regret (especially today!) I decided not to buy it.
One year later
The following year, at Christmas, the owner, who knew my continued interest in Cadillacs of this era, wrote again to say that the car had not been sold yet. Was I still interested? At that time, however, I had just bought a couple of other Cadillacs (a '59 Coupe De Ville and a '60 Eldorado Biarritz). I could not take on a third car. However, I had a friend who seemed interested. He had been impressed by the pictures I had taken of the Cadillac at Cap Estel.
François, my friend, is from Croatia but resides in Switzerland, as I did too at the time. His tall, slim, blonde wife, Pia, hails from Denmark.
We made a couple of calls to California and obtained the owner's consent to inspect and drive the Caddy. It was still in Monte Carlo. The title and keys were held by an English bank in the Principality. It was agreed that if François decided to buy the car, he would settle with the bank, in exchange for the bill of sale, the title and the car keys.
Friday, 17 January, 7 a.m.
We are awakened, just as we were lulled into sleep last night, by the rhythmic chatter of bogie wheels on rail joints. A glorious sunrise bathes the eastern Mediterranean.
What a change of scenery this is, compared to the bleak and barren snow fields outside Geneva only last night! Scores of red-tiled roofs, with white stucco houses below, dot the ochre landscape amid fields of lavender and mimosa. It is as though we had fallen asleep in the thick of winter and awakened again in spring!
After some delays near Nice, on account of repairs on the railroad, we emerge from Monte Carlo station. We hail a taxi for the ride to the new town of Fontvieille, west of the city, built on land reclaimed from the sea.
The Cadillac is parked in the underground garage of a high-rise apartment building there. It is under the custody of the caretaker in block C-1. He has a set of keys. Under a gray tarp, I can see the unmistakable shape of a 1959 Cadillac. Those gigantic, rear fins! We disrobe the car.
The top is down and the doors are unlocked. The car appears to be complete. With the exception of some minor scratching of the dark blue paint, there is no visible damage. The interior is brand new and spotless. As to the upholstery, François is of the opinion that brand new vinyl is better than old, cracked and torn leather. Well, yes, maybe.
The carpets and top both are new too. The convertible top switch appears to be defective and the right-hand front window lift switch is non-original (the color does not match the interior). The only missing item, it seems, is the convertible top boot cover ...although the latter might be in the trunk.
These are minor problems indeed! François is ecstatic. Just what he always wanted. After checking out the engine compartment and trunk, he gets under the car with a small flashlight and checks the underbody for rust and possible collision damage. He finds none.
Numbers that don't match
We are confronted with a major problem the moment we compare the chassis number (on the left-hand front frame member) with the vehicle I.D. number listed on the Xerox copy of the title document that François has received from the cars Californian owner. The number on the car (beginning 59F......) is the correct one for this convertible body style, as is also the style number (6267) stamped on the body tag. However, the number that appears on the title copy begins with 59G....., which corresponds to a Series 62 coupe! This anomaly surely will NOT escape the hawk eyes of the Swiss inspectorate.
François is downcast. I can see that he has fallen head-over-heels-in-love with the huge blue beast. There is surely a rational explanation for the inconsistency.
We decide to call the bank where, if François decides to buy the car, he is to pay for it and obtain the original title document. The bank manager receives us in his plush office. He is most courteous, and helpful. He offers to place a call to California on our behalf. He assumes, as we do, that the error must have originated in the California DMV [Department of Motor Vehicles] where the car is registered (it still carries CA license tags).
It is noon in Monte Carlo. Only when Scott comes on the line, sounding in a bit of a daze, do we realize that it is only 5 a.m. in Long Beach, California! When Scott wakes up, he explains that he bought the Cadillac four years earlier from a man who had a number of them. It is quite possible, he says, that the vendor gave him the title for one of the other 1959 Cadillacs on the lot. When the title changed hands, the car had been shipped already to Europe. As a result, the licensing authorities in California had not been able to physically check and compare the chassis numbers.
Scott promises to come up with a solution that will satisfy the Swiss authorities.
An encounter with the Law
Hunger pangs are slowly convincing my stomach that my throat has been cut. It is time we took a break and had a bite to eat. I've already lost count of the number of incidents that have marred already our memorable trip to Monte Carlo. One more looms ahead.
We have just left the bank and are ambling down a sun-drenched street, looking for an eating place. On the opposite sidewalk a policeman, decked in a plumed helmet, is eyeing us suspiciously. But we don't notice him. He starts walking pace with us, on the other side of the street. I should point out that François is heavily tanned. In addition, like many southern Europeans, he sports a thick black mustache. In fact, and although I never met the guy, I would say François looks a bit like Attila-the-Hun!
As for me, although I was born in Scotland I too have dark hair and quite a tanned complexion. I too had a slim mustache in those days. My folks always claimed that my ancestors were Moors. They sailed with the Armada, led by the Duke of Medina Sidonia, in 1588. When Sir Francis Drake dealt a crippling blow to the proud Spanish fleet, at Tilbury, the ships that still could sail fled south, pursued by Drake's caravelles. History would have it that a handful of derelict galleons limped northward, up St. George's Channel to the Irish sea. I guess my great-great-great-great-Granddaddy jumped ship off the Scottish coast, swam ashore and "made friends" with my great-great-great-great-Grandma.
Anyway, in the eyes of that Monte Carlo cop, we look like two Arab terrorists. Needless to say, we are in a state of shock when the policeman stops us, just as we cross over to his side of the street! Fortunately, the law enforcement officer is satisfied that our passports are in order. Luckily too ...he omits to check out the contents of François' black bag. We might not have been able to explain away the various tools, electric wire, flashlight and - worst of all - a set of Swiss auto license plates! You see, in Switzerland, license tags may be rented for up to 72 hours to enable a private owner to pick up a car abroad and drive it back to Switzerland with full insurance coverage!
We found out later that these sporadic identity checks are quite common in the Principality, where incessant efforts are being made to curb international gangsterism and terrorism.
The Greek restaurant where we stop for lunch overlooks the harbor at Monte Carlo. It is run by two Lebanese immigrants - doesn't this story [and the food that was served there] have a truly international flavor?
On the far side sits the "Rock", on which stands the Grimaldi palace, home to the late Princess Grace Kelly after she married Rainier, Prince of Monaco. From our vantage point, the yachts in the harbor look like toy boats, although some of them are more than 100 feet long. Today, the largest one lying at anchor is Christina O , formerly owned by wealthy Greek shipping magnate, Aristotle Onassis. After his death, in 1975, his daughter Christina for whom the yacht was named donated it to the Greek government1. Tomorrow, Christina O may be dwarfed by Adnan Kashoogi's Nabila.
Watching all those beautiful yachts reminds me that I received only recently, from Monte Carlo, a Christmas card from an old school pal. The last time I had heard from him, he was running a boat-charter operation out of the lovely Mediterranean island of Malaga. Euan was best man at our wedding. Time permitting, I hope to check with the harbor-master if Euan's schooner, Robert Gordon, is (or was recently) docked here.
While François orders lunch, I put a call through to the vehicle licensing authorities in Geneva. Fortunately they have an all-day service. I explain the title problem and ask how we may get around the apparent discrepancy. I am assured there should be no problem, provided that François can obtain from the licensing authorities in California a certified copy of the correct title document, or an affidavit by them attesting to the titling error.
François wants to test drive the car. If he does decide to buy it, we must get back to the bank before it closes (4 p.m. on Fridays). We keep the Monte Carlo taxis busy all day.
Back at Fontvieille we are able to inspect the contents of the trunk, where we find a 3-gallon can of gasoline, a set of jump cables, various tools, the former license tags (we assume) and a spare 12-volt battery that looks in working order. We lift up the hood and hook up the original battery, which the owner wisely has disconnected. We remove the huge air-filter cover and pour a cupful of gas straight into the carburetor body. I stand back and signal to François to crank the motor. The engine starts to turn over, slowly.
Suddenly, at the third or fourth revolution, it roars to life and soon the throaty murmur of the big V8 is heard through the vast underground garage. François lets the temperature gauge climb a little before shifting into "D" and steering the Cadillac out of the garage into the dazzling afternoon sunshine. Despite the thin film of dust that dulls the dark-blue paint, the Cadillac is stunningly beautiful. Children mill around. Cars screech to a halt and their curious owners stare at the Caddy in surprise and disbelief!
It takes but a 10-minute spin around Fontvieille marina for François to decide (very wisely) to buy the Cadillac. Soon another taxi whisks us back to the bank ...with only seconds to spare. François hands over the check and is given the title in exchange. He is now the proud owner of a beautiful 1959 Cadillac Series 62 convertible. The personalized license plates carry a name that is totally appropriate :
1 In 1998, the yacht was bought by John Paul Papanicolaou, an Onassis family friend and shipping industry leader. He rstored the yacht over a three-year period. In 2000, Christina O cruised into the new millennium, her original grandeur untouched but sinply complemented by today's latest technology.
Exhausted from the day's adventures, we decide to postpone the trip back to Switzerland until early next morning. If we leave Monte Carlo now, it will be far into the night before we get home, after a 450-mile trip. This would not be a very smart move, driving a thirty-year-old car about which we know very little.
We start looking for a hotel. We can afford neither the Hermitage, in Monte Carlo, where Scott treated me to a sumptuous lunch some 18 months ago, nor the Cap Estel, despite the discount rate I would expect to get from Mireille. Gita and I spent a night there in '72. The room price was such that we could only afford a bowl of consommé for dinner, and then we had to pretend we were exhausted newlyweds who needed to get back into bed!
Believe me, it's no fun consummating a marriage on consommé !
While looking around for a cheaper place to spend the night, we inquire at the marina regarding Euan's schooner. Surprisingly, the two coast guards ask for our passports (?) and then disappear into a small office, at the back. They return shortly. They want to know what is my business with the Robert Gordon. I tell them the story briefly: old school pal, wedding, best man, Xmas card from Monte Carlo...
They appear to be placated.
It seems that Euan sold his boat a few months earlier and that she was seized soon afterwards ...running dope across the Med from the Middle-East. This is true, I swear!
The coast guards know my friend well. It appears he settled in Monte Carlo after selling Robert Gordon. He now skippers two ocean-going yachts owned by a wealthy American architect, the brains (it seems) behind the new town at Fontvieille where, I learn, Euan resides with wife, Doreen, and their two children.
Rolls Royce cars and mega-dollar yachts
The marina at Monaco
...where we almost got arrested!
[ Photo: © 1985, Yann Saunders ]
Believe it or not, the window of the Armstrong living-room actually overlooks the entrance to the underground garage where the '59 Cadillac resides. Euan knows the car well. We have dinner and chat for many hours about the good old days.
Euan would put us up gladly, but his apartment is not spacious enough for two additional bodies. However, he says, we are welcome to use one of "his" two yachts.
We have a choice between two 80-foot luxury vessels: Mephisto, a 24-meter ocean racer by the world-renowned Jongert shipyards, or Violetta, a similar-sized motor yacht powered by two (yes, TWO) 1600HP Caterpillars. We are talking mega-bucks here. By my estimate, and as an avid reader of Showboats, these two rich man's toys are worth a conservative $5,000,000.
We pick the motor yacht.
No five-star hotel could match Violetta's appointments. Five twin cabins, each with hot and cold shower and head, central-heating, a vast saloon, imposing galley, sun-deck and fly bridge. The engine compartment is large enough to accommodate a pair of 19-foot ski-boats!
Before turning in for the night, Euan gives us a grand tour of Mephisto, the other yacht, a vessel he says belongs in a class of its own. It is no run-of-the-mill Atlantic Cup racer. This is one classy yacht ! With her 15-foot draft and her mast towering the height of a small skyscraper (12 floors), she is truly impressive!
Hey, I could easily become addicted to this way of life! But we have an early start in the morning and so it is not long after midnight when we decide to turn in.
Quickly we are engulfed in sleep ...and sweet dreams of cruising the Aegean sea at the helm of "our" yacht, with Dolly and Anna-Nicole in tank-top and short shorts tending the winches ...and a '59 Cadillac convertible yacht tender hanging off the davits!
Saturday, 27 January, 8 a.m.
We spend an hour getting 59 SHARK ready for the long journey back to Switzerland. We were unable, the previous evening, to find a service station willing to do an oil change. It seems that any form of work is seriously frowned upon after 4 p.m. on a Friday night in the sunny south of France! We are able to buy a couple of quarts each of motor and transmission oil, in case they are needed on the trip.
From the service slips in the glove compartment, we are able to deduce that the Cadillac was serviced and driven for the last time in October, that is three months ago. We feel confident, therefore, that the motor and transmission oil are still perfectly usable.
The next incident occurs only five miles out of Monte Carlo as we are climbing the steep, winding grade up to the Grande Corniche at La Turbie. Just as we are rounding a hairpin bend, proceeding uphill, we come face-to-face with a huge passenger coach heading downhill! François jumps on the brakes so hard that the motor stalls...and refuses to start again!
There we are, poised on the edge of a cliff, with no power steering nor brakes to help us steer the heavy car out of the heavy morning traffic to the relative safety of the hard shoulder! With luck we manage to extricate ourselves and the Cadillac from this potentially hazardous position on a winding mountain road. The engine fires up again and soon we are speeding west along the express highway at an easy 70mph.
How nice of the previous owner to have left a full tank of gasoline ...that is, according to the reading on the gas gauge. He even included a 3-gallon can for emergencies. There is probably enough gas aboard to get us half-way back home. When you are proceeding along a super-highway at 70 mph in an old Cadillac that has just cost you your life savings, and suddenly the motor starts to splutter ...and you're not even wearing your Maidenform bra' [unpaid advertising] ...it can be aggravating!
François is fuming! He thinks he has bought the proverbial lemon. After running the usual tests we come to the conclusion that everything is in good working order. The first 50 miles even have pumped some life back into the aging battery. It just doesn't figure. And then it clicks. I remember I had exactly the same problem with my '60 Eldorado about three years earlier. The gauge was faulty and showed the tank to be full ...when in fact it was empty. The gas tank of the '59 convertible too is EMPTY!
We retrieve the jerry can from the trunk and pour the contents into the tank, with the exception of one glassful which we pour into the carb to help get the fuel flowing freely. She fires first time!
Stuck in a pay-phone
The next incident does not involve the Cadillac at all, but I just have to tell you. We are stopped in a rest area where I want to call Gita. She needs to know we might be home later than expected, owing to the earlier incidents. I stroll over to the pay-phone booth. François stays in the car. He is engrossed in the factory sales and service literature I have copied for him from my collection. From where the car is parked, he can't see me.
Gita and I chat on the phone for a few minutes. François' wife, Pia, happens to be with her. I want to open the booth door to hail François so he too can speak to his wife and give her the good news about his purchase. The door won't open!
No matter how much I push and pull and turn, still I cannot get the darned thing any more than slightly ajar! Here I am, locked up in a public 'phone booth on the A6 motorway, somewhere in the middle of France. I'm banging on the door, and making frantic gestures to François who is just out of sight...
Hysterical laughter rings out on both ends of the line: Gita, who can imagine my comical predicament, is doubled over. As for me, I'm convinced that someone is pulling on me one of those candid-camera stunts. So I make some rude finger gestures in the direction of a possible hidden camera... But no TV crew comes to my rescue. At this time of year also, there is very little traffic on this stretch of road. Had I been on my own and had François not come over, at last, to find out what was taking me so long, I might still be locked up in that darned booth!
Later in the day, we stop for lunch in a cozy auberge near Salon-de-Provence. At the risk of digressing some more, I will mention that France still offers real value for money when it comes to wining and dining country style, away from the main tourist traps. To give you an idea, we enjoy a delicious 3-course meal, with wine and coffee, for less than $10 per head. By comparison, lunch in Monte Carlo had set us back $70 each!
News about the presence of a Buck Rogers rocket automobile parked by a roadside restaurant had spread like wildfire and attracted a goodly portion of the local population. Had we had more time, we would readily have spent a few more hours there, showing off the Cadillac to a fascinated audience who could not believe this was just an ordinary, American, gasoline-powered automobile, and not some space-ship out of a Flash Gordon space movie.
Later, nearing Valence, I remember I had exchanged letters a few months earlier with the owner of a small automobile museum there. Among the cars, including Cadillacs, in the museum collection, was a 1938 V-16 Town Car (style 9053), once the pride of the Vatican fleet. Although it is already late in the day, it would be stupid not to stop and visit the collection, especially as I am fascinated with the sixteen-cylinder Cadillac models.
Mr. Lambert receives us personally, despite the unannounced visit. He remembers well that I had sent him many facts and photos of the Vatican V-16, first when it had been in the Holy See and, later, purchased by Nicola Bulgari of jewelry fame.
He tells us that he is compelled to close down the museum and to sell the cars. The socialist French government, he complains, has imposed such heavy taxes on the museum that he cannot keep it open without increasing the admission fee. In his opinion, access to any museum should be free. We could do with more auto museum owners like Mr. Lambert!
Sadly, the Musée de la Vieille Auto at St.Marcel-les-Valence closed its doors at the end of September 1986. All the cars (with the exception of a dozen or so prized ones) were sold off by auction. The last time I heard of it, the 1938 V16 town car had returned to the USA after changing hands a couple of times in Europe2.
2 You can read all about that car on this Web page
The home stretch
The final lap of our journey takes us from Valence, through Grenoble and Chambéry back to Geneva.
We start to get nervous when we see the first signs of the snow we left behind only two days earlier. But the weather forecast has been fine, so we decide to push on regardless. Fortunately, all the roads are clear and dry. With the exception of some patches of black ice encountered on the last 10 miles of the trip, there are no further incidents to report.
With help from Scott, in California, through the Department of Transportation, the problem of unmatched chassis numbers was easily resolved. The car passed the Swiss state inspection with flying colors and now carries Swiss license tags.
François gave the '59 Cadillac a complete mechanical and cosmetic overhaul (retaining the original paint which he considers to be still in excellent condition). "59 Shark" has been entered in a number of shows, where it has been greatly acclaimed. It has "starred" also in a couple of low-budget movies.
( résumé en français)
C'est l'histoire "internationale" [et vraie] d'un grand amateur de Cadillac de nationalité croate et de son épouse danoise qui, sur un tuyau fourni par un écossais habitant la Suisse à l'époque et par l'intermédiaire d'une banque britannique de la Principauté de Monaco, a fait l'acquisition d'un cabriolet Cadillac de 1959 appartenant à un citoyen américain appelé à voyager souvent en France et en Allemagne.
Un jour, lorsque j'en trouverais le temps, j'en ferais une traduction intégrale, en français, pour votre plaisir.
© 1996-2020, Yann Saunders, DLM Group, and the Cadillac & LaSalle Club Museum and Research Center Inc.
[ Background image: 1959 Series 62 convertible from one of the year's mailer catalogs ]