Car of the Week: 1959 Cadillac Coupe deVille

Rick Payton’s first car was a turquoise 1964 Cadillac Coupe deVille that he never had the chance to drive. Now he’s making up for it by buying and restoring the flashiest and most significant postwar examples to wear the Cadillac crest and V.

“My mom and dad sold it before I could drive it,” Payton said of that ’64 Coupe deVille. The car was sold out from beneath him in 1992 while he was away at college. Although it was his parents who sent the Cadillac packing, Cadillacs were in Payton’s family.

“My Aunt Zelma always had Cadillacs. She bought a new Cadillac every year,” he said.
Now, one of Payton’s freshest restorations is a car like his grandma once owned. “My grandma had one — a pink ’59 coupe,” he says.

Cadillac called that pink for 1959 “Wood Rose Metallic,” and it dresses up Payton’s Coupe deVille just as it did when the car rolled out of the factory during the 1959 model year.

Pink was part of the Cadillac pallet since 1955, when the luxury car maker offered Pacific Coral, a peachy version of pink. Cadillac’s pink offering became more pastel in 1956 with Mountain Laurel. The Mountain Laurel hue was popular and it returned for 1957 along with a darker Dusty Rose Iridescent. In 1958, two pinks were again offered: Meridian Taupe Iridescent and Tahitian Coral Iridescent. By 1959, Cadillac named its pink “Wood Rose Metallic,” which didn’t sound nearly as pink as it appeared.

When Payton first bought a ’59 Cadillac of his own, it wasn’t originally the pink color he had hoped to find. Regardless, he was ready to tear into the black project car until a comment that he posted on Facebook led him to the car he was truly after.

“I bought a black coupe from my friend Rob Shaw in Canada, but I wanted to find an actual pink one,” he recalled. “In my post I said, ‘It could only be more perfect if it was a Wood Rose car,’ and my friend said, ‘I have this pink one,’ so I bought it.”

After Payton signed the pink slip and had the Wood Rose Metallic 1959 Cadillac Coupe deVille delivered, it was obvious that every inch of the car would have to be restored to make the car as beautiful as the pink Cadillac Payton’s grandmother once owned. This would not be a project for the dreamer who lives life with rose-colored glasses; it was a challenge for the die-hard collector with the skills to rebuild a down-and-out old car. Fortunately, Payton is the latter and has a history of resurrecting much worse cars.

“She had a few bullet holes in her,” Payton recalled. “It was fairly rough, but a really solid car. There was minimal rust in the floors and just a bit around the rear fenders skirts where they typically rust, but overall, it was a really solid car.”

Payton doesn’t know much about his Coupe deVille’s past, but he knows it was left to weather in the Kansas sun. That’s where Mother Nature abused the finned ’59. Her sun rays and heat began to strip the Cadillac’s paint, and rain began to form surface rust. The punks who took a few shots at the Cadillac’s flanks only served to weather her more. While some may have considered the ’59 too far gone, Payton was tickled pink with his new project car.

Building up to the ‘59

The 1959 Cadillac was perhaps the most iconic postwar American car, especially in pink. The ’59 Caddy is everywhere in pop culture: restaurant menus, greeting cards, TV shows and movies — it’s even graced even a USPS stamp. People who don’t know cars often know a 1959 Cadillac, or at least recognize its tailfin.

The 1959 Cadillac marked many transitions at General Motors and in the world. It is the last Cadillac to be designed while Harley Earl was in charge of the General Motors design studio and the first with Bill Mitchell in the lead. The enormous ’59 Cadillac is also from the last model year that big cars ruled the American market; by this time, compacts were making such inroads in the United States that in 1960, each of the “Big Three” launched a compact.

If one car were to mark the end of the fabulous, flashy and flamboyant ’50s, it would be the 1959 GM car line, especially the Cadillac, and especially in pink. It had it all. From front and rear bullet grilles to rocket-shaped body flanks to the industry’s tallest tailfins to insane bullet-shaped tail lamps, there was no car as wild as the 1959 Cadillac. It was a product of the space-age times, and it owes some of its excess to the 1957 Chrysler Corp. models.

In 1956, GM designer Chuck Jordan caught a glimpse through a chainlink fence of the new 1957 models coming out of the Virgil Exner studio at Chrysler Corp. These Chryslers had long, low and lithe looks with glassy passenger compartments, thin roof pillars and tall, sweeping fins. After spotting the new Plymouths, Dodges, De Sotos and Chryslers, Jordan went back to the GM studio and spread the word and soon designers from the GM Technical Center were rushing over to peer through the fence for a look. Among those absent was Harley Earl, who was away in Europe.
By this time, much of the GM styling studio had felt Earl was losing his eye for design. He had ordered the bulky bodies of the 1958 GM models to be further bulked with troweled-on chrome and stainless trim. However, the cleanly styled 1957 Chrysler cars showed that less could be better, and while Earl was away the GM styling studio began to work on more cleanly styled cars under Bill Mitchell.

“The designs we did at that point had a lot more flair than those big, cement-looking things we’d been working on,” Jordan was quoted as saying in the book “A Century of Automotive Style” by Michael Lamm and Dave Holls (Lamm-Morada Publishing Co. Inc., 1996). “No one liked those earlier cars, but now we were on our way.”

Before Earl returned, GM President Harlow Curtice caught sight of the new designs under Mitchell’s leadership and was impressed. With his urging, Mitchell and his staff continued toward their leaner designs, and by the time Earl returned there was no going back to Earl’s chrome soap bars.
When it came to designing the 1959 Cadillac, it was senior designer Dave Holls of the Cadillac studio who, under Ed Glowacke, brought those rocket influences to the final product. Most notable of all of Holls’ styling features were those sharp, bullet-tipped tailfins. Never again would a tailfin reach so high into the sky, and rightly so since the design feature had been a Cadillac hallmark since they were introduced to the industry on the 1948 models.

Under the new body was an updated X frame that helped keep the Cadillac low and long-looking. The 390-cid V-8 was a bored-out version of the 365-cid V-8 that was used in 1958, both considered very reliable and powerful powerplants with typical Cadillac smoothness. With the increase in displacement came a bump in horsepower to a standard 325 units for 1959 with 345 hp on tap for the three two-barrel Q-code engine that was standard in Eldorado models and optional in all others.
As GM’s top car line, Cadillacs often attracted established, conservative buyers, and by no stretch of the imagination was the ’59 conservative. However, production did increase to 142,272 cars from the recession-year 1958 models, yet ’59 Cadillac production was still lower than in 1956 and 1957.
Payton’s Coupe deVille is the middle-of-the-road example of the three two-door hardtop Cadillacs offered during 1959. The entry into Cadillac ownership during this period was the Series 62 coupe, base priced at $4,892, while the top was the Eldorado Seville coupe at $7,401. The exterior of the $5,252 Coupe deVille looked almost identical to the Series 62 coupe, but it had “Coupe deVille” scripts above the rear terminating point of the body side trim strips instead of the Series 62’s Cadillac crest on the front fenders.

Inside is where Coupe deVille ownership became evident. The extra dollars to pay up from a Series 62 to a Series 63 deVille paid off with dome lamps above each set of side windows instead of a single, central dome lamp; leather upholstery with her inserts; chrome door pulls; and standard power windows and power front seat. Otherwise, all Cadillacs received as standard equipment such features as power steering and brakes, backup lamps, windshield washers, outside rearview mirrors, full wheel discs, vanity mirror and oil filter. Payton’s example has optional air conditioning; heater; E-Z-Eye glass; Autronic Eye automatic headlamp dimmer; and fog lamps in the tips of the rocket-shaped front bumper ends. It carries the standard four-barrel version of the 390-cid V-8 good for 325 hp.

To make his Coupe deVille pretty in pink again, Payton embarked on a body-off-frame restoration shortly after its 2015 purchase. Payton had restored one 1959 Cadillac before it, but he’s built a niche restoring 1955 Cadillacs. He said the 1959 Cadillac is easier to restore than a ’55 because of better parts availability and less complicated construction, but there are still many parts that are difficult to find.

“The hardest thing to find for those ’59s are good, unbroken horn rings, nice dashpads and side fender spears,” he said. “And on the rear, that big chrome piece that goes across the back of those cars on the trunk lid — they are always just beat. The gun sights on both sides of the hood are expensive, too — they break and are hard to come by.”

To help restore the car as authentically as possible for Cadillac & LaSalle Club judging, Payton was lucky to land a 20,000-mile 1959 Cadillac sedan for parts. The sedan had been taken off the road early in its life, but had been poorly stored and so it rusted.

“The good thing is the ’59 parts car had amazing parts,” he said. “We actually used the original dash pad because it was so nice, and the rear package tray. That car had a ton of good parts. We even used some of the original rubber parts and cadmium-plated parts. But anything below the beltline on that car was rusted away.”

One of the hardest parts of restoring a car of this era is making the factory air conditioning work. Besides the extra plumbing, compressor and condenser, air-conditioned Cadillacs also have a few other unique parts, such as a special snorkel on the back of the generator. If these parts aren’t present, they’re hard to find and expensive when they are located. Payton figures just getting the air hooked back up after the restoration cost more than $4,000, a steep price considering, even in its No. 1 condition, a 1959 Coupe deVille is worth about $65,000.

Payton did all the work on the car in his shop except for the engine and transmission rebuild and the upholstery. By 2017, his ’59 was in the pink and ready to make her debut. Her first show was the Cadillac & LaSalle Club Grand National in Washington, D.C. There, Payton was docked points for some Cadillac trim parts he chose to add to the car that were not correct for a 1959 Coupe deVille. For instance, the car wore 1958 Eldorado Brougham wheels, of which Payton is fond. It also had chrome-plated 1959 Cadillac Sixty Special-only “cones” that trail from the tail lamps across the fins, as well as 1959 Fleetwood/Eldorado “V” trim over the backup lamps. Payton had originally used a reproduction package tray in the restoration, but he was docked points because it wasn’t authentic.
After reviewing the lost points, Payton headed home and took off the trim that so many people often use to personalize their ’59s. That’s also when he robbed his parts car of its perfect package shelf. He brought the Coupe deVille back to another Cadillac & LaSalle Club meet and earned the club’s Senior Wreath award, an accolade reserved for the best of the best.

Since the restoration, Payton has driven the car very little, but when he has taken it out for test drives, it never fails to impress even those people who aren’t aware of the hardware it’s collected.
“You’re always flocked with people no matter where you drive it,” Payton said. “People freak out over that car. It’s flashy, its pink, it has those fins. Everybody smiles when they see that car. It’s quite possibly one of the most iconic and recognizable cars out there. Even people who aren’t car people know it’s a ’59 Cadillac.”

While he appreciates a restored car, part of the fun for him is the restoration process. He recently sold the Coupe deVille, but not to worry: he bought another Wood Rose Metallic 1959 Coupe deVille to restore to an even higher level, and this one is a one-owner car that lacks air conditioning.
“In this climate, we don’t need air conditioning,” he said. “It’s harder to earn points in judging when you have air conditioning, because it has to work —that is why I am flippant about air conditioning. And after you restore one car to this level, it’s easier to do another one to an even higher level, and I want to build a crown car in Cadillac & LaSalle Club judging.”

The next pink 1959 Cadillac Coupe deVille project will follow a Pacific Coral 1955 Eldorado restoration he’s into knee-deep. Now that Payton has the itch for ’59s, he expects he’ll always have a pink example alongside his 1955 Cadillacs.

“If you want to play in the world of ’50s Cadillacs, you have to have a ’59. They are so over the top and garish.”

 

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