Story and photos by Ralph Plarre and Peter Ratcliff
"The 59 Caddy's radical fins best symbolise the styling excesses of the 1950s. Never again would any manufacturer attempt anything as wild as Cadillac's 1959 tail fins."
Ralph first joined the Cadillac Club by a phone call to me (as Secretary) in 1991. He was one of many callers I spoke to, as my number was advertised as the contact point for the Club in Victoria. Like many callers, Ralph wanted a late fifties convertible, and he wanted it in excellent condition. Unlike most others however, Ralph was realistic enough to realise he would have to pay a little more than $10,000 for a mint car of his dreams. At that time there were none around that I knew of, and the next time I heard from Ralph he had bought a left hand drive '61 coupe. Later he bought a restored red '59 coupe, and very soon a restored Eldorado Brougham. He added other cars to his collection, which was fast becoming a real toy shop, and storage was already a problem, but still there were no fifties convertibles at Ralph's.
In 1993 Ralph had joined the Victorian committee, became Vice-President in 94 and President in 1995. He had sold the '61 coupe and acquired a '57 convertible which needed a lot of unexpected restoring and fiddling. Then he sold the immaculate '59 coupe and bought a spectacularly pristine LHD '61 convertible, both in 1998. Later that year, he finally did it ? he bought a '59 Cadillac convertible. It needed restoring and Ralph knew it.
History of this car
The early history of this car is not certain, but it may have been in Australia from new. In the late 1970s, 1959 Cadillacs had yet to hit their worldwide popular peak, and there were only about four '59 convertibles in Australia. One of these was for sale in Sydney, and it carried damage in front and at the windscreen from a collision with the back of a parked truck.
Enter the Deen family. Tommy and Keith Deen were Australia's most colourful and prolific owners of fifties Cadillacs at that time, and they already had two '59 convertibles. It appears they bought the Sydney car, obtained the necessary parts and repaired it. They painted it HQ Holden pink, as they did several other Cadillacs they owned back then. I believe it was already right hand drive. Deens sold it to Brian Urbahn of Dromana, near Melbourne early in 1980, for $4,500. (Remember, 1959 Cadillacs had not yet taken off). Brian spent a lot more bringing it up to scratch. He obtained the correct side moulds for both sides of the car as the originals were missing and the holes had been filled over.
I remember being shocked at the atrocious welding (definitive "cockysh- - welding") of the chassis around the steering box.
Brian enjoyed the car for a few years, then advertised it for $18,000 in January 1984 and sold it to the first caller ('59 prices had just started to skyrocket). The buyer was Ford interior-designer John Birt of Greensborough. Over fifteen years, John had the RHD conversion re-done, the engine and trans reconditioned and obtained the personalised plates "FINS". He too enjoyed the car immensely, especially when he was asked to carry visiting country music superstars Dolly Parton and Kenny Rogers through the city in the car. He did not use the car much after the late eighties, and sold it to Ralph in November 98.
Ralph gave the car to John Bergin to begin the restoration. The motor came out and the stripping-down process began. The body was removed from the chassis and bead-blasted and cleaned, revealing some rust in the usual places, but showed no serious accident damage. While Ralph was fortunate in this regard, there was no argument that the car needed a total restoration. The chassis was sand-blasted and all welds were re-done. All new bushes, ball joints and shocks were fitted, and all brake and fuel lines were renewed. The transmission was serviced and all ancillaries like master cylinder, radiator, carburettor, starter, water pump, etc were rebuilt, along with the original LHD steering box. The engine had been fully rebuilt by John Birt, but due to long storage, it bent pushrods upon starting again in 1998. Heads and valves were then cleaned up, and the lower parts of the engine were inspected and were fine.
After a chance meeting with Paul Barker, and seeing the sensational finish he and his son Shane had achieved on Shane's candy flake red '59 coupe, Ralph asked Paul to quote on the remaining rebuild to complete the car to show standard. Early in 1999 he moved the convertible to Paul's workshop at Rosebud, 80km south of Melbourne. Paul immediately worked out a plan and a timetable to have all necessary work done, parts obtained, and the project completed by the end of 1999. The body was repaired by Steve Dyer at his nearby workshop. All stainless and diecast fittings were rechromed by Prahran Platers and FD Carroll in Melbourne, after repairs by Wes Mellord, and the trim looks really flawless.
Ralph was prepared to alter a few items for more agreeable looks and performance, and he always pictured it in pearl pink. Being a top custom painter, Paul made sure the paint wasn't just any old pink, but an ever-changing, beautiful quality, unique pink pearl. Paul prevailed on Ralph to lower the suspension just a little, and handling is noticeably sharper than any standard '59 as a result (and assisted by Coker radial tyres with a wide whitewall). Ralph deviated slightly from the original upholstery too, adding soft white leather and a little more interest than the standard Series 62 pattern. This work was done by Pat Mesiti of Sunshine. Pat also made and fitted the burgundy carpets to the floors and to the boot (trunk) area, concealing a CD stacker and resulting in a much nicer finish than the original grey "Cadillac bags" that tended to look scruffy from new. The car wears Eldorado full wheel covers which Ralph preferred over the rather plain and forgettable Series 62 trims. It also has a parade boot cover over the convertible top well, another Eldorado item.
The completed car rolled out into summer sunshine in February 2000, only slightly overdue after its
12-month re-birth, and I am sorry I wasn't home when Ralph called in to show it to me on his way
home from Paul Barker's workshop. This car is just like brand new, thanks to Paul and his
hand-picked contractors, and ...
"Ralph has not stopped grinning since."