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1958 Cadillac Biarritz

Enjoy its vintage looks but drive it anywhere.

Joe Greeves - November 23, 2011 10:00 AM

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On more than one occasion, we’ve been told that old memories were directly responsible for the latest project car. Sometimes those highlights from childhood resurface decades later.

James Carswell from Hickory, North Carolina, found himself in a good position. A lifelong automotive enthusiast, he ran a successful automotive upholstery business that he turned over to his sons about 10 years ago. With a little time on his hands and dozens of project vehicles under his belt throughout the decades, he was eager for a new challenge.

An early childhood memory became the source. James recalls when one of the most prosperous men in town was the only one who could afford the newly-introduced Cadillac Biarritz convertible. It was a beautiful, expensive car and its rarity made it even more desirable. Priced at a staggering $7,500 in its day, he recalls “Even the doctors in town couldn’t afford that car.”

About five years ago, James put out the word that he was looking for a 1958 Biarritz convertible. They only built 815 of them and less than 100 are registered today. When he got a call from a friend telling him about an individual who had one stored in a barn since 1982, James was excited. The car was in poor condition and the negotiation process took about four months. He jokes that the purchase price for Biarritz #493 was just the first of many checks written on the way to a complete restoration. The three-year build began by stripping the car completely, then reinforcing and powdercoating the frame.

Rather than do a technically accurate restoration to bring the car back to 100 percent originality, James had another idea. “When I built this car, I built it to look original.” In fact, there are dozens of subtle modifications but only the most discerning eye can tell. Restored originals of this very rare car are in the half-million dollar price range. Carswell set out to create a reliable driver that looked original but without the failure prone, half-century-old technology. “You can get in that car and go anywhere you want to,” he told us.

Once his unique retro-strategy was in place, James carefully preserved and stored the original motor, then bought a brand-new 500ci Cadillac crate motor. Dressing the V-8 with vintage accessories taken from the original, the new motor reflects the factory look while providing modern power and reliability. Purists might spot the modern alternator that replaced the old generator and the electric fan for the radiator. The air cleaner, the radiator support, shroud, and new wiring harness were carefully camouflaged to blend in. The best part is, if something breaks, it can be fixed at the local garage or the part can be purchased from a local dealership.

Carswell’s Caddy sports all the period-correct additions like wide whitewalls and wire wheels, but with a twist. The original Cadillac Saber wheels did not hold up well over time. The aluminum outer portion was riveted to the steel inner portion and the rivets leaked air. The factory used a wide rubber band to solve the problem but inner tubes were the solution for most owners. Today, authentic Saber wheels are nearly impossible to find and if you do, they are prohibitively expensive. The Saber-lookalike rims that Carswell chose from Kelsey-Hayes were the smart alternative. Furthering the idea of precise handling, the original bias belt tires were replaced with modern radials.

Moving inside, Carswell’s experience in the upholstery business paid off with vintage-looking, glove-soft, caramel-colored leather pampering the occupants. The driver benefits from Cadillac’s luxury options that included power steering, power brakes, air conditioning, automatic transmission, six-way power seats, automatic headlamp beam control, and new power windows that raise and lower quickly. The instrument package on the dash holds its own surprise. While it may look original, the stock chrome bezel has been retrofitted with a set of modern Dakota Digital instruments. They disappear from view when the ignition is turned off. The list of modifications goes on but every change was done with subtlety.

To underscore the success of his achievement, Carswell entered the Biarritz in an AACA event, with more than 750 other vehicles. Although he provided a detailed explanation to the judges about the multitude of upgrades made to the car, his modified Biarritz was so impressive that it still scored second overall!

The car is a resounding success on all fronts. He has the best of both worlds, able to drive and enjoy his reliable classic every day. Looking back, sometimes childhood dreams really do come true!

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