Dutch courage - ’59 Cadillac

Published: 04:47PM Jan 19th, 2012
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Henry Leenders found a rusty, seized-up 1959 Cadillac Sedan de Ville in Washington State, shipped it back to Holland and finished this jaw-dropping restoration in less than two years.

Dutch courage - ’59 Cadillac

It’s strange how important colour can be to a car. There might be no finer example of this than a ’59 Cadillac, which depending on your opinion (already pre-formed?) is either among the greatest designs in American automotive history or among the most clichéd and over the top. If you’re inclined towards the latter view, consider this – what colours were the cars that gave you that impression?

Were they gaudy lipstick pink or eye-searing scarlet? If so, it’s easy to see how they could overwhelm someone who isn’t looking for an outrageous, ostentatious car. If you are looking for something like that, then these colours just make a ’59 even more perfect for you. But what about a sombre black or a pure, virginal white? The ’59’s styling amplifies the sinister side of the black paint job and the fairy tale wedding aspect of a white car; again it’ll split opinion down the middle.

What you really need to see is a car like this. Dover white over Georgian blue metallic doesn’t come with any preconceptions. Instead, it allows you to appreciate the car’s proportions and daring, stylized details for what they are. And what they are, when seen in the flesh, is strikingly beautiful, especially on a series 6329 six-window Sedan de Ville.

Gaze at it for a little while and you can persuade yourself it’s the best looking of all the ’59s: the glamorous two-door SeVille and Biarritz are traditionally the top of the tree, but with the coupes and convertibles isn’t there just too much car aft of the door when viewed side-on? And the four-window sedan is cool with that odd wraparound rear screen and the overhanging roof, but it’s no contest for grace when compared with the gentle downward sweep of the six-windows roofline. The incredibly scarce Eldorado Brougham is a special case, more closely resembling a 1960 model – quite a car, but if you want a ’59 Cadillac, why not choose the classic ’59 shape?

It’s always odd to think that the model year of the car you’re looking at represents styling fashions of three or four years earlier. The ’59s were pretty much done and dusted in ’56, maybe refined in ’57 after GM had a poor year. Yes, we think of the ’57 Chevys as being equally iconic with the ’59 Cadillacs, but the re-worked 1955 looks weren’t quite as well-regarded then as they are now, with Ford outselling Chevrolet for the first time since the war. The new Exner-styled ’57 Chryslers kicked everyone’s butt thanks in part to those huge fins (almost absent on GM’s lines) which led to a one-year boost in profits for Chrysler from $6 million to $103 million. Cadillac had to respond.

So the formidable General Motors production machine was well under way by the time 1958’s mini recession struck America, and the only sector of automotive sales to grow significantly was that of European imports. Suddenly, vast chrome boats with ‘look-at-me’ fins and monster engines were embarrassing the sales departments of most marques, though of course they’d never let on to the public that this might be the case.

And looking back, you’d never know, assuming you didn’t understand the lead time between styling and sales. If you did, you’d see why a rough time in 1958 caused a rash of new compacts to appear in the early Sixties. But this is getting away from the happy fact that in the styling ‘arms race’ of 1956 and ’57, Cadillac’s design team under Chuck Jordan got it utterly, wonderfully right.

Henry Leenders of the Netherlands is one of countless millions who’d agree with that statement, as you can tell when you ask him why he wanted a 1959 Cadillac in the first place: “It’s the model to have from the maker of real American classics. Oh, and Elvis had one.” Rather more than one, wasn’t it? Henry goes on to describe his preference for the six-window over the four-window ‘flat top’, but wanting one and finding one are two different things, especially in Holland. But it pays to have friends, as Henry explains: “I know a Dutch guy who imports cars from America and he knows people in the Cadillac club over there. Eventually I heard about this car that had been standing for 11 years but was supposed to be basically okay, so I bought it and it landed in Holland on July 13, 2009.”

For the detailed story of Henry’s epic restoration, see the separate panel. Suffice it to say that many of us would fritter away 10 years (or even more) trying to achieve a job half as good. Throughout the process Henry ran into the problem of finding parts for the car from American sources – something we usually assume is a doddle.

Not in Holland, or not so much. Henry relied on the faultless English of his son’s friend, Jarno Aantjes (without whom this article would be in a different language!), but even when you speak English better than most English people, it’s not easy to get American suppliers to send what you want to the Netherlands, as Jarno explains: “For a start, nine out of 10 of them haven’t a clue where Holland is. They’d ask me things like ‘Is that the capital of Amsterdam?’ and when I found someone who would agree to ship parts to Holland, the shipping charges were absolutely crazy. It meant that Henry had to refurbish some parts that you might normally just replace.”

When you ask Henry about the hours he put into the car in that compact, 21-month effort, he doesn’t even want to think about it. Probably safer that way, just as it is not to enquire about the final bill. What amazes Jarno (a 25-year-old VW enthusiast, but with a perfect appreciation for Henry’s car and what he’s achieved) is how little Henry’s driven the car since it was finished. It hasn’t been to a show yet, or at least not the kind that awards prizes. Is it too scary to risk all this beauty on the open road?

No, Henry claims the reason he hasn’t entered it for a cup anywhere is that the inside of the trunk isn’t as smart as it could be, or not yet. Do we care? I think most of us would put up with that. It would be worth it for a shot of the way Henry felt when driving the finished article around the yard in front of his VW-mad son and his mates. Jarno describes the scene:

“You should have seen the grin on his face. He was shouting at us: ‘This is a proper car! Yours aren’t!’ He keeps making remarks like ‘Hell, it’s over 40 years older than your VW, but it drives way nicer than that low piece of German c**p!’” Not the most grateful way to talk to the guys who helped you gather the parts you needed from across the pond, but entirely understandable. Hell, if you can’t brag about something like this, what can you brag about?

Words: Nigel Boothman  Photography: James Wallace

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