UK-based Russell Schacter clearly loves American cars and running American Dreams he’s in the lucky position to own quite a few. Mike Renaut discovers that there’s quite a story behind each one too…
There’s an old adage, “He who dies with the most toys wins.” Russell Schacter has no plans to leave just yet, but he’s amassed a nice collection. They’re all working vehicles too. Alongside friend and fellow American car nut Colin Summerbell he runs American Dreams, hiring out his and other enthusiasts’ American vehicles for TV and film, promotional work, weddings − and even funerals. Russell is quick to point out each car or truck was purchased because he fell in love with it − the business provides the means to afford to keep them. “I love buying and owning cars,” laughs Russell, “but rarely sell them.” We hot-footed it across to Essex for a tour around the collection.
1953 Cadillac convertible
“I’ve owned this since 1990,” says Russell. “A ’53 convertible is my all-time favourite – I just love the shape; they got the bumpers, grille and trim absolutely right. In 1988 I went to a car show and the first car I saw was this baby-blue 1953 Cadillac convertible. It needed TLC, but the owner didn’t want to sell. A couple of years later I traded it for my MGB and some money. The engine was worn and it smelt and left a smoke screen wherever it went, but I loved every second I spent driving or fixing it.
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“I restored it in 1995 and it’s been great, only needing routine servicing andabit of remedial work now and then. I use all of my cars and don’t baby them, so it’s getting a bit ‘edgy’ here and there. I’d do a full restoration, but the car would end up being off the road for years, so I’ll accept the imperfections. Plus, my coupe has set the bar high and I doubt I’d have the patience or time to do a job anywhere near as good.
“All my cars have special meaning, but I can’t ever sell this one. My kids and their friends grew up with it and the history and memories (like blowing the gearbox up in Southend with 10 of us in it) are priceless. To me driving the ’53 convertible is always like visiting an old friend who makes you smile.”
1953 Cadillac series 62 coupe
“It was a Classic American Car of the Year back in 2004, I’d seen it at Rally of the Giants and was staggered by how good it was. The owner, John Willet, restored it to concours. We chatted, but it wasn’t for sale. I never forgot it. Years later I’d found a 1970 Chevelle with a 502cu in V8. Muscle cars aren’t really my thing, so I’d arranged a swap with a guy in Northampton who owned a stunning 1941 Cadillac Series 63. He mentioned buying the ’41 from John Willet who’d since passed away. Remembering how fantastic the 1953 coupe was, I knew the ’41 would be special − it was stunning.“
Being a member of the Pre-’50 American Car Club I called the chairman, Alan Murphy, as he also owns a 1941 Cadillac. It turned out Alan had known John Willet well, so I asked what had happened to John’s ’53 coupe.
He replied: ‘His wife Pearl still has it in a heated garage. ’I asked Alan if he’d call Pearl, explain I now owned John’s 1941 and would she consider selling me the ’53? Alan did that, so I drove to Northampton in the convertible and found the coupe was still perfect in every way. A deal was struck. My son Adam drove home in the convertible with me in the coupe, with the biggest grin on my face the entire journey.
Around 1995, John had begun an eight-year restoration on the coupe and it came with hundreds of photos and a ton of spares, including a number of parts for the ’41 − a very pleasant surprise. We went back the following weekend and totally filled a long wheelbase van.
“Other than a few issues from lack of use, the coupe has been superb. The tyres were bias belted L78-15s and like driving on ice. I had spare wheels courtesy of John, so fitted 235/70 15 radials. The profile and look were wrong, but it was like going from an antique car to a modern one. So I fitted a new set of radial ‘American classic’ wide whitewalls to both cars. They look like cross-plies, are the correct profile and are even marked 8.20-15 for added authenticity. They’ve transformed the handling.”
1968 Cadillac DeVille convertible
“This was bought at an auction in Poole,” explains Russell, “cosmetically great, it ran very badly so we took a chance. Happily, it later turned out someone had been playing with the HT leads – possibly in an attempt to keep the price down. The carb was peeing out fuel, the exhaust manifold gaskets were blowing − the usual stuff. One of the first jobs was to replace the exhaust manifold gaskets − the first manifold bolt came out without a problem then every one of the other seized bolts snapped, so off came the heads. Hardened valve seats were fitted to run on unleaded.
“Over time, we’ve fixed most of the minor issues so it runs beautifully now and that red leather interior is fantastic. The heating system on old Cadillacs can be temperamental and many of the mid-Sixties and later cars have the vacuum/electric ‘tugboat’ heater fan switch bypassed, but I replaced it with a rebuilt unit from Cadillac Tim in the States. Other than the clock not working and the driver’s window ticking when it goes up − courtesy of a chipped tooth − this Cadillac is virtually perfect. It’s been in numerous television productions, including Made in Chelsea, Loose Women and was driven by Little Mix on X-Factor. The Discovery Channel also used it for an American Mobster documentary and it’s in the Elton John Rocketman movie.”
1964 Cadillac Coupe DeVille
This was a one-owner car until 1997 and offered at auction by the same person selling the 1968 Cadillac. “It came into the UK, went out to Ireland then back to the UK again. I’m not especially into researching a car’s history–I’ve got too many to have the time – but this came with loads of paperwork including the original sales invoice, books, manuals and many letters between the original owner and GM. “It’s been repainted, but never welded. It overheated a while back, so we’re rebuilding the engine with a complete kit from Falcon Global in the USA. The bores were fine so the block just needed honing, and I brought the rebuild kit over in a 1956 Buick Riviera I bought and subsequently sold. It was crammed full of parts in the trunk, rear seat, front passenger seat and all footwells – there’s no point in not taking advantage of free shipping and no import charges. The Cadillac’s loaded with 95 per cent of the available 1964 options, including power vent windows, twilight sentinel headlamp delay, auto headlamp dipping and so on.”
1960 Cadillac Eureka Hearse
You might recall this one from our August 2015 issue in which previous owner James Stringer had spent a small fortune saving this once very rusty, very rare car. “We’re planning more restoration work in the future although it does look quite sinister as it is,” admits Russell.
“James had removed the original commercial-type wheels, but I managed to source another set and the correct 1960 hubcaps – apparently, the old ones flew off regularly. I also had new exhaust silencers fitted − the Cherry Bombs it came with were a bit loud and weren’t where I wanted to go with the car.
“The engine kept getting hot and I discovered that the recess where the thermostat mounted was machined incorrectly so the thermostat wasn’t properly seated and this was a one-owner car until 1997 and offered at auction by the same person selling the 1968 Cadillac.
“It came into the UK, went out to Ireland then back to the UK again. I’m not especially into researching a car’s history–I’ve got too many to have the time – but this came with loads of paperwork including the original sales invoice, books, manuals and many letters between the original owner and GM.
“It’s been repainted, but never welded. It overheated a while back, so we’re rebuilding the engine with a complete kit from Falcon Global in the USA. The bores were fine so the block just needed honing, and I brought the rebuild kit over in a 1956 Buick Riviera I bought and subsequently sold. It was crammed full of parts in the trunk, rear seat, front passenger seat and all footwells – there’s no point in not taking advantage of free shipping and no import charges.
The Cadillac’s loaded with 95 per cent of the available 1964 options, including power vent windows, twilight sentinel headlamp delay, auto headlamp dipping and so on.” was sticking. I’ve also had the radiator re-cored, rebuilt the starter and generator, done a full service including brake overhaul, and fitted an electric fuel pump and cooling fan. It’s now almost silent and drives beautifully. The next step will probably be redoing the paint, interior and chrome, but that’s going to be hugely expensive so is on hold for the moment.
“The Eureka has been in many movies, including Mr Rice’s Secret, Kissed − where it was painted dark grey − Cadence, Steven King’s IT and Riding the Bullet. It was used in the Netflix series The Crown for the episode about the death of President Kennedy. They wanted an ambulance so I offered them my white 1962 hearse, but they didn’t like the landau bars.”
1962 Cadillac Miller Meteor hearse
“We’d just bought the 1960 Eureka,” explains Russell, “and I’d shown it to a funeral director friend who said ‘paint it white’, since that was a popular hearse colour in many other countries and would be in demand. I couldn’t bring myself to colour change the ’60 so, being a bit obsessive, I started looking for a white one and spotted this ’62 at a car dealer in Germany. I asked friend and American car collector Hans Kirpestein to look at it and he reckoned it was a nice original example that ran well. On arrival, I was delighted.
Unfortunately, Hans hadn’t had time to test drive it and on my first journey the automatic gearbox wouldn’t shift out of second. They’d changed the original carburettor for an aftermarket Edelbrock which messed up the linkage between the carb and the gearbox so they sent me a bracket for the linkage that cured the problem. The paint on the ’62 is a seven out of ten, so it might get a respray. Unlike modern UK hearses, the coffin deck on both the Eureka and Miller Meteor is very low, making it more difficult for bearers to lift the coffin, but nobody seems to mind.”
Russell was brave enough to let me behind the wheel and it’s a remarkable vehicle to drive. With power-steering and -brakes, it requires no effort at all to manoeuvre; in fact, if anything, it’s a little too soft at low speeds. Rear visibility, especially with those curtains and tiny mirror, is worse than most vans and it’s hard enough to place the front corners, never mind the rears. Other than that, this ’62 is utterly glorious and was certainly the car I most wanted to take home…
1971 Cadillac Superior hearse
“Through my American Dreams website I got a call wanting a 1971 Cadillac hearse for a television production,” remembers Russell. “Obviously, that was a very specific request. There was one Cadillac hearse on eBay, incredibly it was a ’71 Superior and only 30 miles away! It’s come in handy –Ihelped my daughter move house with it and moved my elderly parents into a retirement home. They thought it was hysterical; the other residents were less amused.”
It was lowered and painted matt black when imported into the UK by a film company, and they’d welded a big cross on the hood. “It’s not valuable and not pretty so I keep getting the urge to customise it, maybe fit a blower through the bonnet and roof chop it. It might also become a rolling advert for the business. It’s absolutely horrendous on fuel, but has been totally reliable. Mechanically, it’s perfect and it drives beautifully.”
1963 Ford C600 flatbed truck
Oddly, this is one of Russell’s favourites. “I really enjoy driving it. There’s no power-steering or -brakes and a manual gearbox so you have to put some effort and brute force in, but, with that transporter body, it’s very handy to own when you’re always buying new project cars or picking up existing ones when they go wrong.” The engine isa4.9-litre straight-six petrol, with a four-speed ’box, while the interior is retrimmed in yellow and black vinyl.
“A friend bought it in the States and drove it 3000 miles before bringing it to the UK. We wanted something for moving cars that was in-keeping with the rest of the collection and fun to drive to shows.” Sadly, on a trip to Kings Lynn to collect a ‘48 Ford convertible, Russell was forced to put the C600 12-foot down into a drainage ditch to avoid a car that pulled out without warning.
“My friend Stewart and I were okay but shaken. Our phones both went into the water flooding into the passenger footwell and we were stranded in the middle of nowhere with no means of communication. Pulling the truck out of the ditch cost £600. There was damage on the body, the indicator and mirrors were smashed and water filled the engine as it sank further. But it’s sorted now and better than ever. Considering Ford built these trucks for 33 years until 1990, it’s surprisingly hard to source parts, though I did eventually find a specialist. It’s a great vehicle, all the lorry drivers love it and you get thumbs up from loads of car owners too.”
1958 Chevrolet 3800 Apache wrecker
“It’s noisy and ratty, but we absolutely adore it,” is the verdict since the guys recently got this 1958 Apache working again. “We totally rebuilt and fitted a newer 350cu in V8,” says Russell, “and repaired the Power Take Off that connects the driveshaft to the mechanism controlling the crane winch. A seal had blown and someone had clearly spent ages filling the gap with mastic.
Once we removed the mastic, I pulled the tatty seal out, took it to a place locally and got a new one for £2…“I’d like to find all the straps and stuff for the rear end, I’m not sure we would ever tow cars with it, but I just like all my vehicles to work properly as they were built to.”
1967 Mustang fastback
“I bought it in 2012 on the Wheeler Dealers TV show. I half own it with my son Adam,” explains Russell. “He’s Mustang mad and saw it advertised as a Bullitt-style car so we got in touch and found out it was going to be for sale on the programme when finished. Six weeks later it was painted in Highland Green. I was able to talk with Paul – the on-set mechanic who does most of the restoration work − and he talked me through what was done. Sadly, because of a change in filming dates, Adam wasn’t able to accompany me to the set on the day when they filmed me buying the car, which was a real shame.”
1962 Cadillac Coupe
Another Wheeler Dealers car − although this Cadillac was bought at auction. “I hated it when I first saw the show,” laughs Russell. “I didn’t like the Sugar Apple Green colour and I’m not a fan of white interiors or modifications. I went along to the Brooklands Auction really to see just how much I disliked the car in the flesh. Oddly, when I saw it, my opinion totally changed and I started to appreciate it, so when bidding started at just £500 I joined in, eventually winning the car. It had been finished six months earlier, then barely driven. In fact, I think the dealer who bought it left it outside throughout winter 2013, which obviously wasn’t good for a freshly painted and renovated car. I’ve sorted out most of the problem areas that this caused and it’s now pretty much okay.
“It gets more attention than anything else I own and loads of people recognise it, so a 10-minute journey usually takes an hour. It’s a real Marmite car and I can understand both sides, but way more people love it than hate it. With the Air Ride suspension set low it corners like it’s on rails and completely flat – there’s no body roll. I like to drive it low enough that it needs raising for speed bumps. Like an idiot I recently forgot to raise it going over one of those vicious little ones − which shattered the driver’s side exhaust manifold.”
1971 Pontiac Trans Am
“This is a rare 455 HO with the M-22 ‘Rockcrusher’ four-speed. It belonged to my friend Mat, and I’d offered to store it for him. I was reunited with an old friend, Colin Shepherd, who had a white Pontiac Bonneville on the Classic American stand at the NEC in 2016 and it turned out the Pontiac used to belong to him – it’s a small world! It’s in beautiful condition and is stunningly fast. It has huge torque, so easily pulls away in fourth gear. Muscle cars aren’t my thing though, so it could be for sale if the right offer comes in.”
1952 Buick Eight Special
“This was sat in a tiny garage two minutes from my daughter’s house for 25 years and I never knew until one day I drove past and the garage door was open,” explains Russell. “The owner had died and his brother was clearing out his stuff. We bought the Buick to fix up and sell on, but being so original it’s really grown on us. Despite 25 years of storage, it was surprisingly easy to re-commission and the three-speed manual transmission and straight-eight engine are a great combination.
“These engines have a reputation for lack of water flow due to rust particles and debris blocking the waterways at the rear of the block, so we rebuilt the head and the radiator, then blast-cleaned the block. Now it runs like a dream. We’ll likely go through and sympathetically restore it, replacing only what it really needs.”
And finally, not forgetting that beautiful 1941 Cadillac we mentioned at the beginning. “It’s a Series 63 and I found it on eBay in October 2013,” remembers Russell. “I was impressed with how well it drove, I still am – it’s a lovely car to drive. I recently did more than 600 miles in one day and it didn’t miss a beat.
“The heater is amazing, it works off the water temperature of the engine. You set the dial for the temperature you want and it pumps hot water into radiators under the seats, then fans blow the heat upward. When it reaches the desired temperature the thermostat shuts, and starts the system up again when the temperature cools.
“It’s completely standard and retains the 6v electrics – if anyone knows where to buy a 6v jump starter pack please let me know; I prefer not to use the 12v one on it. I’ve put new gaskets on the engine since these sidevalve flathead V8s have a reputation for blowing them. I also did some brake work, propshaft U/Js, wheel bearings and repaired the wipers.
“It will sit comfortably at 90mph and I enjoy driving it the most of all my Cadillacs. It’s an absolute joy to own and, being such Art Deco elegance, it gets a completely different reaction to the 1950s cars.”
But wait, there’s more!
In addition to the cars shown here, Russell has plenty of others, from a 1948 Ford ‘White Lightning’ Grease replica to an ’81 Lincoln Mark VI Continental. Or a 1949 Mercury Sedan, 1955 Chevy 210 wagon and any number of classic Jaguars, Porsches and Ferraris.
“We get enquiries for everything American; concours classics, big rigs, bikes and original cars, which are usually the hardest to find; especially those from the Eighties. We recently did a wedding with a 1968 Dodge Dart drag car so we try to have something for everyone. If we don’t have it, given enough time, we can almost certainly source one.”
To enquire about hiring owner-driven vehicles from American Dreams visit www.americandreams.co.uk If you’d like to add your American vehicle to the website, it’s www.americandreams.co.uk/add-your-vehicle All American cars are welcome, irrespective of make, model, style or condition.
You can leave a message by calling 0800 848 8032 (24- hour answerphone) or call Russell direct on 07973 307928.
Words: Mike Renaut Photography: Matt Richardson/Mike Renaut