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Driving a '54 Cadillac to Amelia Island

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Driving a '54 Cadillac to Amelia Island

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Starting out for Mexico, but ending up in Florida

By Steven Cole Smith Email

Date posted: 04-26-2007

It's impossible to believe that anyone ever raced the length of Mexico in a 1954 Cadillac Series 62 like this, hammering down narrow asphalt roads in the middle of nowhere at 100 mph, dodging small children and dogs in little villages over the course of 1,908 miles in five days. That's because we can barely back it out of its tight parking spot on the top floor of the concrete garage at the Charlotte-Douglas International Airport.

We go back and forth, back and forth, back and forth, inching out of our spot, the V8 engine blatting through its exhaust, and we're thinking it was a good thing that in 1954 Cadillac became the first company to ever offer power steering as standard equipment. This two-door Caddy is 223.2 inches long, which is even longer than the Cadillac Escalade ESV.

We can't believe we're going to drive this monster across a couple of states to the Amelia Island Concours d'Elegance. At least in Mexico back in 1954, there wasn't so much expensive stuff around to smack into.

Against all odds, or some of them, anyway
There are some folks at General Motors who are in charge of the GM Heritage collection, some 700 cars that include concept cars and significant models in corporate history. This 1954 Cadillac Series 62 had been a largely overlooked part of the collection when it called out to the GM guys and spoke to them, saying, "Hey, turn me into something nice, and get me back on the road."

It so happens that in 1954, a largely unsponsored racing team fielded by a group calling themselves "five ordinary guys from Colorado" did something extraordinary. They borrowed a new '54 Caddy Series 62 coupe from Barry Motor Sales in Colorado Springs, Colorado, took it down to Mexico, and then raced it in the brutal 1,908-mile, five-day La Carrera Panamericana. Many of the teams were considerably better funded, such as the factory team that showed up with 28 mechanics, a doctor, a cook, a public relations man, two photographers and four cars. The Five Ordinary Guys had their work cut out for them.

But they stunned the competition when they finished 3rd in class (11th overall), less than 3 minutes behind the class winner. The Cadillac even won the two final stages on the open plain leading to the finish line near the Texas border, averaging over 115 mph for the final 410 miles.

The driver was racer Keith Andrews, a midget-racing champion from Colorado Springs who went on to race in the Indianapolis 500 in 1955 and 1956, and then was killed at the Speedway in 1957 during practice. Wilson McClure, the lead mechanic, died in 2005. But Blu Plemons, the co-driver and navigator, is still with us, living in Denver. As for what eventually became of the car, who knows?

And this '54 Caddy, sitting in storage at GM's proving grounds in Michigan, looked just like the old racecar — soft white with a black top. So GM Heritage decided to re-create a footnote to the company's racing history.

Another bulletin from the fun-filled legal profession
The idea was to enter the car in last year's annual revival of La Carrera Panamericana, something that's been going on since 1988. At the starting line in Oaxaca, Mexico, Blu Plemons was supposed to be reunited with the replica of the car that he and Andrews raced 52 years before. But apparently GM lawyers got wind of the plans, and did what lawyers are paid to do.

So Plan B became a tour to the 12th Annual Amelia Island Concours, held just north of Jacksonville, Florida, an event that organizer Bill Warner has made a showcase for historic competition cars. The 2007 edition would celebrate the classic over-the-road sports car races, like the La Carrera Panamericana, Mille Miglia and Targa Florio. Herschel McGriff, who won the original Carrera Panamericana in 1950, would even be there.

Since this Series 62 had originally been prepared for the annual revival of La Carrera Panamericana, the GM people weren't so particular about the car's original mechanical specification, especially where durability and safety were concerned. So they substituted a 1961 vintage 398-cubic-inch pushrod V8 for the original 331-cid pushrod V8. Plenty of hot-rod items were added, including a hot camshaft, twin four-barrel Edelbrock carbs (replacing the single four-barrel), an aluminum radiator and a modern automatic transmission. The bottom line proved to be 375 horsepower versus the original 270.

"We made updates that would enhance the vehicle and occupant safety, but maintain the original design intent," says Al Oppenheiser, GM Performance Division director of concept vehicle engineering. "We kept the project in-house utilizing the Performance Division Garage, the preproduction trim shop and the showcar paint team."

No leaded gas? No problem

Instead of hauling the Caddy to Florida by truck, Cadillac drops it at the Charlotte airport and invites us to be a part of a group that will drive the 450 miles to Amelia Island. It is to the credit of the restoration team that the most serious obstacle we encounter in our three-day trip turns out to be negotiating the airport parking lot. The car runs like, well, a Cadillac. Aside from a little engine detonation, the V8 runs happily on pump gas, never stalling during the 170-odd miles we put on the odometer. Or would put on the odometer, if the odometer worked.

During our first stint, the speedometer needle swings lazily between 40 and 90 mph, then soon drops to zero for good. We drive what seems like 70 mph, and the Interstate mile markers come up every 50 seconds or so according to our wristwatch. Later we run 80 mph with some new Cadillacs that serve as chase cars, and the '54 Caddy acts as though it will run 80 mph all day long. And it pretty much does.

Inside, the enormous bench seat is like a church pew, and the aftermarket seatbelts are the only thing to hold you in place in the corners. The huge schooner-sized black-and-white steering wheel is a legitimate work of art. We never try the AM radio, because we're getting so much wind noise. Actually, the burble of a happy V8 is accompaniment enough.

Though there's plenty of play in the steering, it's not hard to keep it on center. The huge Series 62 weighs in at 4,340 pounds, but it's far lighter on its feet than you'd imagine. Chassis stiffness is remarkable, although the welded-in roll cage probably has a lot to do with it. The hydraulically boosted brakes are very strange, though. When the engine isn't running, the pedal goes to the floor. When the engine comes to life, the pedal is fine.

It would be nice to have some drama to recount, but there just isn't much, aside from the near-crashes we witness as multiple motorists perform neck-snapping double-takes. On the way out of Charlotte, one woman pulls alongside in her Acura MDX, looks us over closely and gives us the nicest smile. Yes, we think, she gets it.

Alert the media
On Friday, we arrive at the front door of the Ritz-Carlton at Amelia Island amid Rolls-Royces, Bentleys and Lamborghinis, and we park in one of the glamorous display spots out front that usually costs $700 per day. On Sunday, the Series 62 is displayed on the Ritz's impossibly green golf course as a part of the concours.

But on Saturday, this little-known piece of Cadillac history is the center of a display in the Ritz's main ballroom, surrounded by about 1,000 guests gathered to hear the greatest endurance drivers in the world speak, including Vic Elford, John Fitch, Stirling Moss and John Surtees.

Like the drivers at Amelia Island that day, the '54 Cadillac Series 62 is a pretty nice reminder of grand adventures from another time. Edited by big blue
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Now that would be fun and very cool. This is when a car was well a car.

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No one but me cares, but as Amateur Caretaker for the Automotive Past...

So they substituted a 1961 vintage 398-cubic-inch pushrod V8 for the original 331-cid pushrod V8. Plenty of hot-rod items were added, including a hot camshaft, twin four-barrel Edelbrock carbs (replacing the single four-barrel), an aluminum radiator and a modern automatic transmission. The bottom line proved to be 375 horsepower versus the original 270.

1961 Cadillacs were powered by 325 HP 390 CI V-8s. No such animal as a 398 American V-8, tho a .030 overbore of the 390 would equal 396 CI. I doubt they were getting that specific, but even if so, they're still wrong.

>>"happily on pump gas, never stalling...

Caddy acts as though it will run 80 mph all day long. And it pretty much does...

it's not hard to keep it on center...

Chassis stiffness is remarkable..."<<

Always with an undertone of 'I thought this would be impossible; it's OLD for chrissakes!'

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No one but me cares, but as Amateur Caretaker for the Automotive Past...

1961 Cadillacs were powered by 325 HP 390 CI V-8s. No such animal as a 398 American V-8, tho a .030 overbore of the 390 would equal 396 CI. I doubt they were getting that specific, but even if so, they're still wrong.

>>"happily on pump gas, never stalling...

Caddy acts as though it will run 80 mph all day long. And it pretty much does...

it's not hard to keep it on center...

Chassis stiffness is remarkable..."<<

Always with an undertone of 'I thought this would be impossible; it's OLD for chrissakes!'

Honestly I probably would be thinking the same thing about the Caddy if I had never driven one of that era before(and I haven't).
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