Touch of class on wheels: Salisbury man’s rare luxury Cadillac one of few left on road

Published 12:00 am Saturday, February 15, 2014

Most people think of the Chevy Bel Air as the iconic car of 1957.
But that same year, in a bid to take the luxury car crown from Lincoln, their rivals at Cadillac decided to go all-in.
In recent weeks, you might have seen an unusual car sitting in the showroom at Salisbury Motor Co. on West Innes Street: a big four-door Cadillac with a gleaming stainless-steel roof.
That car is a 1957 Series 70 Eldorado Brougham, owned by Tom Isenhour of Salisbury. He stored it temporarily at the dealership over the Christmas holidays.
Opening the door of his garage in Salisbury, Isenhour flips on the lights. The car is surrounded by ’50s memorabilia.
Isenhour is a collector. Many know him as a music lover whose home collection of bluegrass, folk and rock ‘n’ roll memorabilia is called the “Blues Rock Café.”
Out at his garage, the Cadillac is surrounded by vintage signs, plus a case that contains pictures, die-cast models and magazine ads for that year’s models.
There’s also a thick ring binder full of documentation on the car and its accessories, and trophies from shows where the car has won.
It’s a rare breed. “They only made 400 of these the first year,” Isenhour said, gesturing to the car.
Just more than 200 exist today, and not all of those are driveable.
Part of the reason for the small number was the cost of the car.
The car’s accessories, and its luxury interior features, were meant to compete with not only the Lincoln Continental — the car of choice for Elvis Presley and others — but with the Rolls Royce Silver Cloud.
Hand-assembled, with top-of-the-line luxury fittings, the car retailed for $13,074.
That’s the equivalent of more than $108,000 in today’s money.
“To put that in perspective, a loaded-down, four door ’57 Fleetwood would have been around $4,000,” Isenhour said.
The ’57 Eldorado Brougham cost more than the Rolls, and more than a Bentley, Isenhour said.
Cadillac’s four-door car has unique features that Isenhour said were designed, in part, by the team that worked on that year’s Corvette.
The car’s hand-finished features range from leather seats to lambskin carpets.
Also, some features that drivers take for granted today were cutting-edge technology in ’57.
Dials on the inside of the door allow drivers to select one of two positions for the power seats.
The seats would “remember” the adjustments and move automatically.
A big “electronic eye” on the dashboard controlled the auto-dimming headlights — and, Isenhour said, the car was the first to have dual-lamp high and low beams.
Separate backseat heaters were also included.
One feature you won’t find on a car today, for safety reasons, is the automatic, motorized trunk lid — designed, Isenhour said, for drivers who didn’t want to get out when their groceries were being loaded at the store.
Not only would it open automatically, he said, but at a push of a button, it would close.
The problem? No safety sensors were there in case something, or somebody, was in the way.
“If the grocery boy wasn’t fast enough, he’d be in trouble,” Isenhour said.
The car’s tail fins and unique grille, functioning air-vents and all-over chrome trim, were hallmarks of fifties style.
“The only way they came was loaded,” Isenhour said.
Under the hood, dual four-barrel carburetors and a “batwing” oil bath filter connect to the 365-cubic-inch V8 motor.
And with all those accessories burning electricity, Isenhour said, “it took a generator off a Cadillac ambulance to run it.”
“The only kinds of people who could afford a car like this in ’57 were Frank Sinatra, Bob Hope or Mr. Briggs of Briggs and Stratton,” Isenhour said.
In a bid to make their mark with the luxury market, Cadillac put some luxury accessories into their car, many of them geared toward women they expected to be riding in them.
Included with the car were a plastic case for holding a pack of cigarettes, as well as a notebook and Cross pen set.
Isenhour folded down the glove compartment door to form a metal tray, and gingerly pulled out a plastic case.
Inside were six gleaming stainless-steel shot glasses, with magnetized bases.
“You’d pour your shot of liquor into here, and it would stay put,” Isenhour said, as each of the six cups stuck to the glove box lid with a magnetic click.
Needless to say, this was in the days before “open container” laws and DWI checkpoints.
It was also the days when women of class would often smoke, and so one of the accessories was a combination cigarette case and makeup case, with colors to coordinate with the car’s interior.
Inside were a powder-puff, a mirror, a lipstick case and a holder for nickels for making phone calls on the road.
Also included was a bottle of Lanvin Arpčge perfume – the full-strength perfume oil, which still gave off a sweet scent from its vintage bottle as Isenhour held it up to the light.
For storage in the backseat armrest, Isenhour said, Cadillac provided a special atomizing bottle that’s very hard to find today.
In fact, Isenhour said when he bought his ’57 Brougham at Great Gatsby’s Antiques and Auctions in Atlanta, some of the original accessories had disappeared.
He went on eBay to find individual items, some of which sell today for thousands of dollars.
Needless to say, he doesn’t store them in the car, but keeps them locked up elsewhere.
“These accessories, I could easily sell for $10,000 as a set,” he said.
Today, the car itself is a rare find.
Although it sat up at Salisbury Motor Co. over the holidays while he rearranged things at his garage, the car isn’t for sale.
Still, Isenhour said, “If you would roll it through Barrett Jackson” — a well-known collector car auction — “it would start at $100,000 and go up.”
Part of the reason for the car’s rarity is that, unlike more popular models from that decade, “you can’t get parts for this,” Isenhour said.
“So when you get into collecting (cars), you better know what you’re doing,” he said.
In the case of this Cadillac, “I bought it as a daily driver, and when I went to pick it up, it wouldn’t start.” Isenhour said.
He had to clean out the fuel lines before he could get it running.
Today, Isenhour said, he’ll take the Cadillac out for short rides. He doesn’t like to get it too far away from Salisbury, in case of mechanical problems. This isn’t a car you would just hook up to a tow truck, if something did break down.
Instead, it’s a car that inspires a lot of talk, and a lot of imagination about the luxurious styles of yesteryear.
Contact Hugh Fisher via the editor’s desk at 704-797-4244.