Old Cars Weekly archive – October 2, 2008 issue
A Rajah Silver 1958 Eldorado restored for golden anniversaries
Diamonds honor 75th anniversaries, gold is offered at 50th anniversaries and silver is given at 25th anniversaries. But Dr. Frederick Prehn’s 1958 Cadillac Eldorado Biarritz could turn these traditions around. His 50-year-old Rajah Silver Eldorado is a car of many anniversaries, and offers a valid reason to make silver (Rajah Silver, to be specific) represent 50th anniversary milestones, at least when it comes to Cadillacs.
Prehn completed the restoration of his 50-year-old Biarritz just in time for the Cadillac LaSalle Club’s 2008 meet in Cherry Hill, N.J., which celebrated the 50th anniversary of the club. As 2008 also marks the 100th anniversary of General Motors, officials from GM were present at the club’s anniversary meet, and they awarded Prehn’s car a special GM Heritage Museum 100th Anniversary Award to help mark the company’s centennial. According to Prehn, the company wanted each division to find a vehicle that exemplifies the mantra of each division. (In Cadillac’s case “life, liberty and the pursuit.”) It was the first time the award was given to a private party, and GM does not expect to give out the award to a private party again.
Prehn’s journey with Cadillacs started in the early 1970s, when he was in dentistry school. At that time, Prehn hadn’t given much thought to building a collection of anything, let alone Cadillacs. However, his grandfather was there to help him down a path that would lead to acquiring examples of GM’s top-of-the-line marque, and eventually restoring one of Cadillac’s top offerings from 1958.
As a young man, Prehn drove his grandfather’s blue 1972 Eldorado coupe whenever the elder Prehn wanted to go for a ride. The two built a special grandfather-grandson bond in the front seat of that Eldorado, and when his grandfather passed away, Prehn inherited the Cadillac. But with that 1972 Eldorado, Prehn nearly veered off the path to restoration.
“I almost cut the top off and made it a convertible as I wanted a ragtop bad,” said Prehn of his brush with customization. Luckily, he decided to keep his grandfather’s Eldorado in stock condition, and to satisfy his urge for a convertible, he later acquired a 1976 Eldorado built by the factory as a topless model. Those Eldorados are now joined by Cadillacs from as far back as the 1950s, as well as a 1929 LaSalle, and eventually the 1958 Eldorado Biarritz pictured here.
About the same time Prehn was in dentistry school and chauffeuring his grandfather in the 1972 Eldorado, a man in Pennsylvania acquired a Rajah Silver 1958 Eldorado Biarritz convertible from the original owner’s estate. The new owner intended to restore the car, but only went as far as to remove the front fenders. Then, for reasons unknown, he parked the car in a trailer where it remained until his death.
“It’s a good thing he stopped working on it, because it’s a complicated car,” Prehn said.
In 2006, Prehn decided his first nut-and-bolt restoration would be completed on a 1957 Eldorado Biarritz, the convertible Eldorado of that year and a companion to the Eldorado Seville two-door hardtop. The car Prehn anticipated purchasing would join his collection of already-restored cars, good originals and solid cars that needed only paint and re-chroming when purchased. Prehn contacted his friend, Marc Tuwiner, who convinced him that a 1958 Eldorado Biarritz might be a better choice, and that friend already had a car in mind.
“I was actually looking for a 1957 [Eldorado], my birth year, but I went with the 1958, because of its rarity,” Prehn said. A friend of Prehn’s said that a 1958 Eldorado might be the Holy Grail of Cadillacs, and upon studying the 1958 model’s quadruple headlamp arrangement, gold-anodized grille, additional chrome over the 1957 models and the rarity, Prehn went with the suggestion. (Cadillac built 1,800 Biarritzes and 2,100 Sevilles in 1957, versus 815 Biarritzes and 855 Sevilles in 1958.)
As it turned out, the 1958 Eldorado he purchased was built in November 1957, the same month and year Prehn was born. The acquisition was just the first step in what would be Prehn’s coincidentally perfect timing.
Getting the car restored in time to show it at the club’s 50th anniversary involved two solid years of work to produce the immaculate specimen he has today. The first step was conducting research, which included purchasing an authenticity manual from the Cadillac club and contacting the GM Heritage Center for the car’s build information. The build information taught him a lot about the Eldorado’s past, and also verified the story he had been told about the car.
The historical documentation verified the car’s November 1957 build date, and showed that the car was delivered to Powers Cadillac Inc. at 5900 Baum Boulevard in Pittsburgh, which correlated with the original key fob Prehn received with the car. The documents also showed his car is number 407 of only 815 convertible Eldorados built 50 years ago.
When found, the Eldorado’s front fenders were nearby and the car was rough with some rust. The doors to the trailer holding the car had not been opened for 34 years, which helped keep the car 90 percent complete. Even in pictures, Prehn knew he had found his restoration project and trusted Tuwiner to secure the Eldorado and bring it to Wausau, Wis. The excitement for the new project didn’t end when Prehn saw the car for the first time in his driveway, but it was joined by an overwhelming sensation when the reality of the project’s size set in. His wife thought he hadlost his mind.
Prehn didn’t waste any time experiencing frustration at the scope of the restoration and immediately began consulting restorers, including Jeff Dalton of Dalton Fabworks in Wausau, who agreed to take on the Eldorado. Prehn is a dentist by week, a cranberry farmer by weekend and full-time family man, so time to restore the Eldorado was not easy to come by. Prehn also isn’t a professional restorer, but he found plenty of ways to stay active in the Eldorado’s refurbishment.
“If there’s one thing I’d like others to know, is that, even if you write checks, you can still help restore a car,” Prehn said. “The car will have so much more attachment to you.”
Prehn took an active role in finding parts and vendors, rebuilding and cleaning small parts using his dental expertise and instruments and researching the car’s history.
While work was underway to remove body rust caused by Pennsylvania winters and the frame was completely disassembled for a nut-and-bolt restoration, Prehn toyed with the idea of repainting the Eldorado “auction red.” Many argued that the freshly plated chrome would not “pop” against a silver car, but since Prehn was able to document the car so thoroughly, and the car retained so many of its original components, he decided to closely restore the Eldorado to its build sheet, paint color and all. Now that the car is done, Prehn is glad he stuck with the original color, which is rarely seen on 1958 Eldorado Biarritz models today.
There’s a lot of chrome on the 1958 Cadillacs, which is not surprising since they were among the last cars built under GM’s biggest “chrome-aholic,” Harley Earl. Even the staff of Finishing Touches, the Chicago rechroming business that handled the brightwork restoration of Prehn’s Cadillac, was surprised at the amount of chrome on the Eldorado.
“The car hailed from the peak of Harley Earl’s chrome obsession, and it showed by the amount of hardware dismantled and laying on my garage floor,” Prehn said. But once the chrome was installed on the freshly painted Rajah Silver car, Prehn could not have been happier with the result.
The chrome had its own challenges, which included replating the aluminum sabre-spoke wheels. These beautiful wheels were standard on Eldorados and an option on all other Cadillacs except Series 75 models, and pitted examples are often a source of great trouble and expense to restorers. Prehn started with gold-anodized wheels, which do not pit nearly as bad as chrome-plated sabre-spoke wheels, but restoring the wheels still proved to be difficult. To restore these two-piece wheels, the rivets must be removed to separate the aluminum face of each wheel from its steel rim. Then, each part can be restored independently before re-assembling them. Further complications arise in chroming the area between the spokes of the aluminum face, where special plating equipment is used. Today, the sabre-spoke wheels on Prehn’s car are stunning.
“I wanted gold-anodized wheels, but I put my personal preference aside and for the sake of authenticity, I went with chrome,” Prehn said, as gold-anodized wheels were no longer installed by the factory in 1958.
Another standard Eldorado feature that provided difficulties during the restoration was getting the tri-carburetor setup on the 335-hp, 365-cid V-8 to work properly. Even worse was installing a factory air conditioner in place of the dealer-installed, Nova-brand air conditioning unit. Modifications to the dash panel had to be undertaken to install the factory-type air conditioning vents, and Prehn had to search high and low for all of the little parts, such as clamps, to complete the system, and then restore each component. It’s work Prehn says he would not complete again.
The same level of detail undertaken on the chrome and the engine compartment extended to the interior, which was fitted with a correct-style interior by Jenkins and installed by Ogden Top and Trim in Berwyn, Ill., but reassembly was a difficult task, even with great photos. In the end, Custom Cars, Inc., in Lagrange, Ill., helped meet the deadline of the club meet.
The new steering wheel, which wowed judges at the Cadillac LaSalle Club meet, was also a real task. Prehn found a business that restores steering wheels at the Barrett-Jackson auction in Scottsdale, and when he inquired about the restoration, the restorer firmly established his requirements.
“He’s such a perfectionist. He said, ‘I will not do it until you get me a nice one to make a mold of,’” Prehn said. Even after sending four steering wheels to the restorer, he was not happy. In desperation, the restorer told Prehn he’d experiment with vinyl to recreate the wrinkled pattern on the steering wheel’s 9 o’clock and 3 o’clock positions.
When Prehn brought his Eldorado to the Cadillac LaSalle Club meet this summer, he noticed that the first thing one of the judges did was feel the steering wheel for that pattern. Upon noting the presence of the wrinkled pattern, the judge turned to Prehn and asked, “How did you do that? This wears off after 10,000 miles of driving.”
The honors he received from GM and the recognition by the judge was enough to tell Prehn that all of the time and work was well worth it. Certainly, his grandfather would be proud.