1918 ‘Liberty Cadillac’ lives on


During World War I, Cadillacs, Dodges and other passenger cars were pressed into service. Until recently, it was believed that no Cadillacs used by the U.S. Army in World War I survived.

That was until a 1918 Cadillac Type 57 touring car, serial number 57-A-704, was retrieved from a Spokane, Wash., storage facility a few years ago and its history was unraveled. The military history of the Cadillac was not only verified, but the car was found to be among the first American passenger cars to be used by Americans to aid the United States and Allies Forces in World War I.

When it was found, Cadillac number 57-A-704 was in largely unrestored condition with an old, single overcoat of OD (ordinance) green paint over a primary coat of OD green paint with military markings still in place. The man who owned the car in Spokane had acquired it in a trade for a metal building a decade or so earlier. The Cadillac had previously belonged to a military vehicle collector and lifetime member of the Military Vehicle Preservation Society. The man from Spokane that received the Cadillac put it away and planned to restore it later, but never touched the car. For 70 years, the car remained untouched, waiting for its history to be uncovered.

Recently, research was undertaken on the subject of the Cadillac’s relationship with the military, due to its unusual paint scheme. Some digging revealed that Cadillacs were being used, and modified, by the military as early as 1904 — some in the form of fully armored cars with Colt machine guns mounted on top. General Black Jack Pershing had Cadillacs and Dodges in Texas in 1916 while fighting Pancho Villa in the border war with Mexico.

Cadillac number 57-A-704 is very likely the first Cadillac used in official capacity by the American Expeditionary Forces (AEF) on French soil. It arrived with its original owner in Brest, France, in August 1917.

Historic names and a historic car

Cadillac 57-A-704 was shipped from the Cadillac plant on July 31, 1917. It went to the Uppercu Cadillac Distributor in New York City (the largest in the East), and was originally ordered by John Hopkins Denison, who took delivery on Aug. 9. Denison was the grandson of the famous Mark Hopkins, who was president of Williams College for 40 years and became known affectionately as “The Great Educator.” John Hopkins Denison also found fame as the author of a number of books including “Emotions as the basis for Civilization” “The Enlargement of Personality” and “Emotional Currents in American History.”

J.H. Denison was, to say the least, a patriot to the American cause. Photos prove he traveled to France with Cadillac 57-A-704 in the official employ of the AEF-YMCA. His record with this organization puts him in the earliest group of men to have traveled to France during World War I, and it appears he moved among the top brass of the AEF. He started the first embarkation station in France, where more than 750,000 American GI’s eventually arrived. Denison arrived before the first American troops and he and the Cadillac were still in France after the soldiers left in 1919. Denison and his Cadillac were also present at the Second and Third Battles of the Marne while Americans were still fighting alongside French troops. The Second Battle of the Marne was the first major battle involving AEF and where more than 33,000 Americans lost their lives.

Denison went on to drive  Theodore Roosevelt Jr.’s wife, Eleanor (not to be confused with Franklin Roosevelt’s wife of the same name), around France in the Cadillac from September through November of 1918.

No rest for the Cadillac
Mrs. Roosevelt was the first American woman sent abroad for war service by the YMCA and reached Paris only a few weeks after Pershing. She had a French class for Americans in those far-off days when most of the pupils were ambulance drivers, because so few soldiers had arrived. Then, when Mrs. Roosevelt had been about six months in France, came the army order creating “leave area” for the men.

It was creation pure and simple: nothing of this sort had ever been done before in any army. The American soldiers, it was decided, ought to have leave areas. That was the Army plan, and that was as far as the army’s “general order” went. Execution of the order was turned over to the YMCA, and the YMCA turned over much of the work Eleanor Roosevelt.

Denison and Mrs. Roosevelt drove Cadillac 57-A-704 to French casinos and resorts and rented them for American troops as places for rest and relaxation. 

Mrs. Roosevelt referenced the Cadillac in her 1959 autobiography, stating, “We went in luxury in a big open Cadillac touring car belonging to Dr. J.H. Denison, a lame clergyman who had turned it over to the YMCA with his services as driver. Our job was to select suitable places from a list given to us by the Paris office, preferably resort towns, and to make advance arrangements by renting casinos and inspecting possible hotel accommodation’s for the troops.”

There is a photograph of the Cadillac from this time period with what looks to be Denison sitting behind the wheel, in uniform, watching the first organized AEF baseball game in history, held at Aix-les-Bains in March 1918.

Why Cadillac?
The U.S. government conducted an official test among vehicles in July 1917, less than two weeks prior to the build date of the Cadillac, at an air field in Marfa, Texas, along the Mexican border. The tests were the result of Pershing’s experience in the border war. While Pershing had Cadillacs in his fleet, he also had a large fleet of trucks in action. It was the first time the U.S. went to war on the ground using mechanized vehicles instead of horses and mules. This was very problematic from a mechanic’s or engineer’s standpoint. As there were no standards for procurement in 1916, Pershing ended up with many different makes of truck, and no military mechanics. He literally had millions of truck parts and no interchangeability.

When Pershing returned to Washington, he reported his problems, and by 1917, the Liberty Truck, as it would be known, would be designed so that all truck builders could build the same truck with interchangeable parts.

The government test, in July 1917, proceeded to run various cars across the desert for 2,000 miles. The Cadillac touring car finished the test, and then continued on for another 5,000 miles after the test, in the heat of July 1917. It performed almost perfectly. One 30-cent fan spring and 1 1/2 gallons of water were added during the test. The Cadillacs, a seven-passenger touring car and a sedan, were then chosen by the government as the vehicles for military officers.

When Cadillac started delivering the cars for military use, they were shipped from the factory in pieces within crates, and were assembled after shipping. There were approximately 2,000 of the cars shipped by the war’s end, and they carried an “M” in their identification numbers.

In early 1917, blue was still the official color for all military vehicles in the U.S. Army. The military changed from blue to OD green during the war. According to Army Motors, published by the Military Vehicle Preservation Society, there were no established standards for procuring motor cars for the army at first, and officers bought whatever they desired. In September 1917, the first reference to standards for number and painting motor vehicles is found as a General Order from Pershing. This order required that all vehicles be painted OD green. Prior to green, blue and gray and gray were required, colors dating back to the Civil War.

Cadillac 57-A-704 was originally blue, but was clearly painted OD green more than 50 years ago.

Cadillac 57-A-704 enters the battle
Cadillac 57-A-704, a seven-passenger touring car, was delivered to Detroit Cadillac Motor Car Co., a distributorship owned by Ingles M. Uppercu. Most military ordinances and everything military related, including the men, left from New York City bound for France. The Cadillac was tested and approved by the military in Marfa, Texas. Within a week or so, Cadillac 57-A-704 was built and delivered to Ingles Uppercu, who, in addition to owning the largest Cadillac distributor on the East Coast, also owned the Aeromarine Plane and Motor Co. This company had been building airplanes and motors since 1914 under that name. It just so happened that Uppercu’s Aeromarine Co. had received a major military contract to provide airplanes and liberty engines to the military at the outset of the war, which started for the U.S. on April 8, 1917. Uppercu was playing a major role in the Allied war effort himself.

As things turned out, 57-A-704 turned out to be one of the earliest examples of American output directed towards the war effort on French soil, most likely before the first military-designated Cadillac touring cars even rolled off the assembly line with their M-code VIN numbers.

As it stands, the 57-A-704 is an untouched survivor car. There is a bullet hole next to the hood on the driver’s side. This happened sometime prior to the second coat of OD green paint, which is at least 50 years old now. The hole is at the base of the hood, next to the latch, near the driver’s feet, and angling down steeply.

If the hole is from the war, it would seem logical that a shooter would be leading the driver, and a miss would hit there. Or, the car might have been strafed from the air, explaining the steep trajectory.

As Denison was present for only one major battle, it is likely the bullet hole would have been sustained in the Second or Third Battle of the Marne.

The layers of paint on the car are black primer, OD green with military markings and the second overcoat of OD green. The second coat of OD green has been protecting the military markings on the original coat, which include the Air Service Star on both sides between the doors; USA #33863 on hood and rear of car; and “For Official Use Only” on the front doors. The military markings would not have been painted on the car until after it was delivered to the military ordinance depot, and they would have been updated as necessary by the military. For example, on the front doors it says, “For Official Use Only.” This phrase was not stenciled on military vehicles until 1919.

After the war, 57-A-704, known by its ordinance number of 33863, continued to live its life in OD green. Where it was stationed after World War I is unknown. It stayed in the service for almost 20 years before it was finally retired and sold from surplus in Southern California on January 1, 1936. On that day, the first civilian owner took possession, a Major M.C. Bradley. The original California registration papers are intact. Original title information from California states that Bradley took possession of the car on January 1, 1936. M.C. Bradley entered the National Guard at Los Angeles in 1925, as captain, and was assigned to the Los Angeles headquarters of the 160th. The National Guard Headquarters gave M.C. Bradley access to the surplus ordinance that he would collect with great vigor. His eventually assembled one of the world’s greatest and earliest WWI collections, which included airplanes, tanks, liberty trucks, ambulances, motorcycles, uniforms, and Cadillac #33863.

He kept the collection at 220 Victory Blvd. in Burbank, Ca. The car remained at that location for decades, and today is believed to be the only “survivor” condition example known in the world.

For book excerpts and more photos of the “Liberty Cadillac,” go to Liberty Cadillac.com.

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