Restored 'Duchess' 1941 Cadillac special sedan to be offered by RM Auctions

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One of the most mesmerizing Cadillac photos included in my book "Cadillac: 100 Years of Innovation" written for General Motors shows a 1941 Cadillac sedan with Series 60-style door window frames, flow-through fenders as found on 1942-and-later Buicks and tastefully absent brightwork. This unique Cadillac built for the Duke of Windsor was nicknamed "Duchess" and was long thought to have disappeared until it reappeared several years ago in the Cadillac & LaSalle Club's publication The Self-Starter. Images in the publication showed the car to be weathered, but not beyond hope. Now, just a few short years later, the car is back to its original splendor, and it could be delivered to you exactly where the Duke of Windsor received it himself.

On Nov. 21, RM Auctions' and Sotheby’s Art of the Automobile sale in New York City will feature this special European-influenced Cadillac built for British royalty and delivered to his highness at the Waldorf. It is expected to bring a king's ransom, too: pre-sale estimates place the car at $500,000-800,000. By comparison, production 1941 Cadillacs, which are already sought after, rarely fetch more than $100,000.

In Cadillac circles, the 1941 Cadillac special sedan built for the Duke and Duchess of York and nicknamed "Duchess" is considered one of the most beautiful cars from a pinnacle year in Cadillac design.

In Cadillac circles, the 1941 Cadillac special sedan built for the Duke and Duchess of York and nicknamed "Duchess" is considered one of the most beautiful cars from a pinnacle year in Cadillac design.

RM Auctions has done its homework on the car, and it's worth sharing:

One of the most famous and iconic cars of both American and English society, a 1941 Cadillac Custom Limousine that was designed for the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, will be offered at RM Auctions and Sotheby’s exclusive Art of the Automobile sale.... Affectionately known as “The Duchess,” the Cadillac was a bespoke order to provide the Duke and Duchess of Windsor with luxury transportation during their periods of residence in New York, and it is a car that became a regular feature in press images and newsreels of the time.

This stunning automobile is one of the most famous Cadillacs ever produced, and it exudes an air of luxury and exclusivity, befitting of its original owners and their tastes. The Cadillac is understated and decidedly European in its elegance, from the limited use of chrome to the Windsor “W.E.” monogram and crown on the door. This streamlined styling by the designers at General Motors, then under the purview of the legendary Harley Earl and on a direct order from GM Chairman and CEO Alfred P. Sloan, would foreshadow American and English designs of years to come.

The 1941 Cadillac Duchess special sedan in restored condition.

The 1941 Cadillac Duchess special sedan in restored condition. (Art Meripol photo)

The story of King Edward Vlll and his abdication from the British throne is one of the most fascinating and enduring of all love stories, and it was an episode that rocked the British constitution and society at the time. The King publicly announced, “You must believe me when I tell you, that I have found it impossible to carry the heavy burden of responsibility, and to discharge my duties as King, as I would wish to do, without the help and support of the woman I love.” The King’s love for American socialite Wallis Simpson would become one of the most famous romances of all time, and the abdication heralded the beginning of what was to become nearly a 40 year international jet-set existence for the newly named Duke and Duchess of Windsor.

The couple spent much of their time in New York, living in a suite at the Waldorf Towers on Park Avenue, and for 11 years, their beloved Cadillac, “The Duchess,” was with them. According to records, the Duke of Windsor paid an astonishing $14,000 for the masterwork of Art Deco design, an extravagant sum in 1941.

No single body panel on the Windsors’ car matched any other 1941 Cadillac. The hood, trunk, fenders, fender skirts, roof, and doors were all crafted by hand, and all of the interior appointments were hand-fitted. Inside, the car was upholstered entirely in rose-colored custom broadcloth, extending even to the headlining and sun visors. The floors were covered in Wilton wool carpet, custom-dyed to match and set against custom walnut finishes for the doors, cabinetry, and divider window. It was one of the first two Cadillacs to be equipped with power windows (the other being Alfred P. Sloan's personal car). They were fitted with satin privacy curtains that would roll away when not in use.

The interior of the Duchess is befitting a Cadillac and royalty.

The interior of the Duchess is befitting a Cadillac and royalty. (Art Meripol photo)

Additional special fixtures included four brushed stainless-steel jewelry cases, each lined in velvet, to carry the Duchess’ famous jewelry purchases and, for the Duke, no fewer than three cigar lighters and two ashtrays, along with a humidor and custom rack for his favored Sasieni pipes. As the Duke was a well-known enthusiast of automobiles, it was expected that he would take the wheel of the car on occasion. As a result, unusually for a limousine at the time, the front compartment was detailed to be as elegant and opulent as the rear, including its own radio, with a manually controlled roof-mounted antennae and buttons preset to New York City AM stations of the era.

Alain Squindo, Vice President, RM Auctions, says, “This Cadillac is an exceptionally important part of both automotive and social history, and it is particularly appropriate that the car should be offered for sale in New York, the city to which it was delivered new and in which it has not been seen in many years. From front to back and throughout the entire interior, it is a design statement unlike any other to come from Detroit in those years.”

Leslie Keno, Senior International Specialist from Sotheby’s, adds, “Much like the record-setting emerald-eyed panther bracelet sold at the final Sotheby’s auction of the Duke and Duchess’ collections, this Cadillac is the pinnacle of design. It is emblematic not only of the grace and elegance that characterized the couple, but it is a truly bespoke piece, befitting its regal owners.”

“The Duchess” comes to auction in outstanding, restored condition, and it is accompanied by copies of original historic photography from General Motors, press clippings, and newsreels of the era featuring the Windsors’ with their beloved Cadillac. Further confirming the car’s royal provenance is a copy of the 1952 New York State title, bearing the Duke’s signature, address at the Waldorf, and the car’s serial number.

Some 30 automobiles will go under the gavel at the Nov. 21 auction. As a prelude to the sale, an extraordinary exhibition that showcases the vehicles on offer will be held from Nov. 18–20 on the 10th floor galleries at Sotheby’s New York—a setting customarily reserved for the display of world-class works of art offered at Sotheby’s.

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