Car of the Week: 1955 Cadillac Eldorado

1955 Cadillac Eldorado has been restored to "St. Moritz" show car specs
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Car of the Week 2020
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Of all the domestic and imported cars he’s collected and restored over the years, Rick Payton’s favorite is the 1955 Cadillac. The Eau Claire, Wis., enthusiast has two-door and four-door 1955 Cadillacs with a strong preference for the top-line 1955 Eldorado convertible, although he’s also owned and restored a 1956 Eldorado Biarritz. Most of his Eldorados were bought as challenging projects, and of the half-dozen that he restored to show condition, it was the third Eldorado that was the most challenging. That third Eldorado wasn’t necessarily rougher than the others, but it was built to be different than all of the “standard” 1955 Eldorados in existence.

“’55 Cadillacs are the best and Eldorados are the top of the heap, and the ‘St. Moritz’ is the top of that heap,” he says.

The St. Moritz as it was seen at the General Motors' Motorama show in 1955.

The "St. Moritz" as it was seen at the General Motors' Motorama show in 1955.

The “St. Moritz” that Payton referred to was a show car built by the GM Design Studio for the Cadillac exhibit at General Motors’ Motorama during 1955. In the early postwar years, all of GM’s divisions regularly built show cars for the corporation’s traveling shows, with occasional appearances at some of the industry’s all-make new-car shows. Some of the show cars were “dream cars” with completely unique design elements and innovative features that were too far out for production, but they caught the public’s attention and imagination.

Another set of GM show cars in this era were based on production cars with one-of-a-kind paint jobs, exterior trim, interior upholstery and hardware and the occasional addition of accessories not usually found in production cars. Cadillac identified its production-based show cars as “mood cars” for the 1956 Motorama, and that label has sometimes been retroactively used for GM’s earlier production-based show cars, such as the 1955 Cadillac Eldorado “St. Moritz.”

Of the three production-based Cadillac show cars built for the 1955 Motorama, only the “St. Moritz” was a convertible. The other two that year were a red Coupe deVille named “Celebrity” and modified with a red leather top and unique red upholstery, and a Fleetwood Sixty Special dubbed “Westchester” and painted a non-standard gold color. The “Westchester” was further modified with a black leather top and a special interior that incorporated a partition between the front and rear seats that was fitted with a telephone, tape recorder and even a 14-inch television. Special black mouton fur carpeted the floor of the “Westchester.”

In 1955, white Cadillac Eldorados had a red interior and trunk compartment. Since the “St. Moritz” had a unique white interior, its trunk compartment was finished in white to match the interior. The result is unique white panels and a mouton-carpeted floor.

In 1955, white Cadillac Eldorados had a red interior and trunk compartment. Since the “St. Moritz” had a unique white interior, its trunk compartment was finished in white to match the interior. The result is unique white panels and a mouton-carpeted floor.

The snowy yet posh Swiss Alpine resort town of St. Moritz offered the perfect name for Cadillac’s all-white 1955 Eldorado mood car. The car’s exterior was painted a special pearlescent white that harkened back to the 1950 “Debutante” convertible, an earlier Cadillac production-based show car displayed at GM’s 1950 Mid-Century Motorama. The “Debutante” also featured pearlescent paint, although in yellow, with its interior seat backs and side panels partially covered in leopard skins. Leopard pelts even covered the floor of the “Debutante.”

Perhaps in another nod to the 1950 Cadillac Series 62 “Debutante” convertible, the 1955 Eldorado “St. Moritz” interior was also fitted with animal hides. To warm its passengers on a cold Alpine night, the “St. Moritz” seat backs were covered in white ermine stitched to “pearlescent finished, white English grain leather,” according to a GM press release. “White mouton fur carpeting with brushed aluminum floor mat grids and aluminum treads bordered with white mouton complete the interior styling.” The press release also noted that the Eldorado “St. Moritz” carried a special vanity for passengers in its armrest.

A look from the rear of theCadillac.

A look from the rear of theCadillac.

Other than these features highlighted in the press release and shown in many surviving black-and-white photos of the car, the “St. Moritz” was a standard 1955 Eldorado, although there was little standard about that year’s Eldorado. It featured the first multi-carburetion setup offered on an overhead-valve Cadillac engine — a twin four-barrel carburetor setup that bumped up the Cadillac 331-cid V-8 used in all lines from 250 hp to 270 hp (the Eldorado’s standard 270-hp engine was optional in all other Cadillac models). Each Eldorado was also fitted with Sabre-spoke wheels, the industry’s first cast-aluminum wheels. To give the Eldorado a more unique appearance for 1955, Cadillac styled it with its own set of tailfins (another first). An Eldorado-only rear bumper complemented the model’s unique fins. A total of 3950 Eldorados were built for the 1955 model year at a base price of $6,286.

Given its stunning pearlescent paint scheme and its wild white fur-trimmed interior, the St. Moritz captured attention wherever it went, and it went far. As part of the Motorama tour in the United States, it appeared at the Waldorf-Astoria in New York from Jan. 20-25; Miami from Feb. 5-13; Los Angeles from March 5-13; San Francisco from March 26-April 3; and Boston from April 23- May 1.

The unique white interior of the “St. Moritz” show car was built to channel the snowy and posh Alpine town after which it was named.

The unique white interior of the “St. Moritz” show car was built to channel the snowy and posh Alpine town after which it was named.

While the car was in San Francisco, 8-year-old Dickie Livermore was drawn to the St. Moritz and eventually into its front seat, where he was photographed by a San Francisco Examiner staffer. Another surviving clipping from a 1955 newspaper suggests the “St. Moritz” continued to make appearances after the Motorama ended in May. This clipping is from an unknown newspaper dated July 30, 1955, and shows a factory photo of the 1955 Cadillac Eldorado Brougham dream car, but the photo’s caption refers to the “St. Moritz:” “The Cadillac ‘St. Moritz,’ ermine-trimmed luxury car that was a showpiece in the 1955 General Motors Motorama show, will be displayed Tuesday through Saturday at Metropolitan Cadillac, Inc., 304 E. State St.” Unfortunately, the city in which Metropolitan Cadillac was located is not known. What is also unknown is the fate of the “St. Moritz” after its apparent appearance at Metropolitan Cadillac, Inc. Like nearly all production-based GM show cars, and the Motorama itself, the “St. Moritz” disappeared into history. With its disappearance, memories of the “St. Moritz” have faded except among a few die-hard 1955 Cadillac fans such as Payton.

“She debuted at the Waldorf-Astoria in January 1955 and she was shown a couple of times and then disappeared,” he said. “It was either destroyed or put back as a factory car and sold, and I doubt [being sold] was the case. I think the car was destroyed, because GM, even back then on a show car, if they destroyed it, they got a full write-off on their taxes versus taking a loss on such an expensive car to build. So we believe [ours would] be the only ‘St. Moritz’ in existence.”

One of the most challenging parts of building this Eldorado into the “St. Moritz” was building a space for the Evans compact into the door panel.

One of the most challenging parts of building this Eldorado into the “St. Moritz” was building a space for the Evans compact into the door panel.

Knowing the “St. Moritz” was likely lost forever, in 2016 Payton began considering recreating the nearly forgotten show car when he learned his third 1955 Eldorado convertible had a lot in common with the original “St. Moritz.” Then he started floating the idea by his fellow Cadillac & LaSalle Club members who, like any good enabling car buddies, encouraged him to build what had been lost.

“We tried to find out what the actual VIN was for the ‘St. Moritz’ and it’s our understanding that three Eldorados were built early on, two of them were white cars with red interiors and one of those two was converted to the ‘St. Moritz’ by the GM Design Studio,” he said. “This car was also originally white with a red interior and has a low VIN, so we can’t say that it is the car, but it is within the right time frame that it could have been and that is what started it along and got us researching the car at GM.”

Payton had a custom “St. Moritz” crest built for the instrument panel.

Payton had a custom “St. Moritz” crest built for the instrument panel.

Once he learned as many of the unique details concerning the “St. Moritz” as he thought he would ever discover, Payton dug into the project full force. Fortunately, the subject 1955 Eldorado was intact with only floor and quarter panel rust typical of these cars. Since he has a stock of Eldorado parts and an expertise in restoring 1955 Cadillacs, the car presented no challenges in being restored to 1955 Cadillac standards — the difficulties were in replicating the unique “St. Moritz” features.

“If we had known how hard it was going to be to build, we wouldn’t have done it, but once you start, you have to go on,” Payton admitted.

In 1955, Cadillac began equipping the Eldorado with a dual-carbureted engine. The dual four-barrels were housed beneath a gold delta-shaped air cleaner and brought power up to 270 horsepower. The engine was also optional on other Cadillacs, which had a base rating of 250 hp.

In 1955, Cadillac began equipping the Eldorado with a dual-carbureted engine. The dual four-barrels were housed beneath a gold delta-shaped air cleaner and brought power up to 270 horsepower. The engine was also optional on other Cadillacs, which had a base rating of 250 hp.

Payton found sources for the white ermine fur and the matching mouton carpet. The furriers who stitched new white ermine seat inserts are believed to be responsible for creating the originals in the “St. Moritz” back in 1955.

“We actually got the ermine pelts from Roberts Furs in Michigan, which used to be Oleg Cassini Furs — Roberts took over at the same location — and they did the seats the first time for GM. We also had them do the fur templates for the seats,” Payton said.

Payton was able to have leather dyed pearlescent white to match Cadillac’s description of the original seats. By looking at dream car collector Joe Bortz’s surviving 1955 LaSalle II roadster, one of two pearl white Cadillac dream cars also shown at the 1955 Motorama, Payton was able to determine that a pearl white used on some early-2000s Cadillacs was a very close match. But, as they say, the devil is in the details.

All 1955 Eldorados use permanently affixed floor mats or plates built with extruded rubber strips framed in aluminum. The “St. Moritz” used these production floor plates, but being an all-white show car, it incorporated unique white rubber strips that Payton had to figure out how to recreate.

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“There is a gentleman in Germany that is building new floor plates and I sent him a set of my originals so he can reproduce them,” Payton said. “He is making them in the four standard Eldorado colors, but by sending him my set of plates as a template, he exclusively made me white strips for my floors.”

An even bigger challenge was making new door panels in the original style of the “St. Moritz.” Visible in period photos of the car is special waffle-type stainless trim on the interior side panels, so Payton had to have these built. Additionally, the original press release mentions a vanity built into the door panel, but it wasn’t until an old photo surfaced during the restoration that anyone knew which door had the vanity and how it was incorporated into the interior. When the photo surfaced, Payton knew he had to incorporate this special door panel detail. He consulted with Vintage Vehicles of Wautoma, Wis., who said they could build the door panel and the associated stainless-steel components. “They knocked it out of the park,” Payton said.

Payton is also proud of the white convertible top, which isn’t unique to the St. Moritz, but it is unique today for being so accurate to 1955 standards.

“I believe we have probably the most correct convertible top on that car ...” Payton said. “The new tops being made don’t have this little ‘S’ curve on the header panel and Karl Cranston went way out of his way to make this top factory correct, including hand-stitching the sides of the top, because they never come down far enough down to cover the top edge of the windows.”

While the car was undergoing all aspects of the restoration, Payton followed up on the photo of little Dickie Livermore, who was pictured in the original “St. Moritz” at the San Francisco stop of the Motorama. Livermore, now Judge Richard Livermore of the Superior Court of California (retired), is probably the only living person known to have actually sat in the original “St. Moritz.” By searching the internet, Payton was able to make contact with Judge Livermore, who remembered the special Cadillac well.

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“I found a Richard Livermore in California and became friends with him on Facebook and sent him the photo and asked if it was him and his brother in the car,” Payton said. “He did remember the experience. Dad was shopping for a new car for their grandma and begged him to choose this one and Mom agreed, but their grandma ended up buying a Chrysler New Yorker instead.”

It’s not clear if the “St. Moritz” is solely responsible for Livermore’s continuing interest in cars, but he told Payton that he regularly attends Monterey Car Week in August.

By 2018, the year-long restoration was finally completed. Payton showed the “St. Moritz” at several significant events that year, each of which honored the car with a prize: A Senior First Place Award at the Cadillac & LaSalle Club Grand National in San Marcos, Texas; a Palmetto Award at the 2018 Hilton Head Concours; and best in class at the 2018 10,000 Lakes Concours d’Elegance. Around this time, Payton sold the car to friend Robert Berard in order to fund the restorations of his other 1955 Eldorados. Now Berard will be offering the car at the 2021 Barrett-Jackson Scottsdale Auction.

“He’s switching up a few things in his collection and that is why it’s going up for auction at Barrett-Jackson,” Payton said.

The 1955 Eldorado “St. Moritz” has been out of Payton’s shop for a couple years now, yet it’s obvious the challenging restoration has left him with a strong affection for the car.

“The color and the color combo is amazing,” he said. “When it’s in its full glory in the sun, it just glistens — it’s like a diamond. It’s a special car that deserves a special buyer.”

The story of Cadillac’s road to ‘St. Moritz’

General Motors’ fabulous show cars of the 1950s are generally well known in the hobby: the GM Le Sabre and Futurliners, the Buick Wildcats, the Corvette Nomad and the Olds F-88s, to name just a few. These “dream cars” were specially built, often of fiberglass to ease their hand-built construction, with just one or maybe a few built by GM’s Design Studio. Although extremely rare and often lost to the crusher, these show cars are still remembered by many today because they were unique, they were flashy, they were heavily advertised promotional tools and they looked like nothing else on the road.

There was a second line of GM show cars during the 1940s and beyond that are generally less-remembered today. While they were also unique and flashy promotional tools, they were based upon production GM cars that anyone could buy, but modified with exotic features for added pizzazz. Some of these features eventually became available on production models.

A period photo of the original 1955 Cadillac Eldorado “St. Moritz” while on the Motorama show circuit.

A period photo of the original 1955 Cadillac Eldorado “St. Moritz” while on the Motorama show circuit.

The first round of these production-based show cars logically appeared in 1949 at GM’s Transportation Unlimited, the first of the corporation’s postwar shows. Logical, because if people were going out of their way to attend a GM-only show, it was best to show visitors something special and memorable and not seen at a dealership.

Production-based Cadillac show cars at the 1949 Transportation Unlimited show at New York’s Waldorf-Astoria included four special cars: the “Caribbean” and “Embassy” based on Fleetwood Sixty Special sedans; the “El Rancho” based upon a Series 62 convertible; and a Coupe deVille of a different design than the production version that later appeared that model year. These show 1949 Cadillacs featured special paint jobs, hardware and trim; unique upholstery; and non-standard accessories such as tools, a vanity set or even a telephone.

GM followed the 1949 Transportation Unlimited show with 1950’s Mid-Century Motorama, again at the Waldorf-Astoria. There were about a half-dozen production-based show cars from GM’s automotive divisions, one of which was a Cadillac: the wild “Debutante.” To make this production-based show car stop eyes and drop jaws, Cadillac fitted a standard Series 62 convertible with leopard skin upholstery. The floor, seat backs and upper side panels were covered in dearly departed feline. For more “wow,” GM gold plated all unpainted metal interior surfaces of the convertible, the exterior of which was painted an equally stunning Tawny Yellow Buff pearlescent paint.

Little Dickie Livermore, now the Honorable Judge Richard Livermore (retired), seated in the 1955 Cadillac Eldorado “St. Moritz” during its San Francisco stop of the 1955 GM Motorama.

Little Dickie Livermore, now the Honorable Judge Richard Livermore (retired), seated in the 1955 Cadillac Eldorado “St. Moritz” during its San Francisco stop of the 1955 GM Motorama.

A few other special Cadillac show cars appeared at general new car shows after the Mid-Century Motorama, the 1952 Cadillac El Dorado prototype among the most notable. For 1953, the Eldorado convertible became a limited-edition model officially made available to the public.

GM’s next Cadillac show cars appeared at the famously fabulous 1953 General Motors Motorama, a successor event to the corporation’s 1949 Transportation Unlimited and 1950 Mid-Century Motorama. In traveling beyond the walls of the Waldorf-Astoria, GM created a tsunami of show cars to display at the additional locations. The 1953 Motorama is largely famous for showing many of the fiberglass GM “dream cars” that rarely made it to production (the Corvette being the most notable exception).

However, in addition to the Corvette prototype and such dreams cars as the Buick Wildcat, Cadillac LeMans and Oldsmobile Starfire, GM built several production-based show cars. For Cadillac, that included the “Orleans,” a four-door hardtop based upon standard 1953 Cadillac styling. Less-novel 1953 Cadillac show cars at that year’s Motorama included two different Coupe deVilles and a Fleetwood Sixty Special, each of which featured unique paint colors and a likewise unavailable Naugahyde-covered roof. These cars would probably be all but forgotten if not for David Temple’s research for his “Motorama” books.

GM again presented a mix of dream cars and production-based show cars when the Motorama toured again in 1954. In the Cadillac room of the Waldorf-Astoria, GM presented its La Espada roadster dream car and at least two of its three production-based show cars: a pearlescent gold Fleetwood Sixty Special with a leather top and a pearlescent Peacock Green Coupe deVille with a lighter green painted roof. A third production-based Cadillac show car — another Fleetwood Sixty Special — is known to have been shown during at least some of the 1954 Motorama stops. This one was a Fleetwood painted an iridescent Caprice Blue with a Jordan Gray roof. These Cadillac show cars were further differentiated from their production model counterparts by unique upholstery.

When the Motorama returned for 1955, GM showed a dizzying number of show cars on its turntables. Three of the dream cars fell under the Cadillac banner: the LaSalle II roadster and sedan and the Eldorado Brougham, which predicted the forthcoming but not identical 1957-’58 Eldorado Brougham. Three other production-based Cadillac show cars were also exhibited: the “Celebrity,” a red Coupe deVille with a matching red leather-covered top and special upholstery; the “Westchester,” a Korina Gold Fleetwood Sixty Special featuring a unique black leather roof, special upholstery and a division behind the front seat that incorporated a television, tape recorder and phone; and the “St. Moritz,” a special all-white Eldorado convertible meant to illicit images of the snow-capped alpine luxury town in Switzerland.

“Establishing a new trend in luxury passenger car styling, Cadillac’s 270 horsepower 1955 Eldorado ‘St. Moritz’ combines a white pearlescent body with a smartly styled interior upholstery of white ermine fur and pearlescent-finished, white English grain leather,” GM gushed. “White mouton fur carpeting with brushed aluminum floor mat grids and aluminum treads bordered with white mouton complete the interior styling. For the convenience of lady passengers a combination vanity is built into the Eldorado armrest.”

All that survives of the “St. Moritz” is the above press release and a few images. Likewise, the 1955 Cadillac “Celebrity” and “Westchester” have also vanished, although both LaSalle II dream cars survived a long stint at Warhoops Used Auto & Truck Parts in Sterling Heights, Mich. In fact, the dream cars pulled from Warhoops decades later are the only GM show cars from 1955 to survive today. The survival rate of GM’s production-based show cars is much worse and only a couple production-based Cadillac show cars are known to exist: the Coupe deVille shown at the 1949 Transportation Unlimited show and the “Maharani,” one of four production-based Cadillac show cars built for the 1956 Motorama.

When the show car of your favorite model from your favorite brand and model year has disappeared, what do you do? If you’re Rick Payton, you build your own.

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