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For '55 Cadillac, second time's a charm

Cadillac fan has the same special affection for his ’55 as the car’s original owner.
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Author Paul Marcello enjoys the festivities at a Milwaukee
Brewers game at Miller Park while resting on the fender
of his beloved 1955 Cadillac Coupe deVille. Marcello is
the second owner to have a special attraction to the lucky
’55, which he rescued and has maintained.

It was a proud day for Russ Calvert as he drove through the main gate of Hill Air Force Base just outside of Salt Lake City, Utah. He was behind the wheel of a gleaming new 1955 Cadillac Coupe deVille. At 36 years old, he was telling the world that he had arrived.

Captain Calvert had taken delivery of the well-optioned beauty on July 2, just one day previous to this grand entrance, at Brierwood Motors in nearby Kaysville, Utah. He was aware as a junior officer that his car shouldn’t be too flashy — better to avoid raised eyebrows from the colonel. Instead, the new Coupe deVille was assembled on June 30 with understated elegance. The Cocoabar Brown and Pecos Beige paint, along with the black and tan “Glamour Trim” interior, wouldn’t attract the ire of any superior officers.

The Cadillac was a gift to himself — a well-deserved one. He had survived flying 75 combat missions in B-26 Marauders with the Ninth Air Force in World War II. During one of these missions, he was the sole survivor of his crew after a mid-air collision off the coast of France.

Called back to active service during the Korean War, Calvert flew an additional 50 combat missions in B-26 Invaders. He and best friend and pilot, Alex Lyon, flew night operations against the main supply routes in western Korea with the 3rd Bomb Wing.

After returning to the United States, Calvert decided to stay in the U.S.A.F. and make a career of it. His first duty station was Hill Air Force Base. It was while he was stationed there that he dreamed of buying a new Cadillac. When he did, it became his most prized possession. He took it with him to Mather Air Force Base, Calif., Shaw Air Force Base, S.C., and Denver, where he retired on June 1, 1966.

Calvert returned to his native Black Hills in South Dakota for retirement. Of course, the 1955 Cadillac went with him and he guarded it jealously. Not content to be unemployed at 47, Calvert began working at Rushmore Motor Homes in Rapid City. As a foreman there, he installed furniture and was very particular. Chuck Mercy, an employee there, said Calvert was “ very proud of his Cadillac, drove it every day and parked it away from everyone else.”

Eventually, in April of 1973, the time came for Calvert to part with his beloved. After nearly 18 years it was no longer the fashion statement that it had once been. They were both getting older and sadly went their separate ways. Calvert died from a heart attack only three years later on April 15, 1976.

By 1980, the 1955 Coupe deVille had been through no less than six more owners in quick succession. It had suffered much abuse and neglect in seven short years. It was another 13 until someone came along and saw in it what Russ Calvert had so many years before.

In the summer of 1993, I was working for my father’s heating and ventilating company in St. Paul, Minn. I was on my way out to a job site in western Minnesota when I first laid eyes on “my” 1955 Coupe deVille. Parked high on a hill in the small town of Dassel, it seemed to call to me. Braking hard, as the others drove on oblivious, I motored up the driveway, saw the “For Sale” sign and knew it had to be mine.

Calvert would have been heartbroken at its condition. The Cadillac sat on a flat tire. It’s side windows were all cracked or broken. The paint was oxidized and faded to the primer. The interior was torn and dirty. But it was all there. The car was 100 percent complete and original right down to the oil bath air cleaner. Being a western car, it was also not rusty. Growing up in the Twin-Cities area, I found older cars were always in horrible shape because of the heavily salted roads in the winter. I could overlook a lot of flaws for a solid and complete 1955 Cadillac.

Once I got the car home, its many flaws became evident. The Coupe deVille ran, but barely. The transmission would only recognize first gear and reverse. And then there were the electrical issues; nothing worked. The lights, windows and seat refused to operate. It was no surprise with the mouse damage and the spliced and melted wires throughout the car. Someone had decided to install five horns and wire them with old lamp cords. Amazingly, however, the Wonderbar radio crackled to life and played as if new.

Since I was doing all the mechanical work myself, I was able to save a lot in labor cost. The front clip was removed and the engine and transmission were pulled out for overhaul. Everything from the firewall forward was sandblasted and painted, and one by one, the refurbished and detailed components were reinstalled. I relied heavily on the 1954 and 1955 shop manuals as well as the Cadillac Service Roundtable publications, but it was a great learning experience. I can literally say that I know every nut and bolt on the car after rewiring it and installing new brakes, exhaust, shocks, windows and myriad other things. Now it was time for the fun part — driving it.

After many local shakedown rides, I was able to work out a lot of bugs that appeared in a vehicle that had not been on the road for 20 years. Finally, it once again ran and drove like a Cadillac should. I took it to several local car shows and, of course, the Back to the 50’s weekend in St. Paul. But the big test would come in June of 2005.

Hot Rod Magazine sponsors a nationwide driving tour every year known as the Power Tour. It is a week-long drive that stops in seven cities in as many days and challenges the endurance of both man and machine. I believed that my Coupe deVille was up to the occasion, despite the naysayers and skeptics who thought I was crazy to embark on such a journey in a stock 50-year-old Cadillac. I was determined to prove them wrong as I began the Power Tour in Milwaukee, Wis. The next six days would bring us to Springfield, Ill.; Indianapolis; Nashville; Birmingham; Tallahassee; and Kissimmee, Fla.

The Cadillac effortlessly tackled this daunting trip, with one notable exception. Leaving Nashville on the way to Birmingham, the car developed a vibration. Approaching Huntsville, Ala., it became evident that something was seriously wrong. After pulling into a church parking lot, I discovered that the right rear hubcap was extremely hot. The axle bearing was seizing up and was about to fail.

Figuring my tour was over, I walked to a Penske Truck rental business to inquire about a truck and trailer so that I could limp my way back home. I related my predicament to the woman behind the counter, and she asked if I had tried the local auto parts store. Figuring there was no way they would have an axle bearing for a 1955 Cadillac, I told her no. She insisted and made the call herself. To my disbelief, they had three! It seems that this sealed bearing was used in a lot of different applications.

Although this was great news, I still had no way of getting there or getting the old bearing pressed off the axle and the new one on. Once again, my good fortune held as a fellow Power Tour participant entered the building and offered his assistance. As the woman behind the counter placed a call to a local machine shop owned by her friend’s son, my new friend and I went to get the bearing. In the meantime, his son and my co-pilot removed the axle from the car and had it waiting for us to bring to the machine shop. After only 1 hour 45 minutes, the Cadillac was back on the road and we were heading for the event in Birmingham.

As I wheeled the Coupe deVille into Kissimmee two days later, I breathed a sigh of relief and satisfaction at completing the 2005 Power Tour. It was especially meaningful, because that evening, I had dinner plans with Colonel Alex Lyon, who had been Russ Calvert’s best friend. We posed for photographs in front of the Cadillac and had a wonderful meeting.
The next morning was the beginning of a 24-hour drive home in the Coupe deVille. The car averaged 14 mpg at 70 mph and didn’t use a drop of oil. In 10 day’s time, it had traveled 3,800 miles. This was more distance than it had covered in the previous 25 years.

In August of the same year, I planned another trip for the ’55. The Cadillac-LaSalle Club Grand National was in Des Moines, Iowa, that year and the four-hour trip seemed like a breeze compared to what I had done earlier that summer. Although I didn’t compete, it was a great event and it allowed me to see many other examples of Cadill-Ikes.

My 1955 Cadillac now resides in Virginia. It is still not finished. Although it still carries its original paint and interior, I can confidently climb behind the wheel at any time and rely on the car to get me anywhere. It has become a prized possession that I guard jealously. I can’t help but think that Russ Calvert would be glad that I love the car as much as he did so many years before.

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