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1956 Cadillac Biarritz: to restore or not?


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As it can be seen on my signature, I not only have 1:12 scale car models, but also real ones. After making for many years the 1:12 Olds Toronado, I had enough. Almost by accident, I found people in the region where I'm living who had US cars from the fifties. At that time, I just drove an US car I bought new: a 1980 Oldsmobile Cutlass Calais, but I would never had the courage to think about a restoration without the "help" of those young men. After a while, I bought a 1956 Cadillac Sedan de Ville in a garage near Geneva (Switzerland). It was not entirely finished when a 1957 Cadillac Brougham came home.

Closed cars are nice, but convertibles are nicer! (at least it was my thinking). A friend from England a Mr. Bedford (yes, yes!) told me once that he knows somebody who is importing cars from the US, mainly to sell them in Sweden of Finland. At that time, among other cars, he had a 1956 Cadillac Biarritz. After some discussion with the seller, I paid the car and ask a Swiss company to transport it to the village where I'm restoring my cars.

I will relate it that story from the arrival to the completion. I had 7 years to restore it, but that report will not take so much time to be published!

 

 

 

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This story was published first for 10 years in the CadillacLaSalle forum. I will adapt the text if necessary. Please understand that all pictures are scans from paper pictures; therefore their quality is not the best. 

 

I bought the car unseen; it was in transit in England, coming from Virginia. As I had already at that time (1986) a '56 Sedan de Ville, I was not too anxious as I had a good base to look at, even if some details are different. So, I did the gamble; however, it was more like Russian roulette with just 1 missing cartridge.
I mandated a transport company to pick up the "car" from England and to deliver at the village where I have my shop.

The first picture was sent by the seller, it was taken in Virginia. The second one show the thing at arrival.
I had a bad sleep the next night...

 

After the triumphal arrival, a friend was kind enough to tow the "car" through the village. The drive did not stay unnoticed by the inhabitants!
I could not begin immediately with the work on that ruin: I had first to finish my '57 Brougham.

Biarritz in Virginia.jpg

Arrivée en 1986.jpg

With the help of a friend..jpg

Edited by Roger Zimmermann (see edit history)
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Thanks you, faithful followers! I just hope that my way of telling the story will be entertaining, despite my English limitation; I hope that Pat will not be disappointed!

This time, the story will be like a book: I means the story is all there, but you cannot go to the last page to see if the hero is still alive! I will just put a bit at a regular basis, just to keep the interest.

To John: the '56 Cadillac color was called Bahama Blue. The paint from the Mark II is darker and it's (but don't tell further) a VW color, a company for which I have no great sympathy, but that color was the best for my taste.

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When I had enough with the trouble the Brougham gave to me, I cleaned the mess from the floors and did a first inspection. It was not glorious: the radiator was missing, the engine was from 1956, but not the correct one. It never ran in this car: the studs from the front supports were not in the frame's holes, they were on the frame! The engine transplant was not done without damage: the radiator support was bent.
The condition of the transmission was unknown; anyway, according to the plate, it was not the right one: it was for an engine with one carb.
The floors were badly rusted; the trunk floor was real bad: the housing for the spare wheel was gone, eaten by the rust. Interesting enough: the trunk lid was in good condition, no holes. It was not the case with the hood: the sheet metal part on which the lock is attached was full of holes...

At that time, I had no idea how to repair that disaster and I could not weld.

 

In retrospect, that rust bucket was a relative good base, compared to cars I saw later which were worse. I was just not prepared at that time to see so many holes.

 

Front floor.jpg

Rear floor.jpg

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1 minute ago, Mike Macartney said:

Thanks for that - it made me giggle! By the way, they are not rust holes they are 'golden body lightener'!

It's not always easy to let giggle an older person, I'm glad I coud do it! Your interpretation about the holes is what differentiate somebody trying to make a story in a foreign language from somebody mastering that language!

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I admire that you can actually write very interesting reports in a foreign language. Being in Switzerland, is your 'normal language', German, Italian or French? Am I correct in assuming all three languages are spoken in Switzerland? Being, schooled in England in the 1950's, the only language I learnt was English. Keep up the good work and I hope you manage to remember some interesting stories from the Cadillac restoration.

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Roger, do you have any thoughts on the pacing of your posts for the story?  I wouldn't mind if it went fairly slowly.  You say it took 15 years to restore the car and while I don't think I want to wait that long...  I could wait a year or so for the story to be played back out.   I think I'd rather it went more slowly than quickly.   Maybe one or two posts a week?

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4 minutes ago, Mike Macartney said:

I admire that you can actually write very interesting reports in a foreign language. Being in Switzerland, is your 'normal language', German, Italian or French? Am I correct in assuming all three languages are spoken in Switzerland? Being, schooled in England in the 1950's, the only language I learnt was English. Keep up the good work and I hope you manage to remember some interesting stories from the Cadillac restoration.

I was born in the French part of Switzerland. We had German the last 3 years at school but in the German part of the country, people are speaking Swiss German (sort of slang). With the school German, I understood nothing. When I began to work at GM in 1970, I had to bite the bullet and "improve" my German knowledge. I would say I'm understanding most of what is said, except what is spoken in some Swiss regions; their slang is just not understandable to me. I'm sure you have similar situation in England; not everybody is speaking the Oxford English!

Due to my interest in US vehicles, I began to buy US magazines when I was 19-20 years old. I understood the pictures perfectly, that's was all! With the time, it improved; one decisive factor was when I went a long time ago for vacation in California: I was alone and had to make the effort to understand and speak. I still have difficulties to understand English speaking people over the phone, depending the region they are coming from. Fortunately, I understand almost everything in print!

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10 minutes ago, Luv2Wrench said:

Roger, do you have any thoughts on the pacing of your posts for the story?  I wouldn't mind if it went fairly slowly.  You say it took 15 years to restore the car and while I don't think I want to wait that long...  I could wait a year or so for the story to be played back out.   I think I'd rather it went more slowly than quickly.   Maybe one or two posts a week?

Sure Jeff, I will not wait that long to tell the story! One or two posts per week is reasonable; it will be over probably middle this year.

In fact, I had 10 years to restore the car. When I bought it, I still had the '57 Brougham to finish; when I had enough with the Brougham (it was a very difficult car to restore), I began to remove parts. The real work began in 1991.

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Roger, 6 months sounds great!  I know a lot of people these days like to "binge" watch things and finish whole seasons of a show in a few weeks, but I'd rather enjoy your story over 6 months rather than 6 weeks. 

 

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Of course, I had to take a decision:  the car was there, totally mine and at that time, with transportation and customs, too expensive to throw away (about CHF 10'000.- or $ 10'000.00). Resell parts? which ones? there was nothing good, except the outside windshield's moldings.
Anyway, I did not bought that scrap on basis of the pictures alone: the friend in England, Don Bedford, let send an inspector from AA Technical Services to see the car, at my expense, of course.
His report was more or less correct, except that instead of "corrosion" I would have written "rust hole". The recap of his report is interesting:
"As can be seen from the contents of this report, the main structure of the car is sound, with very little damage other than corrosion and general deterioration to the body work" This inspector was also a very optimistic man!

 

Over the years (the Brougham was not yet completed), I began to remove parts. As I lost my game, I had to assume: therefore the thing will be a car again. The next few pictures are from 1990.
The roof structure was not bad, however, some work was needed to get it to MY standard.
The engine compartment was not worse as some I saw on driveable cars, with the exception of the missing radiator and damaged radiator's support. The bad surprises would come later...

 

Roof rails.jpg

Missing radiator.jpg

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In contrast to other parts of the vehicle, the firewall was almost perfect. With a vehicle in that condition, it's a relief to see something acceptable.
Once the roof gone, the view at the rear quarter was not too bad either. One access plate to the window's motor was missing.

 

We are still in 1990. Many parts were removed and stocked next to the car. I had to think seriously how to gain usable space...
The "real work" began in 1991. We see on the last picture that the plate behind the rear seat is gone.
In between, I found somebody who was willing to help. The price he asked per hour was acceptable; he would only "beat the metal" and weld. All the rest was my task, which means bore the spot welds, clean the rust and so on...
I began to look for a better floor for the trunk and under the rear seat. Not an easy task, but I found something. More about it later.

Firewall.jpg

Rear quarter.jpg

Strip-tease.jpg

2 Premier dépointage.jpg

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It is interesting that as you strip it down it looks more doable.   Obviously we know you've already done it and it looks great, but when first seeing it... well, it look like a lost cause.  Now that it has been stripped down, it doesn't look so bad. 

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The readers will have to excuse me: I don't remember exactly what I did remove in a chronological order. Here are views from the "A" pillar. They are not very nice as you can see. Some metal had to be cut to weld good steel. It was necessary to remove the reinforcement of the pillar as it is weld over the front floor. All that happened in 1991.
In between, I got in touch with a US vendor who claimed he has the exact replacement parts for my car. As I don't believe easily such promises, I ordered the repair patches for the front floor. What a deception when I got them! I was good steel, but a crude and pale imitation of the correct form. I never used it; instead, I used the metal to repair other parts. I did myself the patches for the floor with the proper details.

 

It was clear to me that the rear fender had to be removed to replace the trunk floor and the floor under the rear seat. I began the task by removing the outside rocker panels. The view was very discouraging to be honest.

LH pillar.jpg

RH pillar.jpg

Rocker panel.jpg

Lower rear quarter.jpg

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What was the condition of the other parts, moldings, emblems and so on? Well, not better. The rear bumper ends were not complete, the side plate was missing on both sides. They were badly corroded; I could not even remove the screws for the exhaust's insulation plate. By chance, a friend of mine had a restored pair for sale; they are on the car now.
I still have the bad ones, if somebody wants them...
The vendor promised to deliver a set of 5 Sabre wheel. He did so; of course, the wheels were "well used". A company in Switzerland removed the steel part; I let dechrome the aluminum parts and I began to grind and file the wheels. It's a job I would not do another time: I had about 40 hours to restore the better wheels, per wheel of course. The bad one took about 100 hours. Do you want to know how many spokes each wheel has? 27. You can check that on the picture.

Bumper end.jpg

Sabre wheel.jpg

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Once the fender was removed, I had a good view over the "B" pillar and the wheelhouse. Unfortunately, there was deep corrosion.
With the exception of the lower part which was eaten, the remains of the rear fender were not too bad.
For the cleaning, I had the chance to work outside, that way there is less mess inside. But, boy, those fenders are long when you have to go through normal doors! Some years later, I could not have used this solution: the space I used to clean and paint the parts are now paved and used by the neighbors.

After cleaning, the inside of the rear fender is not bad looking.
As the trunk's floor and the one under the rear seat were so desolate, I was looking for better parts. One of my best suppliers, Ted Holcombe, sent some sheet metal parts from California. These parts were from a '56 Sedan de Ville; they were not new, but in a very good condition, with some exception.
Transportation and customs were unfortunately not free of charge that day; I spent about $1500.00. I’m wondering how it would costs in 2019?
In between, I found also a correct transmission, condition unknown. It's visible on the last picture.

4 Montant B gauche.jpg

LH rear fender.jpg

After treatment.jpg

Used floors.jpg

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And what about seats, trim and, for example, the steering wheel? Well, with a convertible top not exactly perfect, the leather was hard like cardboard. At least, the hardware was there and could be rescued.
I don’t remember if the seat would move electrically; I remember that I had to replace at least one spinning nut. The steering wheel was cracked and bits missing. Anyway, the shape of the inside was not immediately the main problem, the rust was.
 

25 Front seat.jpg

26 Front seat.jpg

27 Steering wheel.jpg

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On May 11, at 8 PM, the rusted trunk floor was removed! As you can see, I let the RH rear fender and trunk lid in place to help for the alignment. The trunk floor in the background from the first picture is the "good" one.
During summertime, I cleaned the used trunk floor; I was satisfied with the results. Some may ask: why was it not sandblasted? Well, it was mainly a transportation problem. To transport such a large part, you need either a pick-up or a truck. At that time, I had just cars at my disposal. Furthermore, I'm very cautious with sandblast and sheet metal parts; I had bad experiences.

28 Plancher du coffre.jpg

29 Rusted trunk floor.jpg

30 Cleaned trunk floor.jpg

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With the help of my friend, the trunk floor was welded in place at the end of July 1993. The next step was the rear floor. To have a good access to it, the "B" pillars were removed. Consequently, the RH rear fender had to be removed too.
End of August: the rear floor is gone. The rear of the body is totally independent from the front one. Well, not exactly: it was attached to the frame with the usual body screws; I welded also some supports between the trunk floor and the frame. The remaining side panels are better looking, but far from ready.

The last picture is showing both rear floor behind the body. Which one is the "good" one?

 

31 Before cutting.jpg

32 Plancher en travail.jpg

33 frame view.jpg

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The used rear floor was welded in early September. As it came from a 4 door model, the sides had to be cut and specific parts made from scratch.

The "B" pillars are made with thick steel; they could be sandblasted and primed. They are drying here with some other parts. It's good to have some space for such a job!

34 Plancher passager.jpg

35 The drying place.jpg

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I appreciate all the work you have had to do to drill out the spot welds - it's hard work!

 

I do not know much about American cars, as I have never worked on them. Is the body removable from the chassis, or is the body 'unit construction', with the body welded to the chassis members?

 

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Yes, there were a lot! I had two possibilities: a specific cutter driven with a compressed air machine or another cutter to be used with a drilling machine. Both were good for a number of spot welds, but the wear came quickly rendering the job more difficult.

The car is still the type "body on frame". This kind of construction was very convenient for body changes as Americans were accustomed in the post-WW2 area. European cars were also built that way, however, the integrated frame was adopted much sooner in Europe mostly for weight reason.

Indeed, your question will be answered later in pictures.

Thanks for you comments and interest to my thread!

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