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American Classic: '59 Cadillac Eldorado Biarritz Convertible 

A new "ride" is cruising the streets of the Hudson Valley. It's a white-on-white '59 Cadillac Eldorado Biarritz convertible. To people who know cars, the Biarritz is an exceptionally rare American-made jewel, crafted along the Detroit assembly lines at a time when chrome, shark fins, and opulence were king.

During the last 45 years, the car has seen a lot of miles and crossed the country at least once, trading hands, shedding owners, and shifting colors as it rumbled forward to its current home in the Hudson Valley in 2004. The Biarritz now lives in Warwick, in the care of car collector and enthusiast Richie Cypher, a plumber who drives a 2000 Dodge Durango by day. After a long hard road, this classic car is finally with a guy who drives it simply for the thrill of the ride.

For many car lovers, Cypher's relationship with his Biarritz is not unique, but rather an example of the way cars should be and in fact were venerated before cynicism seized the culture. For the better part of the 1980s, classic cars-including the Biarritz-were being grabbed up by investors who stashed their cars away in private collections, hoping to inflate their street values. More often than not, the resulting ballooning prices would place such cars out of the reach of classic car collectors. Now prices may be finally falling back to earth-either that, or Cypher got very lucky. This is his-and the Biarritz's-story.

A STYLING BENDER
Back in 1958, roughly two years before Richie Cypher was born, Cadillac's lead designer, David Holls, went on what could only be described as a styling bender. In the age of fins and chrome, Holls set out to design a car with the biggest fins and the most chrome. He played upon the nation's passion for airplanes, stealing design elements from a warplane called the P-38. The result was a high-end version of the Eldorado called the Biarritz.

From the beginning, the lines of the Biarritz were very striking, running from back to front, with the cut of the car beginning lower, then racing forward and up. Out front are four headlights and four running lights, and a grill that looks like six rows of silver bullets strung along silver cables stretching from end-to-end. In back is a similar but smaller chrome-grill, and taillights shaped like afterburners on a combat jet. Rising up like bookends around the trunk are fins-the highest ever to roll off the Detroit production lines-and clinging from them at the rear is a pair of fire-engine-red cone-shaped brake lights. Finally, stretching the length of the car from the rear quarter-panels across the doors and along the front fenders are two parallel strips of wide chrome that culminate in rising metal gun sights pointing forward.

When Holls finished his design, the car moved straight into production. Cadillac made 1,320 models of the Eldorado Biarritz, all convertibles, each with a sticker price of $7,401. And with a turn of the ignition key, the '59 Cadillac Eldorado Biarritz started up and nosed boldly out before a curious public-and no one could look away.

"How could you miss this car!" says Paul Ayres, vice-president of the national chapter of the Cadillac-LaSalle Club. "The styling of that thing was just so fantastic, so over the top. It just blew you away."

In 1958, Ayres explains, car designers "were pouring chrome on everything. In '59, with those fins, the styling was a little out of control. I think Holls even agreed with that, finally admitting, years later, that the styling was a little excessive."

The Eldorado Biarritz came in 15 colors. When Cypher's car first caught the light of day-on January 16, 1959-it was Argyle blue and headed for San Francisco.

ECONOMY OVER OPULENCE
In the decades to come, car design would change radically. Cars were smoothed out and trimmed down in an effort to economize. Opulence was sacrificed, followed by the amount of chrome, steel, and horsepower. Over time, cars began to look, feel, and drive exactly the same. The age of the economy model arrived, including the Dodge Omni, the Plymouth Horizon, the AMC Gremlin, and the Volkswagen Rabbit.

With devolution in design, the collector's movement intensified. Since the introduction of the Model T Ford there had always been an American fascination with the automobile. But when the key ingredients used in building an automobile became aluminum, vinyl and plastic, the nation's interest in car restoration clicked into overdrive. Suddenly, even grandma's Chevy Nova had a street value. As the generation born in the 1960s and 1970s grows older, the trend toward owning cars from that period grows. In fact, a 1970 Chevy Nova SS that once sold for $3,500 new will fetch five to ten times that amount, depending upon the quality of the restoration.

Speaking of...

  • Michael Scully reports on the restoration of a '59 Eldorado Biarritz.

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