Priscilla - Glamour girl of the Gold Coast
Almost certainly, there will never again be a car like the 1959 Cadillac Eldorado Biarritz.
General Motors certainly won’t make one, nor will Maybach or Rolls-Royce or even the prone-to-excess Bugatti.
In 1959, the Biarritz took every rule of design restraint, every tenet of styling convention and tossed them deep into the freezing lakes that border America’s Motor City.
Fins, pioneered a decade earlier by Cadillac, were so extreme on the 1959 models that every other car maker was obliged to quietly push its chips to the centre of the table, walk outside and step in front of a passing bus.
Approaching the Cadillac that I came to know as Priscilla was a strangely intimidating experience. Crouched in the foreground of owner Paul Zanetti’s cliff-side home and surveying from considerable height the Gold Coast’s forest of skyscrapers, it had already adopted a disdainful expression.
Walk the 5.4m from its chrome-laden front bumper to the tip of those spectacular fins and the car seemingly turns to keep you in view. Later I will realise that this eerie impression is created by my reflection as it twists and warps across the river-deep chrome and shimmering paintwork.
The paintwork is pink, known in Cadillac circles as Persian Sand and among the rarer Biarritz colours. The trim is in a matching but not identical combination of Florentine and Cardiff leather. The softtop concealed beneath a three-piece fibreglass cover is trimmed in Prairie Plum. This scarce combination of hues is known as triple Persian Sand.
Under the massive bonnet is a Tripower 390ci (6.4-litre) V8, fed by triple carburettors, and developing 255kW.
Australian cartoonist Zanetti isn’t a car enthusiast in the conventional sense.
“I really didn’t take much interest in cars until one afternoon in the 1980s when I was working on the Daily Telegraph (newspaper in Sydney). I picked up a rival newspaper and out fell a leaflet for Franklin Mint’s ‘Cars of the 1950s’,” he says.
“These were just the most amazing shapes I had ever seen and I thought ‘why aren’t they making cars like that anymore?’ My favourite of all was the 1959 Cadillac – and, in fact, it was a Biarritz. It was a car that could have been designed by a cartoonist – something that might have been drawn for Daffy Duck to drive – and I knew I had to own one.
“The car I really wanted was a Biarritz and Persian Sand was my preferred colour, but I thought I’d never own one,” says Zanetti. “At the time, those cars were being advertised at $US200,000 and the Wall Street Journal predicted that by the turn of the century they would be the first million-dollar, post-WWII, US-built car.”
By the early 1990s, Paul and wife Michelle operated a fleet of predominantly Cadillac wedding vehicles.
“All of the cars had names and they all had personalities,” Zanetti says. “Among them (was) a tarty red Biarritz convertible we called Priscilla.”
Standard features of the upmarket 1959 convertible included leather trim, air-suspension, a remote boot release, central locking and four cigarette lighters. Bucket seats, as fitted to the Zanetti car, were a no-cost option.
After months of investigation, and hours of calls to bewildered North Americans, Zanetti has built a comprehensive profile of his car’s history.
Most significant was a conversation with Biarritz historian Bill Refakis who surprised him with the news that this is the only known survivor of the cars built with Persian Sand tonings, bucket seats and the full complement of factory-fitted options like cruise control and air-conditioning.
Priscilla was delivered in late 1958 to a club owner in Montana, and was bought in a 1959 Los Angeles car auction by a Melbourne car and antique dealer.
It subsequently had several colourful owners, including a hotelier who was sitting in the car one night when persons unknown attempted to shoot him through the expensive tinted windscreen. The shot missed and the car, complete with bullet-crazed glass, wound up in the carpark of a windscreen specialist – for sale at minimal money plus the cost of a new windscreen.
By 1980 it was languishing in a Victorian farm shed, where it became a roost for the owner’s collection of breeding peacocks.
In 1984, Guido Vella, the nephew of former owner Charlie Pirotta – and who had idolised the car 20 years earlier – became aware of its fate. He bought the Biarritz and began a hugely expensive, two-year restoration.
In 1994, the car again came up for sale.
“It was bit like asking Guido if I could marry his daughter,” says Zanetti. “I told him that the car I had always wanted was a Persian Sand Biarritz and Guido said ‘Well, that’s what this one is’. He had changed the colour because he thought the car looked better in red.”
Zanetti turned Priscilla into “a bit of a prostitute” – hiring her for weddings and using the car as a daily driver. Eight years spent close to the Sydney coastline took their toll and in 2000 when the Zanettis decided to sell most of their fleet, Priscilla was overdue for some cosmetic surgery.
“We started in early 2002 and thought it would be a fairly minor job, but then we found quite substantial rust and decided to do a complete job, including changing back to the original colour combination and converting the car back to left-hand drive.”
So what’s it like on the road?
Gentle acceleration in the Eldorado is like opening the throttles on an ocean-going cruiser.
Press the pedal and you can almost track the sequence of messages that awaken the trio of carburettors, prompt a hastening of the pistons and swirling of transmission fluid before the car gathers pace in a smooth, nose-lifting surge.
Plant your foot hard and there’s a rushing sound from somewhere up front, the whole car momentarily shudders before the transmission drops two ratios and slings 2.3 tonnes up the road with absolutely indecent haste.
Paul says Priscilla is a car to be driven and not merely admired.
“I’m not into cars as showpieces. I could take her to shows and win trophies but then I might start treating her like an object and not a car to use whenever I want. She goes to the supermarket and (as does Michelle’s 1964 Thunderbird convertible) takes kids to school and I never want that to change.”