Story and photos by Gregg D. Merksamer
Though I never knew what it actually looked like until it arrived at the Cadillac & LaSalle Club’s 2014 Grand National on July 12, I was oddly familiar with the “Elegante.” The one-off, aluminum-bodied Elegante retractable hardtop was brought to the show in Lake George, N.Y., from West Palm Beach, Fla., by Dick Birdsall and his older brother Bob.
My familiarity with the car came through an article published in The New York Times on April 28, 1955. The article lacked a photo, but proclaimed this $30,000 creation to be “a style leader at the $500,000 International Automobile Show that opened at Cross County Center” in Yonkers, N.Y., on April 27 of that year.
Building a dream
The brothers Birdsall, having grown up two decades prior but one town west of me in Hartsdale, N.Y., harbor their own fond memories of such local car nut landmarks as the “Pipeline.” It was along the “Pipeline” where their father, noted commercial artist Harry Birdsall, could explore the speed potential of his Ferraris without worrying about intersections. A shared passion for racing boats (which remains a professional interest of his sons today) also forged fast friendships with the bandleader Guy Lombardo and famed engineer Zora Arkus-Duntov, who fortified a Ford Flathead V-8 powering one of Birdsall’s watercraft with Ardun Hemi heads and a SCoT supercharger.
In 1953, Harry Birdsall teamed up with his partner, a Huntington, Long Island, N.Y., insulation contractor named Joe Mascari, to co-commission a futuristic, airplane-inspired two-seat retractable hardtop. The car employed the 126-inch wheelbase chassis and running gear of a 1953 Series 62 convertible that, his son Dick recalls, “had caught fire at the White Plains Cadillac dealership and took three other cars with it.” He said when he was seven years old and his brother Bob was 10, their father brought the burned-out remains of the base Cadillac home to realize his remarkable vision.
“My father already had plans all drawn up looking for a car,” Dick Birdsall said. Additionally, the concept’s thematic details would receive some added polish from Albrecht Goertz, another friend who famously went on to design the 1956 BMW 507 and the 1970 Datsun 240Z. Birdsall’s partner, Mr. Mascari, was also an importer of race boat propellers who “used to go back and forth to Italy all the time,” putting him in an ideal position to find craftsmen who could actually build the car without completely breaking the bank.
Even then, it took the Turin-based Carrozzeria Rocco Motto an astounding 30 months and a reported $30,000 to finish the Elegante. At that lofty price, the car had intrinsic curb appeal in its low-slung proportions and sharply bladed tail fins, which were well-augmented by an awe-inspiring retractable hardtop operated on a leisurely but smooth two-minute cycle by an intricate, hydraulically powered chain-and-sprocket mechanism. All of the inside and outside trim was spectacularly plated with 24-carat gold on the custom-made quadruple headlamp rings, door handles, cast-bronze license plate housing and windshield frame, the latter integrating vent windows that pivot into each outer corner with impressive neatness. The iridescent white mother-of-pearl paintwork was no less dramatically complemented by “Deep Red Wine” Italian leather upholstery, a perforated leather headliner and an illuminated St. Christopher medal for the hand-made, transparently rimmed steering wheel.
Shortly after the finished car arrived in the United States on April 15, 1955, Dick Birdsall remembered “Goertz came to our house and took it for a 10-minute spin — he was a pretty tall guy.” The car’s first official public appearance, as reported in The New York Times article cited earlier, was the carnival-style outdoor auto show that ran at the Cross County Shopping Center in Yonkers from April 27-30. The event attracted an estimated 19,000 visitors the first day with some help from free admission.
“From the 1 p.m. opening until the closing at 8:30 p.m.,” states the story, “there was a crowd around the Cadillac, which was mounted on a slowly rotating platform.” Given positive press and general prosperity of the surrounding Westchester and Fairfield County suburbs, the partners’ ultimate goal of building 10 more Elegante retractable hardtops at $20,000 a copy seemed entirely achievable.
“After our dad passed away at the age of 49 from diabetes in 1960,” Dick Birdsall said, “the car went to Mascari, who sold it to another boat racer named Louis Nuta. He later gave it to Stan Marks,” a road construction executive and Orange Bowl Committee president who built the Rickenbacker Causeway connecting Miami to Key Biscayne. The car passed to Marks in what the younger Birdsall called “a collateral deal.”
After Dick Birdsall lost his son to a tragic auto accident in 1996, his brother Bob “knew I needed a project, so he brought me photos of the car in early 1997. I went to see Mrs. (Irene) Marks, having already asked her late husband about buying it a decade earlier. Stan Marks’ passing in 1990 had already sparked my interest to get back on it, though the car had weathered Hurricane Andrew under an open carport that collapsed on it during the storm.” The coachwork was very weathered as a result, while “the fins had been folded over to reduce their height” and the original bench seat had been replaced by a pair of garish, gold-upholstered buckets.
A 1956 Chevrolet provided a suitable frame for reproduction cushions. Meanwhile, the rear bumper, which had completely rusted away around its built-in exhaust outlets, had to be re-made from scratch using stout moly tubing “like driveshaft metal,” on top of which “we couldn’t take the body off to restore it as it’s wrapped around the frame. Luckily, the only electrolytic corrosion we found was in the trunk where we could get at it.”
All told, Birdsall summarizes his self-restoration effort as “a labor of love that took 16 years on-and-off. I lost a wife, two sisters and my mother in that time,” though the finished car’s March 2014 debut at the Amelia Island Concours d’Elegance offered a measure of consolation from appreciative hobbyists who voted it the People’s Choice Award.
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