Cadillac Restoration

By Ron Rosendale

If as a kid you eyeballed that 1955 Biarritz convertible in the Cadillac showroom when Manhattan’s Seventh Avenue was known as “Automobile Row”- you know, the red one with tail fins and the “Dagmar” bumper guards - but didn’t have $7,700 in 1955 money (after all, that would be $60,000 in today’s money) and said to yourself “someday I’m gonna have that car” then Chris Semke is your go to man.

Chris, with his business partner Frank Nicodemus, operates what is considered the country’s top Cadillac restoration shop, Castle Cadillac, in the Hudson Valley town of Wappinger.

Of course, Chris warns, you won’t be able to swing a Biarritz of that era in any kind of decent shape without a new mortgage on the home; the most recent auction sale of a restored 1958 Cadillac Brougham was for a cool $297,000.

 But, while the Cadillac restoration craze is nationwide, Chris describes some of the most rare and valuable Cadillacs that are garaged right here in the Hudson Valley.

For example he tells the story of when in 1963, Ernest DuPont, whose family controlled General Motors, ordered a Cadillac Series 62 Coupe DeVille. General Motors did what it almost has never done: it stopped the assembly line as the car passed through and added interesting touches – a dual electrical system was installed as backup and a manual metal sun roof.

Chris describes how in 1976 Oldsmobile was going to build a car called the Toronado XSR (1977) which included the power T-tops. The idea was dropped by Olds because of the expense - it would cost an extra $5,000. So instead T-tops were installed on seven new 1978 Eldorados - one of them, a beige one, on the Semke/Nicodemus showroom floor.

The color combination of Mountain Laurel and Mandan Red roof (code 50) is a rare color combination and Nicodemus thinks the local model is the only of its kind.

If you want one for yourself, surf an antique auto site like Hemmings, where you’ll find some 850 Cadillacs listed, reflecting that growing interest in collecting and restoring vintage Cadillacs.  There’s an interesting 1979 Eldorado coupe in the Midwest for $3,700, and if you buy that and cruise to the town of Wappinger, Chris and Frank will have it looking just like it did on the revolving platform with the pretty model at the New York Auto Show four decades ago. Maybe better.

Semke says that the interest in preserving vintage Cadillacs - just as some people renovate fancy foreign iron like Ferrari and Bugatti - comes from people who loved the cars but couldn’t afford them at the time. But now older and richer, decide to splurge. Or there are owners who inherited the cars from grandparents and are preserving them for the next generation.

But Semke says restoring a vintage Cadillac today isn’t just a question of going to a GM showroom and buying the parts. Because the parts, especially trim and chrome, are in ever decreasing supply.

As part of the solution, Chris and Frank hoard old Cadillacs and Cadillac parts. Walking through the Castle workshops you’ll see vintage cars stashed like shirts in a department store and literally thousands of Cadillac hubcaps. And what pieces aren’t in what Nicodemus calls his “library” - well, Frank and Chris will just recreate them.

“It’s amazing what you can do with 3-D printers these days, there are even ones that print in metal” Chris marvels. And what can’t be recreated with electronic help, if Frank is known as the “Cadillac of Cadillac restorers,” then Chris is the Picasso of recreating fins and fenders.

But if you want to win ribbons at an antique car concourse d’elegance, you’ll need Chris and Frank to take the car to a higher level.

Nicodemus gestures to the shiny bolts atop the radiator of a Cadillac in the shop for restoration. “See that bolt? It has ‘T.R.’ stamped on top of it. These are the same bolts Cadillac used in the originals, some were cadmium plated and some were plain, it depends on the year.” But when the Castle shop restores a Cadillac, it’s with the authentic “T.R.” bolts and he says, “Not something we get from Home Depot.” And the fenders are attached with 24 bolts, not the dozen bolts GM would have used for a Chevrolet. Anything less will get black marks from finicky car show judges.

Nicodemus was a teenager when he first fell in love with Cadillacs. It was a Cadillac Eldorado Biarritz in heather metallic owned by a neighbor. The very first Cadillac he himself owned was a 1955 El Dorado Biarritz convertible. 

“It took 15 years” from the day he first saw it until the owner was ready to sell, Nicodemus recalls, “but I finally got the call he was ready to sell.” Nicodemus still owns that convertible, with its wire wheels and red hubcaps, which was seen by millions when the Rolling Stones borrowed it to promote their Bridges to Babylon tour. But it’s not his connection to Mick Jagger that Nicodemus is most renowned for. It’s the frame off: meaning the sheet metal is taken off the car chassis for restoration authentic to the last bolt.

Semke met Nicodemus when he was restoring a Cadillac of his own, a black 1967 El Dorado. After a few years of buying parts from the maestro, Semke decided they had so many common interests they should join forces.

Now as for that ’79 El Dorado you drove from Ohio and asked the Castle crew to bring to show winning gloss, what’s that going to cost?

It’s like the old line - if you have to ask you can’t afford it.