By Wallace Wyss
It isn’t often you come across a cover-up involving a King. This one even involves a Pininfarina-designed-and-built three seater Cadillac.
First, about the car. Back in 1953 a hot shot Beverly Hills concert promoter and record producer, Norman Granz, shipped a Series 62 Caddy to Pininfarina in Italy and ordered a new body designed for it.
Now this Granz was monied. He had hit upon the idea of issuing live-concert records back in the days when a single tune might take up several 12-inch discs. He put together three record firms—Clef, Norgan and Verve, then sold their catalog to MGM in 1961 for $2.5 million, and for 12 years remained inactive in the recording studios.
But let’s go back to 1952. Granz had gone to the Geneve Auto Salon and there seen a Pininfarina car called the PF200, built on a Lancia chassis. He wanted that body, with adjustments for the Cadillac’s larger size, put on the American chassis.
Cost? Hey we’re talking Hollywood wheeler dealer here. The price was purportedly the cost of materials plus a complete collection of the Norman Granz record productions, including Ella Fitzgerald, Joe Pass and Oscar Peterson (all of whom he managed at the time) as well as Count Basie, Dizzy Gillespie, Benny Carter, Zoot Sims, Sarah Vaughan and others. Such a deal you don’t get anymore. CadillacDatabase.org states that the car cost $15,000 at the time.
This two-door, three seat roadster originally came in silver. Now Granz was a guy who wanted to be seen in a snazzy foreign car but he still wanted it to say “Cadillac.” So he made sure it had iconic Cadillac-style bumpers and a big, ol’ Cadillac ‘V’ occupying center front inside the radiator cavity with another “V” on the trunk lid.
How did Granz pick Pininfarina? Well first of all he had seen the Lancia and fallen in love with it, so it was just a hop, skip and jump to choose Pininfarina to do his Cad. Secondly, Sergio Pininfarina was now famous in the U.S. as a result of his designs for the Nash Ambassador and Statesman lines, which, although they did carry some details of Pininfarina’s design, were largely still Detroit designed after the original Farina-designed model proved non appealing to American tastes. But to his credit, Pininfarina’s Nash-Healey design and built in limited numbers from 1952 to 1954 at Pininfarina’s Turin facilities, was all Italian in its shape. Nash even had billboards linking their name the famous Italian designer, to counter Studebaker touting their association with Frenchman in America Raymond Loewy.
A lot of people assumed that since the Caddy hadn’t been seen for decades that it was finished, junked. But a French magazine Auto Retro, in their October 1994 issue (No. 170), ran pictures of it with a few modifications was still a running, restored car. The Pininfarina emblem was moved from the front fender (where it was located just ahead of the door) to the rear fender, just behind the door, and a pair of large front fender air scoops were added.
There is still a Cadillac ’V‘ in the grille oval, but elsewhere a smaller Pininfarina logo was affixed to the body, a short distance back from the grille. The interior was changed from the original to white leather. The modified car appeared at the Pebble Beach Concours d’Elégance in California, in August 2002.
Oddly, a famous name shows up in the stories on the car, no less than that of 1949 LeMans winner Luigi Chinetti, also the first Ferrari distributor in America. Internet sources state that the owner as of 2012 was Harry Yeaggy of Cincinnati, Ohio, CEO of Janus Hotels & Resorts, Inc. It is thought he bought the car in 1992 but no one has said in print why he changed the styling. I dug a little deeper and found the car had been in a major accident in Italy. in 1957. The driver at the time? None other than the former King of Belgium Leopold III.
The King’s Ride
Leopold was the former King of Belgium, who had stepped down from the throne after the war after the public began to feel he had acquiesced to the German threat a little too readily and let the Wehrmacht roll in. He wasn’t the only King who tooled around in a custom Cadillac by the way. Mohammed V of Morroco had a ’61 convertible bodied by Chapron.
But back to Leopold III. The accident involving the Cadillac is reportedly pictured in the archives of the Antwerp Gazette [Belgium]. Though it is difficult to recognize the car upside down in a ditch, in all the photographs you can see, the upside down car resembles the Pininfarina Caddy. The accident occurred on July 21, 1957 on the winding SS-51 that runs between San Biaggio and Cortina d’Ampezzo in Lombardy.
Now I leave open the possibility that two identical Pininfarina Cadillacs were built and someone else was driving this one. And then you have to wonder, how did the car get from Norman Granz in far-off Beverly Hills to Italy? Well, apparently Granz moved to Switzerland so that explains that. The car might have been seen then by the ex-King and bought or maybe even loaned.
Who would loan it? Ah, as it happens a Pininfarina rep was following the Royals when they went off the road and rescued them from the overturned car. They had minor injuries. Was the King ticketed? I’m willing to bet dollars to donuts that Kings do not get tickets.
They say there are no coincidences. Would you be surprised to learn this same King Leopold, back when he was still ruling regent, had another accident where he was at the wheel? The first accident, took place in a town called Küssnacht, on the shores of Lake Lucerne, in Switzerland, on August 29, 1935; the King’s 29-year-old bride lost her life in that incident. She was Astrid Sofia Louisa Thyra, daughter of the Duke of Yastergotland (Sweden) and niece of King Gustaf V of Sweden, a woman beloved by her subjects.
Now, as far as the word “cover up” in that second accident over 20 years later, well, let’s just say it’s not generally known that the former King had that second accident. Though the ex-King and the princess he created through marriage (the second wife was a British fish monger’s daughter) survived, she was pretty well vilified in the press throughout her reign, for such things as selling the diamond tiara that had been a present from Queen Elizabeth (you don’t sell the crown jewels, do you? Hey, if you have a buyer…)
So although the Pininfarina Caddy has reappeared at Pebble Beach in recent times and impressed Concours attendees that the Pininfarina-designed Allante did indeed have a sports car antecedent in Pininfarina history, a number of mysteries still obfuscate the car’s history. Why was the second accident covered up (well, you could say nobody was hurt so what’s the big deal—just a little bit of bent metal)? Why was the styling changed on the car in subtle ways (well, the polished Superamerica style side vents weren’t so subtle)? Was that just Pininfarina saying, as long as we have the car here, let’s re-fresh it a bit? Who repaired the car? Did GM participate in the styling or building of the car? How much did the King pay for it, or was he just borrowing it for the day? Ah, so many questions, so few answers and life is so short. In the meantime, any rumors, no matter how old, will be appreciated by the author.
Additional information about the car from CadillacDatabase.org:
“On the Pininfarina/King Leopold car, your information is very complete; the only things I could add are that when the accident occurred, the racing driver Giuseppe Farina [the nephew of Pininfarina] was following in another car; he is the one who rescued the King and his wife, Lilian. Very little indeed was reported in the press because Leopold had abdicated in favor of his son Boudewijn [Baudouin] in 1950 and by the mid-fifties he was quite unpopular in the Belgian press. In addition, the accident happened on July 21 which is the Belgian “National day” [like America’s 4th of July]. A friend of mine, an automotive reporter for some Belgian newspapers visited Pininfarina a few years ago and asked about the Leopold car. He was told that the company built only ONE such car but that it was repaired at their workshop after the accident. This may explain the fact that the car doesn’t look like it had been repaired. So we are still unsure of the timeline here; if the car were built for Norman Granz, when did Luigi Chinetti and/or King Leopold acquire it? BTW, Giuseppe Farina died some 10 years later in a road accident near Chambéry, France, in June 1966.”
There is much more about the car (and a LOT of other fascinating information) at CadillacDatabase.org.
Photos Courtesy of the Museum & Research Center of the Cadillac & LeSalle Club, Inc.
Wallace Wyss first book in the series, Incredible Barn Finds, is available from the publisher at (715) 381-9755.