This 1955 Cadillac Fleetwood limousine played a starring role in Elvis Presley’s career (Jerry Garrett Photo)
Elvis Presley celebrated the New Year in 1956 in style: He bought himself a limousine.
That limousine changed hands at a Bonhams auction in Hollywood yesterday (Nov. 12) for the rather modest sum of $172,000. But the experience I had before the auction to sit in the car, look in the rear view mirror and imagine the future King of Rock and Roll himself sitting back there 55 years earlier, was priceless.
Elvis, a rising star of both country music and “rock ‘n’ roll”, was expecting big things in 1956. Although he had yet to have a nationwide hit record, he had reason for optimism. His contract at Sun Records had just been bought out by RCA Victor – for a then princely sum of $40,000. He was due in the studio in Nashville on Jan. 10 for his first RCA session – where he would record future blockbusters like “Heartbreak Hotel” and “Blue Suede Shoes.”
But as the new year dawned, Presley was in need of some wheels. He figured to be doing a lot of touring with his band. And he needed something big enough for not only for himself and his musicians – but also for their instruments.
So he went to Southern Motors in downtown Memphis, and bought himself a used limousine – because he apparently couldn’t afford a new one. (Two recent road incidents been financially draining – one car had burned, the one had been in a head-on crash.)
Elvis put ten percent down – $600 – on a 1955 Cadillac 75 Fleetwood limousine, and financed the rest of the $6,000 purchase. Because he was not yet 21 (not until Jan. 8), his father Vernon had to co-sign with him on the note.
This was actually Elvis’ third Cadillac, and the first one that wasn’t pink. His first Caddy, a pink-and-white 1954 Cadillac sedan, caught fire one night while he was driving home from a gig, and burned to the ground – just three months after he had bought it in spring 1955. A month later, he replaced that with a new black-on-blue 1955 Fleetwood Series 60 that he had painted pink. This is the Caddy, that after $1,000 in repairs, he would later present to his mother (she died in 1958); it’s still idling around Graceland.
The limousine, when he found it, was painted light blue. But he had it painted black. It had a two-tone, sort of cream and pastel yellow velour interior.
When I sat in it, the front seat had been re-upholstered in black leather. Some fan sites claim this Caddy was later painted yellow; I can’t confirm that. The auctioneer said it was presented for sale in the same black color Elvis had it painted.
Legend has it that Elvis and three to four band members toured the South with the car in early 1956, with their instruments strapped to the roof. That was hard to confirm; there was no evidence of a roof rack (like his ’54 had) or any scratches or dents on the top. But it did have 55,699 miles on the odometer when I saw it.
Within six months of purchasing the limo, Elvis was awash in cash. His debut album was on top of the pop charts. He had more than enough money to pay $10,000 for a new, white, 1956 Cadillac Eldorado convertible. He was on his way, personally, professionally and automotively.
A salesman at Southern Motors, later Madison Cadillac, once estimated that Elvis bought more than 30 Cadillacs from that dealership alone. Not to mention other dealerships where he famously bought scores of Cadillacs and various luxury cars for himself, his family, friends and even total strangers.
Most of those cars were quickly bought and sold – many without the King ever sitting in them. Today, there is no shortage of “collectible” cars that claim an Elvis association, no matter how tenuous.
The limousine was on display for many years at the Elvis Presley Museum and Elvis-O-Rama in Las Vegas before it wound up at Saturday’s auction.
It was a real honor to cross paths with that limousine – a car that a young Elvis really scraped to get the money to buy, a car that he actually rode in and drove extensively, and the vehicle that helped launch him down the road to immortality.
November 14, 2011