1959 Cadillac 'Death Car'
Automobile, July 1990
1959 Cadillac 'Death Car'

Here, courtesy of Bill Holter's donation of labor, is the text of the article above, so the search engines can see it:

Remember all those stories you've heard about a classic car that sold for next to nothing because a guy died in the front seat?  Well, this one is true.

On February 8, 1959, Maurice Gagnon was shot as he sat in the front seat of his own Eldorado Seville.  The bloodstains on the floor mats are authentic.

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You've heard the story.  "My brother-in-law's friend's third cousin knows a widow who has a '53 Corvette.  It's in perfect shape, but the widow's son was killed in it, so she let it sit for thirty-six years.  Now she wants to sell it but doesn't have a clue how much it's worth."

     The death of the owner is a pervasive theme, but these stories have unlimited permutations.  The car is always something interesting, rare, and valuable, never a '65 Comet.  Often, the car was never resold because the owner died at the wheel and they couldn't get the smell out.

     The story is never completely true (except, of course, for your personal stories, which will doubtless flood our mailbox momentarily).  But keep an open mind about this one.

     We know where there's an absolutely original - down to the tires and battery - 1959 Cadillac Eldorado Seville.  This monument to conspicuous consumption, complete with tail fins that rival those of an F-84, has only 2232 miles on the odometer - the lowest-mileage 1959 Cadillac in the world, as far as we can determine.

     It's in perfect shape because it was stored in a heated government garage as state's evidence for a murder case.  Indeed, the owner was executed in the front seat.

     After the trial, the Cadillac was no longer needed for evidence, and the state eventually returned it to the family, who stored it in a corner of a warehouse.  Finally, they offered it for sale.  The first time he heard the story, John Pfanstiehl, a lover and collector of late-Fifties Cadillacs, didn't believe it, either.  "I was talking to a successful businessman," recalls Pfanstiehl, "and he told me about this car that hadn't been driven since new because the owner died in it.  I sighed and rolled my eyes.  Then he said, 'Do you want me to call and find out if it's for sale?'  Pop! went the myth.  The guy called, I saw it and bought it."

     Pfanstiehl's white 1959 Cadillac Eldorado Seville, with silver-blue top and trim, is a rare (only 975 were produced) and, uh, interesting example of a styling theme hitting critical mass.  Under the acres of sheetmetal are three carburetors, 345 horsepower, and an air suspension.  The original price, less options, was $7401, which in 1959 would have bought four Chevrolets.

     The car's original owner, Maurice Gagnon of Cumberland, Rhode Island, was an archetype of the time.  A self-made man, Gagnon started a plastics business in his basement and soon turned it into an international concern. In newspaper reports of the murder, he was described as a man about town who carried 1000 pre-inflation dollars in his pocket.

     Gagnon's residence was burglarized in the winter of 1958, soon after he bought the Cadillac.  Frederick J. Martineau and Russell J. Nelson were accused of the crime and thus faced life imprisonment under Rhode Island's "burglary committed after 6:00 p.m." statute.  On February 8, 1959, they tried to force Gagnon into changing his testimony.  Even after a beating, Gagnon refused, so they shot him as he sat in the passenger's seat of his own car.  The Cadillac and Gagnon were dumped in a bad section of Nashua, New Hampshire.

     It's possible the two might have made their escape except that, while attempting to slip away from the scene at 1:00 a.m., Nelson drove the wrong way out of Nashua.  They turned around and went back through town, and that attracted the attention of two rookie cops, who stopped and held the out-of-towners on "suspicion."  (Remember this was 1959.)

     After sitting in a state garage for fifteen years, the car was returned to Gagnon's company in 1974 - where it sat for another seven years until Pfanstiehl heard about it.  It took Pfanstiehl several more years to obtain the Cadillac's floor mats.  He pestered officials until the mats, complete with bloodstains, were found in a musty courthouse basement.

     When Pfanstiehl finally got the car, it had 2216 miles on the clock. He drove it only another sixteen miles, just to see what 1959 was like.  You can see the legendary Caddy yourself if you visit the Car Palace Museum in Somerset, Massachusetts.  But we'll warn you right now, not all the legend is intact.  The seats don't smell.

--Mac DeMere

Automobile Magazine, July 1990.

My father has this to add:

When I was a whipper snapper - - -
As a teenager - a concept no doubt that you cannot imagine I worked in a glass and upholstery shop doing grunt work.

The owner of the shop had bought a new Buick that had been found in the desert with the owner of the car in it dead for some time.  It had the smell - so he got it cheap.

All the upholstery - everything non metal - was removed from inside the car - cleaning of all surfaces etc. - reinstall everything new It was beautiful.   But, just park it outside in the sun with windows rolled up - the smell came out of the base metals - again and you could not stand it.  All that work for nothing. It had to be junked.

I owned one of these, a 1959 Eldorado/Seville, one of 975.  Bought it in Phoenix, in 1980 for $300, no brakes, and the usual transmission problem: 1st & 3rd gears only.  Air suspension (not air-assist, or load-leveling: air-suspension!, with a chrome lever under the dash to change ride height.).  An air compressor was built onto the back of the power steering pump, a little air-cooled vee-twin job.  An air reservoir was behind the grille, and leveling valves were plumbed and linked to the suspension: one valve in the rear, two in front.  The suspension was Firestone air bags.

"Wonderbar"(tm) radio, touch-tuning via a button on the floor you could tap with your toe, and it would auto-tune to the next (AM only) station.  Via a motor on the tuner; this is pre-digital tuning.  Hell, this is pre-transistor!  "Autronic Eye" would dim the headlights automatically for oncoming traffic, via a photocell on the dash and a huge tube amplifier in the left kick panel.

With a factory 390ci engine (same as the rest of the Cadillac line for 1959-63), the Eldorado package added factory dual exhaust and three two barrel carburetors.  Air conditioning automatically added a lower ratio rear axle and added more blades to the cooling fan -- after some repair, the vintage A/C cooled very well.

Mine was missing the 3x2 induction when I purchased it (earlier Eldorados had 2x4 induction), but it got a respectable 18 mpg highway -- this compares well to my non-A/C '62 CdV that peaked at 21 mpg @ 60 mph, which I owned just a few months prior to acquiring this '59.

This car was sold to a fellow in Portland, Ore. in 1982 for $800 -- it had substantial rust, and the price at the time was reasonable.  It was purchased mainly for the rare Eldorado trim, which was stripped and shipped to Japan to upgrade a CdV convertible of the same year.  A year later, the Glendale, Calif. police department informed me (the car was still registered to me??) that the car had been impounded.  When I enquired, I was informed that the condition was "stripped".

Improvements for 1960 (over the '59):

If anyone knows of other improvements, email me and let me know.

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Last updated  10-Dec-2005.