Flora: 1929 LaSalle Phaeton

Flora: a 1929 LaSalle Phaeton, and the pride of our fleet.

In 1954 our father passed a car yard in inner-Sydney on his way to work and saw an unusual car which caught his interest. The car was obviously from the 1920s and had that classic look which was unique to that period. Further inquiries ascertained the car was a 1929 Cadillac-LaSalle 4-Passenger Phaeton and the only history known was that it was owned by a shearing contractor during the Great Depression and he travelled the Outback from job to job with his shearing equipment stowed in the back of the car.

Our father purchased the car and the rest, as they say, is history.

In 1955 our parents were married and Flora, as we call her, was their first car. Our mother gained her driver’s license on Flora and she remembers the examiner putting a stick of chalk behind the back wheel prior to her handbrake start – if you rolled backwards and the chalk was crushed, you failed. She passed the test. Over the next five years, Flora completed three trips from the Blue Mountains of New South Wales to southern Queensland to visit friends, a round trip of 2,000 kilometres each time, over predominantly gravel roads. She drove through drought-stricken farmland, forded flooded creeks and never missed a beat. When her odometer clicked over the 100,000 mile mark, our father broke a bottle of beer over her radiator and drank a toast in her honour. On Monday, the 1st December 1957, gale force winds whipped up a fire burning at Katoomba Tip, turning it into a raging bushfire. The winds peaked at 100km/h and drove the fire through Leura, destroying nearly all the shops in the mall. The church at the top of the mall burned to the ground, while the Alexandra Hotel was unscathed. The publican was on record as saying “it’s the Devil’s Day in Leura” as he surveyed the carnage. The fire dropped into the Jamison Valley and bore down on Wentworth Falls, heading towards our parent’s house. Mum and Dad saw the fire coming and Dad decided to move Flora across the street to get her out of the path of the fire. He successfully moved Flora, but was trapped on one side of the street while the fire burned over their house, with Mum inside. Thankfully, our parents, along with the house and Flora emerged unscathed, but it was a close call. The fire killed four bushwalkers and destroyed 158 houses in Leura and Wentworth Falls, causing £1,000,000 damage.

In 1930 Wood Coffill Funerals in Sydney took delivery of a fleet of Cadillac hearses and one magnificent Fleetwood-bodied 7-Passenger Imperial Limousine for use as a Mourning Coach. Over the years, the hearses grew old and were sold off or turned into utes, but the Mourning Coach remained. Dad’s travels to work took him past the Wood Coffill workshops and he befriended the mechanics who tended the Cadillacs, learning from them their tips and tricks to keeping the Cadillacs running. In 1964 they decided to close the workshop and sell the Mourning Coach, as it was surplus to their needs. Dad purchased the car, which he drove back to the Blue Mountains. He remembers that the steering was very vague, but the car accelerated up Boddington Hill in top gear. In addition, there was a fully rebuilt 1928 Cadillac engine and an original shop manual, which he purchased as well. The engine was transplanted into Flora, as her original engine was getting tired, with Dad completing the entire job himself.

The mid-1960s saw Mum and Dad start their family and while the Cadillacs were beautiful, they weren’t practical as family vehicles and even with side-curtains, Flora didn’t keep the weather out and there was no heater. They had already purchased a Peugeot ute as their everyday vehicle a few years earlier and subsequently, the vehicles were parked in the shed, with Flora having the occasional outing to keep her battery charged and to keep the engine from seizing. I have fond memories of Dad dropping my brothers and I off to primary school in the mid-1970s and thinking it was the most wonderful experience.

At some point in the early 1960s Dad repainted Flora in British Racing Green, a favourite colour of his. With the black guards and red wheels, she looked stunning. Her seats were reupholstered in lambskin, with the upholsterer spending weeks gathering a matching set of skins that satisfied his standards for the seat. He dyed them in a deep, deep blue that almost looks black. Flora’s hood was also replaced, as the old one had worn out. From the mid-1960s to the late-1980s Flora had the occasional outing, but nothing was done to her from a mechanical or cosmetic aspect. In the late-80s we removed her bonnet and guards and had them repainted and the engine had a minor overhaul – we checked the head gaskets, pistons and rings and installed hardened valve inserts so she could run on unleaded petrol. In December 1995 our brother was having his wedding and wanted Flora for the bridesmaids to travel in. She was washed and polished, I overhauled the carburetor as she was having issues with flooding and a tin of tyre-black completed the preparations. We trucked her to Orange for the day and she performed flawlessly. Flora’s first wedding in December 1995. The first of many to come. In 2003 my brother and I started started researching the wedding car business in the Blue Mountains and determined there was a void to be filled. The Blue Mountains is unique in Australia, with its mix of early 20th Century luxury European-style accommodation, Victorian-era gardens and surrounding National Parks. We thought what better setting for a fleet of late-1920s Cadillac-LaSalle vehicles to treat wedding couples to the ultimate entrance on their special day? Flora, of course, would be the foundation of the business and we set about gathering other Cadillac-LaSalle vehicles that were suitable for restoration and would be appealing as wedding cars.

Vintage car restoration is expensive, time comsuming and not for the faint hearted. After a decade of fits and starts, we were nearing the launch of our venture. Our 1928 Cadillac-LaSalle 5-Passenger Coupe was nearing completion and it was time for Flora to have an overhaul. On the 7th March 2013, she was loaded on a truck and shipped to Wyong, New South Wales, where our restorer Robert was waiting to receive her. Her guards, bonnet and seats were removed and the heads taken off the engine for inspection. As would be expected in a vehicle her age, there was a lot of carbon build-up in the engine and a fair bit of sludge in the sump, but mechanically, she was sound. However, when we removed the rear seat, we found evidence of rot in her timber frame. It was fortuitous that we decided to do the work when we did, as it could have become a lot worse. Having said that, she was 84 at he time, so you would expect a few internal issues in a Grand Dame of that age. The rotted wood was replaced, her frame was strengthened and she received a new paint colour. While we loved the British Racing Green, it just didn’t go with most bridal gowns and as this is really about the bride, we wanted a colour that would complement the bride’s choice of gown. After researching wedding car sites in Australia, the UK and America, we decided on her current hue – a glorious red offset by black guards and white-wall tyres. We had our first wedding booked for the 18th April, 2013, so the pressure was building to have Flora ready for the big day. Six weeks was not a long period to get her ready and the problems with the woodwork set us back a few days. As the countdown wore on, our restorer Robert would send us updates on the progress. It was a relief to see her coming together as the wedding date grew closer. Flora was finished with one day to spare, just enough time for a quick run around Wentworth Falls and a photo shoot at Silveremere. The day of the first wedding dawned grey, wet and windy, but the bride and groom hardly noticed, enjoying their ride to the Carrington Hotel for their reception. If you think that Flora or any one of our other beautiful vintage Cadillac – LaSalles would be the perfect complement to your wedding day, please contact us for details.

Vintage car restoration is expensive, time comsuming and not for the faint hearted.

Flora’s Big Day Out, 18th April, 2013