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Classic Cadillacs turned into show cars at garage near NYC


Associated Press Writer

AP Photo/Mike Groll

Cadillac Queen

WAPPINGERS FALLS, N.Y. (AP) -- In a repair shop packed with Cadillacs - the classic kind with fins, whitewall tires, curvy chrome bumpers and V-8 engines that get miles per gallon you can count on your fingers - Elsa Nicodemus showed off a favorite.

It's a 1956 Series 62 convertible with an obsessively polished aqua paint job, rocket cones poking out from the front grille and an engine that runs with a hushed chug.

"Now you're going to know the difference between a Ford and a Chevy and a Cadillac," she said, opening the driver's door. Even the black and aqua leather seats shine. "This is an automobile."

Nicodemus could easily have shown off instead the maroon 1940 Series 60 jacked up nearby, or the long, white '59 Eldorado Biarritz convertible with its interior ripped out, or any of the dozen-plus classic Cadillacs stacked three-high on hydraulic lifts at her sprawling garage.

All the classic cars here are gorgeous - or about to be. Nicodemus' shop 65 miles north of New York City specializes in restoring road-worn Cadillacs. Her business, FEN Enterprises, takes apart rusted, busted classics and puts them back together as show cars. It works on everything from old Great Gatsby-looking sedans to the more recent boxier classics - though Nicodemus has a soft spot for the famous fins and curves.

"Cadillacs in the '50s, they were the epitome of bourgeois America. I mean, that was it!" she said. "The pinnacle of buying a car was getting a Cadillac. Every family ran around with this thought: `One day, I'll have a Cadillac.' ... That was the American car, the American dream."

Mechanics here work on jobs as small as an oil change, but their specialty is "frame-off" restorations. Individual car parts are photographed, sandblasted and replated. Seats are reupholstered. Rust holes are plugged with fresh sheet metal. Engines are lubed and tuned. Exteriors are primed, wet sanded and painted multiple times to attain a mirror finish.

Missing parts are fabricated or plucked from a parts room loaded with springs, mirrors, radiators and other bits harvested from old Cadillacs. (FEN also sells parts by mail.) There's also a mini-junkyard outside of Cadillacs in various states of disrepair.

A frame-off runs from $150,000 to $200,000. Nicodemus only fits in two jobs a year and is booked through 2009. A few clients are famous. In 1997, FEN provided the Cadillac Mick Jagger drove over the Brooklyn Bridge to promote the Rolling Stones' Bridges to Babylon tour.

Nicodemus fell in love with Cadillacs when her father bought a 1956 sedan DeVille with a pink body and a black top. She has owned a bunch of classic Cadillacs herself, and currently glides around in a cherry red '55 Eldorado Biarritz, though her everyday car is an Audi S4.

Despite her longtime love of Cadillacs, Nicodemus and her ex-husband basically stumbled into the business restoration.

They were looking to start a business in 1984 when she put her pattern-making skills to use for Cadillac trunk linings. That led to a business selling old Cadillac parts and, three years later, their first restoration: a 1958 Eldorado Biarritz missing a floor. "A Flintstones car," she recalled.

The couple's business partnership dissolved along with their marriage, and she took control. Since 1995, the business has been housed in an old fitness center. Cars are restored under the high ceilings of old racquetball courts with the dividing walls ripped out. There are separate rooms for painting and body work.

Nicodemus insists her standard is perfection. If there is a pencil-point mark in the paint, the car is returned.

"Most of the owners that come here want something above everyone else's," Nicodemus said. "I have to think for them, feel for them."

Chris Milici, of the New England Region Cadillac LaSalle Club, said FEN's work is "very well respected."

While it's easy to appreciate the candy colored-cars that roll out of here, Nicodemus likes them all, even the rusty relics. She brags about the junked cars out back as if they're best in show and becomes animated talking about a stack of old bumpers in the parts room. Walking through FEN's body shop, she leaned in close to an old, dull frame that is barely recognizable as part of a classic Cadillac.

"Look down the side of it," she cooed at the car. "It's beautiful!"


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