By M. Park Hunter
Photos by the author

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This article originally appeared in the August 1996 issue of Classic Auto Restorer. Call 800/735-9335 for subscription information.

When too much is never enough

The dream car for many restorers is a muscle or pony car, preferably a convertible. They crave the excitement of big horsepower and wind-in-the-hair cruising. There's a problem, though. The first, second and third owners of these hot numbers were typically boy-racer pump jockeys who rode their steeds hard and put 'em up wet. The result is that most pony cars left unrestored today are used up and ready for the glue factory.

If that kind of project sounds like an old nag rather than the hobby horse you're looking for, then think big. Really, really big. Take the 1968 Cadillac convertible: 19 linear feet of Detroit's finest ragtop.

Luxury cars usually don't compete in the stoplight derby, but they offer giant engines in roomy convertibles plus one huge advantage. The first owner was typically affluent, older and more responsible. The cars were pampered, usually treated to easy driving, regular maintenance, and the safety of a garage or car port. As Fred and Bev Zerbe have found, this makes the restorer's job less fuss and more fun.

The Zerbes have been active in antique cars for a while with various '30s and '40s era Cadillacs and Chryslers, but Bev bought this modern heavy roller at an auction just a few years ago. Fred says she had gone to preview the cars a day ahead and told him, "Well, it's turquoise, and it's a convertible, and it's the one I want."

Fred adds, "She was the only gal bidding on the car and she won it. Then she came home and said, 'Guess what? I got a car!'"

The Zerbes went down the next day and drove the car home. The Cadillac was mechanically near perfect, and they soon took it on a 600 mile tour of Route 66. Fred says it didn't miss a lick. Since then, they've done a light restoration: new paint in the original color with a clear polycoat sprayed over it, patched seat cushions, a recharged air conditioner, repaired radio and clock, and a new set of radial tires.

No tinkering has been needed under the hood. The odometer shows 33,000 miles, but the Zerbes have no history on the car and don't know whether this is accurate. The real number could be 133,000 miles or anything in between. It's not unusual for these big Cadillac engines to go that kind of distance trouble-free. Says Fred, "it's tight as a tick and runs cool. We've been driving and touring it ever since we got it."

Their Cadillac benefits from a much-improved engine over previous years. Not that earlier Cadillacs were exactly underpowered, mind you, but there must have been some engineers who felt that 429 cubic inches weren't enough. The 1968 Caddy debuted with the King Kong of all hairy-chested V-8s: 472 cubes and 375 horsepower.

"That was the killer, reliable engine," says John Foust. A Texan who deals in vintage Cadillacs and parts, Foust is one of the Cadillac-LaSalle Club's experts on late-model Caddys. His easy-going drawl can't conceal an enthusiasm for these monsters; Foust is the Apostle of Hugeness. He picks the '68 DeVille as the most reasonably priced of the new generation, high horsepower Cadillacs.

Foust touts several mechanical changes in the new engines. Previous Cadillac V-8s used steel timing gears and an aluminum timing cover, which often caused problems as the gears wore into the cover. The external oil pump was also bolted to the timing cover, making it tricky to tighten bolts when changing the pump without cross threading or stripping the bolt holes.

Cadillac solved these problems the old-fashioned way, Foust says: "Steel, steel, steel. [It] had a steel timing cover and internal oil pump. That was the beginning of that great engine that carried them through '76. The new engine's credentials were considered to be world class. No other engine that year exceeded the displacement or the torque. Every '68 Cadillac had a 472 engine with 525 foot-pounds."

Those impressive numbers meant Cadillac drivers payed a premium at the pump. On the road, owners might see 17 miles per gallon from a well-maintained car. In town, mileage dropped to about eight according to Foust. Fortunately, massive power and longevity mattered more to Cadillac owners than miserly fuel consumption.

The power was immediately obvious, but time has proven the 472's longevity as well. Cadillac's new engine was well-engineered and tough. Foust claims the only major work that usually needs to be done after 100,000 miles is replacing the timing chain and gears. With regular maintenance, he has seen some of these engines reach 200,000 miles without trouble.

Should something go wrong, parts are readily available. According to Foust, "97 percent of the mechanical parts on that car -- transmission, engine, rear end, exhaust -- are available new through local parts houses. The carb is the first generation of Quadra-Jets [another common part]. Shocks are still available, and new coil springs, new ball joints. A/C and water pumps are on the shelf."

Manifolds are the biggest parts problem Foust is aware of. No aftermarket suppliers have offered reproductions. Older Cadillacs had problems with both manifolds cracking; on the '68, this was mostly limited to the exhaust manifold. If either one is cracked, however, it is tricky to weld them and get a show-quality finish.

Most Cadillac owners use lead substitutes in their gas unless they've rebuilt the engine with hardened Stellite valve seats. The big V-8 enjoys high octane, but Foust says some owners shy away from premium pump gas because they worry about the additives affecting their engines. On the other hand, Zerbe feeds his car 93 octane unleaded and says it runs fine.

Older luxury cars often have trouble with all the electrical and power doodads, but Foust says late '60s Cadillacs are usually pretty good. The convertible top mechanism is a standard hydraulic design and is reliable, although air bubbles in the lines can cause erratic movement. Foust says the power windows are also faithful and their simple electric mechanisms are obvious to troubleshooters.

Still, more options mean more possible sources of trouble. Restorers are advised to test all the gadgets in any car they think of buying and decide how much nit-picking work they can put up with.

Rust isn't too much of a problem. As Foust puts it, "they're built of plate steel almost." He says the lower front fender on Cadillacs is the most likely place to find rust. This is an easy place to weld in a patch. The chrome molding at the lip of the hood is another trouble spot. Made of pot metal, it tended to crack and good replacements are hard to find.

Foust likes the styling of the '68 DeVille convertibles. "The stacked headlights definitely set it apart from any other car on the road and make it look older," he says. Other 1968 Cadillacs had already gone back to horizontal quad headlamps, and DeVilles changed over the following year.

Paint options included most of the rainbow and the pot at its end. Foust says, "I can tell you gold was probably the most popular color. Then you had this wicked turquoise green. [After those,] you name it -- red, white, black, three shades of green, three shades of blue, beige, metallic brown, pinkish lilac, lemony yellow..." Cadillac colors were chosen to convey glamour and wealth. It worked: that much paint slathered onto a slab-sided Cadillac makes a forceful visual statement in any decade. Though many colors were offered, the mix numbers are still available and paint shops have no trouble reproducing them.

Some Cadillac DeVilles have an unusual styling feature. Front disc brakes were an option in 1968 but were rarely installed on the rear-wheel-drive DeVilles. Still, Foust claims it's not uncommon to see slotted DeVille wheel covers designed for cooling the disc brakes even on drum brake Caddys. He believes the factory simply had an excess supply of these hubcaps and fit them to drum brake cars to use them up.

Inside, Cadillac-brand luxury consisted of ample space for tag-team wrestling, including leather seats to coddle the combatants' sensitive skin and plenty of gizmos to entertain them between rounds. Nearly any modern option was available: power windows, power locks, heated power seats, power top, tilt wheel, and even a set-and-forget climate control.

This nifty feature let the driver dial in a temperature and then automatically used the air conditioning or heater to maintain this level. According to Foust, the system rarely causes any trouble. However, be sure to test it before buying a car. The system is complex and repairs are beyond the realm of most hobbyists.

Real wood veneer was used on the dash and in the door panels for an extra touch of elegance. This is sometimes a trouble item for restorers. Especially in old convertibles, the veneer can start to delaminate and look shabby. Foust says this problem is easily remedied with a little creativity. According to him, the sheets of wood grain used on Chrysler minivans are a good source of material. They cost about $88 and are big enough to do three cars. If possible, the old veneer pieces should be used as patterns to cut new ones.

If simple tricks like this make it sound like these gonzo Caddys are easy restorations, you've got the big picture. The basic reliability of the cars combined with the ready availability of parts means a typical project is short on frustration and long on driving fun. It helps if you have an appreciation for really big toys. After all, the pampered pleasure of luxury cruising is what these cars were designed for. Fred Zerbe sums his reasons for liking this car: it's reliable, neat for touring, and always ready for parades and special events.

What price luxury? Pretty affordable, actually. The nice thing about late '60s Cadillacs is that big fun doesn't carry a big price tag. You can buy one of these Cadillacs and still have money left for gas. Foust says, "That's the beautiful thing. [You] can get into one of these cars for $3000 to $5000 for a good running, driving car that may need some paint." As a bonus, Foust expects the end-of-the-decade Cadillacs to hold their value or even appreciate.

"I think it's baby boomers trying to catch up to what they see as the epitome of wealth and decadence," Foust says. "Kids of the '60s and early '70s, they're just coming into the point where they can play, money-wise. The values will head up -- the cars are too affordable, too collectible. People that should be interested in them are starting to get money in their pockets."

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Unfortunately, image quality is currently limited by my hardware. These pictures may be updated with higher resolution and greater color clarity in the future...
Stacked quad headlights were on the endangered species list in 1968, but the big deVille wore them proudly.
Top down, the open Texas highway begs for cruising. The taillights live in vestigial fins, a longtime Cadillac hallmark.
The 472 cubic inch V-8 under the hood of Zerbe's car has never been touched. New for '68, the 472 eventually made quite a reputation for reliability.
The Cadillac crest and hood ornament shouted: "King of the Road!"
Cadillac paid attention to details. They even claimed this mirror with a Cadillac logo.
Power everything was what the Cadillac was about. The small hand crank operates the vent window, and buttons handle everything else.

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1968 Cadillac DeVille convertible
Front engine, rear-wheel-drive convertible coupe
Base price$5736
TypeOhv V-8
Bore x stroke4.30 in. x 4.06 in.
Displacement 472 cu. in.
Compression ratio 10.5:1
Carburetor Single four-barrel
Power 375 bhp at 4400 rpm
Torque 525 lb.-ft. at 3000 rpm
Transmission Turbo Hydra-Matic 400 Series
Transmission gear Gear ratio (:1)
1st 2.48
2nd 1.48
3rd 1.00
Final drive ratio (:1) 2.94
Front Coil springs, independent A-arms
Rear Coil spring, trailing arms, live axle
Brakes (f/r) drum/drum
Type Variable-ratio power assist
Ratio (center/full lock) 16.0:1/12.2:1
Wheelbase 126.0 in.
Length224.7 in.
Width 80.0 in.
Height 54.3 in.
Weight 4600 lbs.
Fuel tank capacity 26 gal.
Tire size 9.00x15
Weight per bhp 12.3 lb.
Average fuel consumption 14 mpg
John Foust
Cadillac owner and service manuals

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MPH -- 68 Cadillac/M. Park Hunter/park@mphinteractive.net/September 1996

Copyright 1996 M. Park Hunter. This page and its contents written, photographed, designed, slaved over, etc. by the author. Please do not copy anything without my permission.

Reset May 20, 1997.