The Cadillac Queen
In the man’s world of vintage car restorations, Cadillac expert Elsa Nicodemus has no trouble fitting in.
The Cadillac Queen
Who do you call when your vintage Caddy needs a tune-up? Elsa Nicodemus, of course. That's because this auto ace runs Dutchess County's FEN Enterprises, one of the most renowned Cadillac restoration businesses in the world.
Text by Don Dale Photographs by Michael Polito
When Mick Jagger was searching for a car to kick off the Rolling Stones’ Bridges to Babylon Tour in 1997, he chose one of Elsa Nicodemus’s Cadillacs — a 1955 royal red Eldorado Biarritz. “It’s the most gorgeous car. It has a red and white
interior, the most beautiful wire wheels, and red caps to match. Everything has been flawlessly restored,” says Nicodemus, who snagged VIP press seats to watch the Stones drive her Caddy back and forth across the Brooklyn Bridge. “It was very cool. We got a signed poster of the car with all their autographs. Mick was very nice. But he was worried about stopping the car because it had no park on it, only neutral, so you had to pull up an emergency brake,” she says. “But he was so happy with the car, he got out with the biggest grin on his face.”
It’s not really surprising that the world’s greatest rock and roll band sought out Nicodemus. Because when a “Buggatiste” needs work on his priceless vintage Bugatti, he heads for a little shop in Locust Valley on Long Island; and the mecca for preserving old Porsches is down in sunny Florida. But when someone wants a vintage Cadillac spruced up to its original glory, the odds are good that they’ll be racing to Nicodemus’s FEN Enterprises in Wappingers Falls. For here, in an imposing stone-and-concrete building dubbed “the castle,” lies one of the most prominent Cadillac restoration and parts businesses in the world.
“My customers range from the very, very wealthy — those who spend $200,000 and want to win a car show — to the customer who just wants to bring it in for a tune-up,” says Nicodemus, noting that on average, a full restoration takes about 18 months. “I give them all the same quality, the same service, the same attention. I think that is why we’ve been so well received.”
Nicodemus and her ex-husband, who shared a passion for 1959 Cadillacs, first put the business in gear in 1984. “The 1959 was the epitome of the 1950s because of the fins and the car itself. It was a design that very few people had the courage to purchase because it was so avant-garde. I thought they were incredible,” she says. Early on, Nicodemus’s main contribution to the business was her ability to sew authentic upholstery; her full-time job at the time was as a production pattern maker in Manhattan’s garment district.
“A lot of people underestimate the job of a pattern maker,” she explains. “It requires making a pattern for thousands of garments, estimating the fabric yardage, the trim, and all the costs that go into making the garment. But all that taught me how to run a business.”
FEN started in the back room of the old farmhouse where Elsa and her ex lived, then moved to a pole barn in their backyard, and in 1995 into “the castle.” Along the way, Elsa quit her job in the city, and moved her needle-and-thread expertise permanently to the Hudson Valley. Eventually, she became involved in every aspect of the business. “I had a hands-on job. That’s how I learned about the cars, just by being around them,” she says.
In 2002, after her divorce, Nicodemus took over the firm. “I was absolutely terrified,” she says. “Not of running the business, but of being accepted as a woman who is solely in charge of a business.”
Today, she is proud to be one of the handful of women in this line of work. “This is truly a man’s world; I have very few women customers. Some men may feel insecure having a woman in charge, making decisions about mechanical items. There is a lot of trust in this; sometimes people’s cars are in my shop for a year and a half. But I’m very honest with my customers. I know everything about these cars, and I reassure them.”
Nicodemus is proud of the reputation for fairness and quality workmanship that she has built up over the years. And she gets personally involved with all her clients. “Often, owners love the car they purchased, but they don’t see past the nuts and bolts,” she says. “It is my responsibility, at both a conceptual and artistic level, to visualize for the owner all the endless possibilities for his classic.”
On a tour of the shop floor, Elsa points to a 1966 Eldorado Biarritz, which belongs to country singer Alan Jackson. FEN has also redone two Cadillacs for the CEO of Samsung Electronics — one each for his car museums in Germany and Korea. The team has also restored Caddies for owners in France, Ireland, Germany, Sweden, England, Italy and other international destinations. “I use e-mail and photography to keep our clients updated on the progress of the work,” she says.
She certainly seems to know her stuff. Wandering around the castle, she points to an engine. It had recently been painted a classic Cadillac dark blue, and was still drying. The original paint job, she explains, would have been burned off from engine heat; this new paint is heat-resistant and will retain its luster. Under the lift, looking up at the belly of the car, she points out that the bolts are being restored; the original, no doubt rusty, bolts will be sandblasted and cadmium plated before being returned to the chassis.
Nicodemus explains that the vintage years for Cadillacs range from around 1936 to 1978. A ’36 Cadillac Coupe is the oldest model the shop has restored; it belongs to a Dartmouth professor, who takes it to car shows after FEN ensures that it is spotless. The ’36 continually racks up awards. In fact, Hemmings Motor News, the authority on car restorations, notes that cars prepared by FEN have won the highest honors at every major vintage car show, and that their work is continually cited as “renowned.”
So will she share any tricks of the trade? “When we’re working on a car,” Nicodemus says, “sometimes we have to see what it might have looked like originally.” Although there is a much-thumbed book that purportedly shows pictures of every vintage Cadillac (“I tried to buy another copy, and would you believe, it’s $500?”), sometimes it’s necessary to go “out to the library” — a lot behind the main building filled with original vintage Caddy parts cars — just to make sure.
The castle used to be a health club, and that architecture certainly has its advantages. The hospital-clean, temperature-controlled work space occupies what were once racquetball courts. Hanging on one wall are literally thousands of Cadillac wheels. In another room, there are wiring harnesses and spark plugs, rust-free fenders and sheet metal. In the back of the shop — stacked three cars high on specially installed heavy-duty lifts — are 18 Cadillacs. Some belong to customers who await their turn on the shop floor, others are FEN’s own vehicles which will someday be restored. Above the shop floor, Nicodemus’s office occupies what was the health club’s viewing room. “It’s a great advantage,” she says mischievously. “I can spot something wrong and be downstairs in a minute.”
Not that she expects anything to go awry. Nicodemus trusts her staff and, walking through the shop, the high regard FEN’s employees have for their boss is evident. (Many of them have been with her company for years.) A mother of five, she knows and commiserates with their outside-of-the-job needs. “Who wants to work the day after Christmas?” she asks. “That's just crazy.” Nicodemus is also sympathetic to perfect strangers who may have a car question. “No, restoring a 1966 Olds is not up our alley, but I’ll find someone for you,” she tells a caller.
Nicodemus says that, unlike old Corvettes or Thunderbirds “where you can pick up a catalogue and order just about any replacement part,” many vintage Cadillac parts are no longer available. To fill the void, FEN has created molds in order to actually manufacture more than 70 previously unavailable restoration parts for 1950s Cadillacs (including exhaust ports, non-Eldorado bumper ends, convertible top latches, ashtray springs, floor mats, and exterior ornamentation). The company now has a thriving Internet-based business selling their replicas, as well as other Cadillac parts, to customers all around the globe. “There are other Cadillac parts dealers, but they do not have the volume that we have or our expertise, because we use the parts we sell,” she says.
Some parts, though, seem to defy replication, like vintage airbag suspensions. Elsa reports she did manage to restore the suspension in a 1960 Eldorado Biarritz. “The bags were incredibly expensive to locate, and we often had to fabricate some lines and fittings, but we got it working and the ride is beautiful.”
And while Nicodemus spends most of her days looking at old cars, she keeps a forward focus when it comes to her business. While cars continue to line up for restorations, Nicodemus is currently working on developing at-home restoration kits that contain professional-quality components, “so that, with a lot of elbow grease, these owners can enrich the beauty of the car themselves. There is a whole world of classic-Cadillac owners who would love to go out to their garage on a weekend and be able to work on their baby.”
And as for her own babies? In addition to the Biarritz, Nicodemus owns a 1958 Eldorado Seville, but she usually cruises about the Hudson Valley in an Audi. “I like the four-wheel-drive quality of it in the winter,” she says. “I take my Cadillacs out purely for my pleasure. When you take a ride in one of these cars, you come back happy.”
And happy is what it’s all about. “I love old cars, and I can’t think of anything better in life than doing what you love.”
That, of course, and being “the Cadillac” of your chosen line of work.