We’d been on the ground in Albuquerque for less than an hour when the old man picked us up in a dusty Acura SUV. He was selling a 1972 Cadillac Eldorado convertible and I’d flown out with the prospective buyer to help him assess the car before he parted with the cash. The seller had sent a report from a well-known company indicating that the Cad was a solid machine, but the buyer wanted me along as a second pair of experienced eyes; just in case. The idea was we’d give the car a thorough shakedown by spending a day cruising the high desert with the top down, stopping occasionally to take on rellenos and cerveza before flying back to Baltimore. The Caddy would then be shipped east.
The car was stored at the seller’s hacienda on the outskirts of town, roughly a 25-minutes’ drive from the airport. He said he’d drive us there then drop us off at our lodgings near Old Town Albuquerque after we’d checked out the car. My phone pinged; the buyer texted “I wanted to drive it while we were here.” Meanwhile, the codger told a meandering version of how he came to live in New Mexico interwoven comments about snow being forecast. I silently prayed he wouldn’t cotton on to the fact that both I and the buyer were queer as three-dollar bills- he seemed the type who wouldn’t take kindly to “fancy boys.”
The old man treated the throttle of his Acura like an on/off switch and braked at the last possible moment. Every time he stopped the rear brakes gave out a noise like Satan gritting his teeth. “Sir, you might want to get your brakes checked, they’re grinding quite a bit,” I said. The seller had on a high-powered hearing aid, so I surmised he was unaware of the problem. “I had ‘em checked; my mechanic says that’s how these cars are.” “Sure they are“, I thought wryly. At the same moment my phone pings again, the buyer riding up front messaged, “He’s going to kill us.” We arrived at the hacienda pale and shaken.
The Eldorado was in the garage under a custom car cover that could just about double as a circus tent, we peeled it back to uncover two and a half tons of woeful panel fit and muddy, ill-applied, bilious green paint. He pulled the car out, and to its credit, the 500-cubic-inch mill lit straight away and idled smoothly. The hulking car burbled to itself in the cool desert air, and I circled it like a vulture, every inch revealing another flaw.
The righthand rear corner of the hood was about 1/3 of an inch proud of the fender, by the base of the windshield. “I replaced that spring, and it’s still like that,” said the old man, oblivious to the seriousness of the issue. Most of the front panels were misaligned, the trunk lid fit badly and practically all the brightwork was either damaged, dull, or poorly fitted. This was not a case of a nice original car that had acquired patina, it was bodged.
As it sat there idling self-consciously, I felt a twinge of pity for the Eldo and its delusional seller. Eldorado means “the gilded one,” or, “that which is made of gold;” it was the very pinnacle of the Cadillac lineup, an idol to wealth and luxury. That this particular car was so down-at-heel was ignominious and that its seller seemed out of touch with that reality was sad.
“You should drive it,” the old man said. Though we knew that the buyer would have to pass on the car we couldn’t very well decline. “I can put down the top a little bit, but not all the way,” he said. We clambered into the formerly white cabin; from the back seat, I could see paint overspray on some of the windows and that giant safety pins were holding parts of the convertible top linkage together. I discretely tested the power windows and found that the right rear quarterlight would go down, but not up. There’d be no music nor heat on the test drive either, the HVAC system and stereo were kaput. “I should tell you, I bought the car salvaged and put on the front fenders from a coupe,” the seller stated nonchalantly. “The hell you say,” I thought. Still, the big V8 pulled hard, and the three-speed automatic slurred its shifts in true Cadillac fashion, which brought more into focus problems like sun-bleached trim and splitting seams. No, this car wouldn’t do.
Back at the hacienda we pled tiredness and steeled ourselves for the terrifying drive into town. The seller dropped as at a restaurant in downtown Albuquerque that had come highly recommended. Unlike the Cad, Cocina Azul was as good as promised. They served up savory carne adovada rellenos topped with red and green chili- the best I’ve ever had. A cold and bitter local IPA made for the perfect counterpoint to the breaded, fried peppers. My friend couldn’t resist a dessert of billowy sopapillas sweetened with honey and neither could I.
Staring at our empty lunch plates the person previously known as the buyer said, “We’re going to have to rent a car.” A national rental car agency whose website promised a fair deal on a full-size sedan had an office nearby. At the desk, the friendly agent told us we couldn’t get a full-size sedan because there were only two cars on the lot: a largeish Ford SUV and an Audi Q3 crossover.
The Audi seemed the most promising of the two, we signed off on the inspection and took the keys, yes keys. Apparently, drivers of base model Audis must risk repetitive stress injuries to their wrists by inserting an ignition key and twisting it to start the car. Our Q3 was white on the outside, hard and grey on the inside and just about every interface with it was unpleasant (did VAG get a deal on some GM interior plastics from the 90s?). The steering was dead and over-assisted, the brakes were grabby, and the ABS system chattered back like a parrot. This was one ride that had designs well above its station. I named it Karen.
Recuperating in our rooms, the disheartened buyer kept sending me listings for other Eldorados, an orange one in LA looked especially tasty and the buyer was considering wiring a deposit, except for two issues. Firstly, someone else had already placed a deposit, and secondly, when I sent the listing to an expert in Palm Springs to revue, he noted a number of red flags indicating the car was probably tarted up to flip and could be harboring big, expensive issues.
Later we joined a friend at a brewery, of which there are plenty in Albuquerque. A heavily bearded car-mad sort of fellow with Citroen chevrons tattooed on his arm and a yard full of weird old machines- good people, in other words. He’d showed up in one of his cars, a late 70s Lincoln Continental Town Car, all five miles of it in gorgeous medium bluish-green, its interior was a symphony of heavily pleated color-matched leather and deep pile carpet. The Connie’s heavy formal C pillars are relieved by the famous oval opera window etched with the evocative star and a massive, formal grille completes the image of luxurious travel. My friend’s Continental was everything the Eldorado had promised to be and wasn’t. Even the 8-Track player worked. The previously aspiring Cadillac owner came over all Toad of Toad Hall and began frothing slightly at the mouth.
As promised the snow started falling late the next afternoon and we found ourselves stuck in the thick of it. Rush hour in a city of half a million souls-most of whom are unaccustomed to snow- was a nerve-wracking experience not helped at all by Karen’s overly sensitive brake pedal and primitive ABS. Still, we were able to stroll around the plaza in Old Town with its tourist shops and ancient church. We were also able to eat more fabulous New Mexican food and perch on hard chairs at a cat café (an experience that reinforced my love for my dogs).
A light rain flecked the plane’s oval windows as we made our descent into Baltimore. We were very tired and grateful to collect our bags from the carousel and drive home. My friend had packed some exotic salsas and I collected some New Mexican beer and piñon coffee. They’d be nice reminders of a pleasant southwestern junket that, sadly, did not result in the purchase of a 1972 Cadillac Eldorado convertible.
After flying thousands of miles for what amounted to a bad blind date, I figured it’d be some time before my friend found the right car. I mean, a little bit of serendipity should come into play, the right thing at the right time, and so on. My phone pinged again, “I just put a deposit on a 79 Town Car in Florida.”