For many people, nothing better expresses the notions of success and the American Dream than owning an expensive luxury automobile. When Elvis Presley became rock’n’roll’s first superstar in the mid-1950s, one of the first things he did to celebrate his newfound fame and fortune was to buy two Cadillac limousines — a pink one for himself and a matching white one for his beloved mother Gladys.
Thus began Presley’s lifelong obsession with the Cadillac — indeed, Elvis became the veritable king of Cadillac buyers. He spent millions buying Cadillacs — at least a hundred of them — and spent millions more having them customised. Many were given away to family, friends, aquaintances and, on occasion, even to complete strangers.
But perhaps more than any other car he owned, the fabled Gold Cadillac embodied and expressed Elvis’s stardom and wealth, his flamboyant taste and his almost limitless capacity for extravagant self-indulgence. As befitted his status as the King of Rock & Roll, his Gold Cadillac, a customised 1960 Series 75 Fleetwood convertible limousine, represented the last word in Sixties automotive luxury and opulence.
By 1960, his recordings and movies had made Elvis rich beyond the dreams of avarice, so price was no object. To create this dream machine, Elvis commissioned George Barris of Barris Kustom Industries in Hollywood. Barris, the “King of Kustomisers”, designed and built some of America’s most famous custom cars and hot-rods. Some of his wildest creations were for films and television series, including the Munsters Koach, the “Black Beauty” (made for the cult action-adventure series The Green Hornet, which co-starred Bruce Lee) and his best-known vehicle, the world-famous Batmobile, which BKI built for the Batman TV series in just three weeks.
Elvis spent US$100,000 (something like AU$2 million in today’s figures) on the Gold Cadillac and had it fitted out with virtually every luxury accessory that money could buy. Inside and out , the style was pure Elvis and as ‘over-the-top’ as Graceland itself.
The passenger compartment and the trunk were upholstered in white pearled leather-grained vinyl and imported gold-coloured crushed velvet. The floor was carpeted in white sheepskin. The interior metal trim and upholstery buttons were plated in 24-karat gold, as were the engraved dashboard plaque and the gold records set into the headlining. Gold lame curtains covered the back windows and separated the front and back seats.
Elvis loved gadgets, and the Gold Cadillac was crammed with them — all gold-plated, of course! They included dual French-made radio-telephones, a Kenwood anti-theft system, a shoe buffer, electric clippers, a refrigerator, a bar and a state-of-the-art entertainment system that included a Kenwood multi-speaker stereo system, 10-disc auto-changer RCA record player, Kenwood tape deck, Kenwood AM-FM radio, and a gold-plated swivel-mounted colour TV.
The gleaming bodywork was as ostentatious as the interior. The two-tone white and gold duco was built up of forty coats of custom-made ‘pearl of essence’ lacquer that contained diamond dust and opalescent fish scales imported from the Orient, hand-rubbed to a dazzling finish, and highlighted by hand-swirled 24-karat gold plate striping. The bumper bars, the hand-spun hubcaps, the wheel rims and covers, the headlight rims, the grille and the custom-made Elvis guitar hood ornament were all plated in 24-karat gold.
“…The Solid Gold Cadillac took the operative fantasy to a grandiose extreme … It was a theme car, honoring gold records and Elvis Presley hits. And it was also, as experience soon proved, undriveable. Traffic stopped whenever the Elvismobile appeared. Mobs surrounded the car. It couldn’t be left unattended for a minute. Every time a fan got close enough to touch a bumper, Barris presented Elvis with a bill for several thousand dollars worth of repairs. Disgusted, Elvis shut the Cadillac up in the garage at Graceland.
“Toward the end of 1966, with his client’s movie career tailing off into something worse than mediocrity and record sales on the wane, Colonel Parker talked RCA into buying the car for $24,000 and sending it on tour as a kind of surrogate for Elvis Presley, who hadn’t made a live appearance in years. So the Cadillac opened shopping centers and allowed itself to be admired in the parking lots of theaters where smaller-than-usual crowds were expected to turn out for the star’s latest film epic … The car tour was a great success. In Houston, 40,000 came to take a look and take home a free `Elvis Presley’s Gold Car’ postcard. In Atlanta, the car was the guest of honor at a dinner for 250 dignitaries…”
from Graceland: Going Home With Elvis by Karal Ann Marling
RCA toured the car internationally with great success in the late Sixties, including the 1968 Australian tour. In the late 70’s it was donated to the Country Music Association Hall of Fame in Nashville, Tennessee, where it is on permanent public display.
In late 1967 Australian Elvis Presley Fan Clubs were thrilled to learn that the Gold Cadillac would be coming to Australia for a fund-raising charity tour. The tour had been arranged by the Benevolent Society of NSW to raise money for the seventeen Australian charities they supported. The tour exhibited the Cadillac in all states, including country areas. “We only have the Cadillac for a set period of time” advised Mr Hanrahan, spokesperson for the Society.
Before it left Memphis, Elvis generously placed US$1,000 worth of toys in the car for needy children around Australia. Mr Walsh, General Manager of RCA Victor finalised the arrangements with Elvis and Colonel Parker, and the Gold Cadillac left the USA on 8 December 1967. It arrived in mid-January 1968 and during the tour thousands of Aussie fans flocked to see the fabulous car that ‘The King’ himself had driven.
Fans could also purchase a range of souvenir items, all of which are collectors items today, and fetch large sums of money when offered for sale. They included:
a souvenir postcard
a souvenir brochure
two b&w RCA publicity pictures of Elvis which had previously been available when buying Elvis records from local stores
various Australian Elvis ‘gold label’ singles,
a gold car autograph sticker, which was affixed to each record purchased.
Elvis Fan Club members worked voluntarily selling the souvenirs, a service for which the Benevolent Society was very grateful.
RCA Australia contributed a display featuring a special series of approximately forty gold records with and gold-and-black labels. The gold records were in recognition the massive sales Elvis had achieved in Australia. The gold records were all supposed to be sent back to the States and presented to Elvis after the tour. Some of the gold singles made it to Graceland, where they are now on display at Graceland’s Hall of Gold; others are held in the Presley Estate’s store rooms. The gold LPs apparently never made it to Graceland and have since disappeared.
At the end of the tour The Benevolent Society’s Elvis Presley Charity Committee sent Elvis a letter of appreciation, informing him that the tour and souvenir sales had been a resounding success, raising AU$149,175 for the Australian Charity Appeal (equivalent to at least $1 million today). Elvis was also made an Honarary Life Governor of the Benevolent Society and the commemorative plaque presented to him still hangs in Graceland’s Hall of Gold.