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Auto Shows On display at the Toronto auto show: The most ‘utterly preposterous two-passenger car ever built’

Philippe Barraud’s 1937 Series 90 Cadillac Hartmann Cabriolet is on display at the Canadian International AutoShow.

Philippe Barraud wanted the biggest, boldest sports car on the Swiss Riviera, and the proof of his success in securing that vehicle dwarfs everything else at the Canadian International AutoShow, which opened to the public on Friday at the Metro Toronto Convention Centre.

Barraud’s 1937 Series 90 Cadillac Hartmann Cabriolet is 6.7 metres, or 22 feet long. Consider, by comparison, a contemporary eight-seat Escalade ESV, the longest current Cadillac, which is nearly a metre shorter than Barraud’s two-seater. And while Rolls-Royce named its Cullinan SUV after the largest diamond ever found, at 5.3 metres long it’s a mere nugget compared to the Hartmann-bodied Cadillac.

Small in stature, Barraud aspired to largess. In family snapshots, he’s immaculately turned out, hair glossed with brilliantine. His daughter once told Cadillac historian Yann Saunders that Barraud never really held a job but played at banking.

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Barraud was 24 when he made his way to Lausanne’s Edelweiss Garage late in 1936, with thoughts of a car so grand it’d render his friends’ Delages and Delahayes invisible. Perusing the Cadillac catalogue, he fixed on the Fleetwood Convertible Coupe: its 154-inch wheelbase was huge, the V-16 engine unmatched in cylinder count and silent operation. But the standard upright and formal body wouldn’t do. Barraud ordered his Cadillac without a body – only the chassis and V-16 running gear.

Willy Hartmann, of Carrosserie Hartmann Lausanne, would cloak the chassis in suitably grand coachwork. Barraud ordered one seat for himself and one for a companion, amidst great expanses of sculpted metal stretching fore and aft. From Hartmann’s concept sketches, he chose the over-the-top streamliner with fully skirted fenders enclosing the tires front and rear. The design wasn’t unprecedented. Other coach builders introduced skirted fenders at shows in Berlin in 1935 and Paris in 1936.

The massive Cadillac currently belongs to Jim Patterson of Louisville, Ky.

Darin Schnabel/RM Sotheby's

Saunders, self-described as “Cadillac-crazy” from the day he happened upon a 1956 Sedan de Ville advertisement in National Geographic, traced the Cadillac Hartmann like Ahab and the white whale. The second owner, according to his database, paid the the equivalent of US$925, and the ninth, US$1.4-million. The present and 10th known owner, Jim Patterson of Louisville, Ky., founder of the Long John Silver fast food chain and owner of 47 Wendy’s franchises, purchased the car for an undisclosed amount in 2013.

Patterson turned to RM Auto Restoration of Chatham-Kent, Ont., the shop responsible for his 1936 Delahaye, which won Best of Show at Pebble Beach in 2010. “It was a basket case when they got it,” Steve Plunkett, the leading Cadillac collector from London, Ont., says of the Hartmann. “I saw it at several stages – the chassis done beautifully, then the engine running with no body … very impressive.“

Three earlier restorations had strayed wildly from the original. RM’s 10,000-hour restoration returned the Hartmann to its proper cream colour, with newly crafted components such as the true-to-original headlamps, made possible by early photographs that Saunders obtained in 2017.

RM’s Don McLellan drove the Cadillac Hartmann in Pebble Beach’s 80-mile tour prior to the concours. “That V-16 is a work of art, “ McLellan said, “ultimately smooth with 16 cylinders balancing out the firing pulses. It’ll idle down to 300 rpm; it’ll start from a standstill in top gear.

“Otherwise, well, you feel like you’re very small. The car being so huge, it’s difficult judging the front of the car. And the turning circle is very wide with those skirts [enclosing the wheels], that made for a few three-point turns.”

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Cars from his Patterson Collection often tour like rock stars. The Cadillac Hartmann, a centrepiece of the Art and the Automobile exhibit in the South Building during the Toronto show, arrived from a previous booking at the Ferrari club’s annual Palm Beach gathering at Donald Trump’s Mar-A-Lago club. At the famed Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance in August, it won the American Classics Open class and the award for most elegant convertible.

A poster promoting the Art and the Automobile exhibit features Barraud's Cadillac.

Jay Koka/Canadian International AutoShow

Eighty years on, many don’t know what to make of it. Artist Jay Koka captured its immense presence in an Art and the Automobile poster, but he struggles to be nice. “I’d just finished a painting of a Figoni and Filaschi Teardrop Coupe, could be one of the most beautiful cars on the planet … and the Hartmann is kind of a pick-up on that, and I don’t think as pretty a car,” he said.

Saunders puts its present value at $12-million, given its rarity as one of only 50 V-16-chassis Cadillacs manufactured in 1937.

“I love it and I hate it too,” Saunders wrote in his The (New) Cadillac Database, in which he dedicates 104 pages to the car’s history through the 10 owners. “I think it is probably the most enormous, outrageous and utterly preposterous two-passenger car ever built."

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Electric and green or high-performance cars and the internal combustion engine, Petrina Gentile and Mark Richardson debate the future of cars at the Canadian International AutoShow in Toronto.

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