This rare, classic 1938 Cadillac Town Car has a fascinating history, and went from a dream car to a cherished family heirloom for the Byington family.
When the shiny Cadillac rolled off the Detroit assembly line in 1938, it was already a rarity. One of just 55 models made, the four-door convertible was a high-end luxury car with a leather top and lush interior. It was a limited-edition limousine model, with suicide doors and a massive grill that seemed to emphasize the car’s imposing presence as it navigated down the street, powered by a hard-working eight-cylinder engine.
To put the luxury in perspective, the average new car in 1938 cost $753, and this customized, caramel-colored beauty sold for an astonishing $5,000.
It’s not surprising that its first owner was a wealthy woman who never actually drove the car herself but instead sat in the backseat, talking to her driver through a speaker and microphone. Her legs were too short to reach the floor when seated. Permanent indentations in the otherwise pristine carpet remain from her heels barely skimming the carpet as the car moved.
After her death in the 1970s, the woman’s family sold the car at auction. As it turned out, the buyers were unsavory characters with a shady history and a doomed future, and the car became an unwitting accomplice in their illegal enterprises. Eventually, their luck ran out in Canada, and the criminals were sent to jail. The car was also locked up and all but forgotten.
It was almost 20 years later in 1992 whe Hunter Byington, an automobile salvage yard owner in Chattanooga, Tennessee, caught wind of the story. “It had been impounded in Canada all those years,” says Dick Byington, the youngest son of Hunter Byington. “[My father] started hearing stories about it through the National Cadillac LaSalle Club. He was born in 1926, so that was his dream car, and he knew there weren’t but a handful left.”
Hunter Byington did what any respectable car aficionado would do: he loaded up his 1966 Checker cab station wagon, grabbed his passport, and headed out on a road trip.
Beyond a “Barn Find”
Hunter Byington expected to find a car in disrepair. Instead, he found a car that time forgot. “He got a great bargain on it, because they just wanted to get rid of it,” Dick Byington says. “It started right up, and you could tell it had never been driven in a Michigan winter, because it didn’t have a spot of rust on it. It was almost like it had been sitting in a showroom waiting for him.”
Hunter Byington knew – quickly – that this car wasn’t like his others. He’d restored and sold many Cadillacs and Packards over the years, but this car stole his heart. “He and his friends restored it,” Dick Byington recalls. “It was a labor of love. That car had a soul, a life of its own, and my dad could feel it.”
They worked with a mechanic to build a few parts that needed to be replaced, and when the car was restored, Hunter Byington couldn’t sell it – wouldn’t sell it. Instead, he began offering rides to couples on their wedding day. He only charged them for gas, and that was only because at nine miles to the gallon, the car was a heavy drinker.
“He liked having happy people in his car, and he loved driving it around,” Dick Byington said. “He liked doing nice things for people. I also think he liked the food they fed him at weddings.”
If people wanted to make a donation, he always let them, but he never pocketed the money for himself. Instead, he used the money to make repairs at his church. Over the years, Hunter Byington collected enough donations to replace the church’s sagging roof, and the car became famous in the process.
“It has a funny-sounding horn, and people would wave as the car came down the street. I’ve been to people’s houses and seen pictures of them with that car. It became almost human in its own way.”
Turning a Corner
As Hunter Byington grew older, he passed off many of the driving duties to his grandson, Warren Brewer, who partnered with him to continue the legacy. For six years, Brewer drove the car while his grandfather served as chauffeur, gallantly opening the doors for bridal parties as they arrived at their destinations.
After Hunter Byington could no longer accompany his grandson, he would still take his youngest son to the garage to sit in the car and fire up the engine. “You could see it taking him back,” Dick Byington says. “It made him happy. Something about that car, in particular, won his heart.”
Toward the end, Hunter Byington ate his meals with a framed picture of the car in front of him, gazing at it each day as if they were silently exchanging years of memories. When he passed away in late May of 2017 at the age of 91, his family knew that the love story between a man and his car wasn’t over; it was just changing.
“That car remains a part of our family because of him,” Dick Byington says. “We’re going to love it and care for it the way he did.”
Occasionally, a family heirloom takes on an amazing life of its own. If you have your own piece of history with special meaning to your family, share your story with us on Facebook.