1963 Cadillac Series 62 Convertible
Many children of the Fifties and Sixties have fond memories of their family cars, but only a few have been lucky enough to inherit them as adults. Pete Valente is not among them – his father’s Cadillac was sold in 1978. This is the story of how it came home…
Words and photography: Zack Stiling
We’d all like to jump into a time machine and travel back to America at some random date in the Fifties or Sixties to observe our favourite cars in their natural habitat, but if I had a Tardis at my disposal I’d be tempted to head for London instead. If anything, American cars, though scarce over here, looked even more spectacular than in their homeland. When I first saw this 1963 Cadillac Series 62 convertible at Olympia early in 2023, I noted the short registration number, which told me that it had been in the country from new or nearly-new. Instantly, I formed a black-and-white image of it gliding along Pall Mall and around Trafalgar Square, growling at Hillmans and baring its big chrome teeth at little Morrises.
Its owner, Pete Valente, was happy to give me the full picture. After leaving the production line in shimmering Nevada Silver, it was despatched to England to be sold through Lendrum & Hartman, the famous London importer of General Motors cars. It was registered on July 19, 1963, and was first owned by Timothy Donovan Fenston of 16 Adams Row, London W1. The house is a striking, a glass-fronted Sixties Modernist property with a large ground-floor garage, incongruously positioned in the middle of a row of historic redbrick mews houses.
The story Pete heard goes that Fenston left the country for reasons unknown and never returned, leaving the Cadillac abandoned in a car park near London Airport (now Heathrow). It was thus placed into an auction which happened to be attended by Pete’s father, Charles Joe Valente. A friend encouraged him to bid and he won the Cadillac for £600, which was a lot of money, but still a bargain compared to the price of a new one.
Caddy doing wedding duties in Italy. The true story surrounding the Cadillac’s sale is, in fact, terribly tragic. At 11.17pm on October 27, 1965, a BEA Vickers Vanguard took off from Edinburgh in foul weather. On reaching London Airport shortly after midnight, the aeroplane circled several times. Despite severely reduced visibility, an attempt was made to land which the pilot later decided to abort. However, erroneous instrument readings misled the crew into continuing their descent until the Vanguard hit the runway, resulting in the deaths of all 30 passengers and six crew.
The Kentish Express reported: “Another of the 36 who were killed in one of the worst crashes in BEA’s history was Mr Timothy Donovan Fenston, aged 27, son of property magnate Mr Felix Fenston of Salisbury. His engagement to Miss Paula Bateman of Maidstone was announced recently.” Fortunately, the Valentes’ story is a much happier one. Pete said: “My dad was born in Hylton, near Sunderland, in 1916, but his blood was always Italian. Some of his family had gone to the States and some to England.” In 1935, Joe and his brother George moved to London where they opened a café in Bermondsey. The war, of course, interrupted business, with Joe serving in the Auxiliary Fire Service. He married in 1948, which was also the year when he restarted his cafe business at 59 Chatsworth Road in Clapton, London E5.
Valente Brothers was not just a cafe; the basement housed an ice cream factory. Although the early Fifties was a hard time economically by the end of the decade Valente Brothers was doing a roaring trade supplying many of the ice cream vans in the east London area. “Some of my earliest memories are of my dad taking me to the factory at five or six in the morning and scooping ice cream up to my mouth,” Pete reminisces.
All that explains how Joe Valente was in a position to afford a nearly new Cadillac in 1965, and for three years it could be seen parked outside 59 Chatsworth Road, an otherworldly sight in what was then a very poor part of London. In 1968, he retired from business, sold the cafe and ice cream factory, and moved to enjoy a quiet life by the sea in Littlehampton. The Chatsworth Road premises have changed hands a number of times since and recently reopened as an Italian restaurant, happily with a stylish façade which preserves the appearance of a Sixties snack bar. The ice cream business was sold separately to friends of the family and is still trading from premises just a few streets away.
Joe continued to drive the Cadillac around Littlehampton, on one occasion chauffeuring Ronnie Barker around the Littlehampton Carnival, and Pete remembers being placed in the driving seat as his introduction to “the paraphernalia of manhood.” Joe, however, started to feel a strong pull back to his ancestral land, and started taking long holidays in Italy. While spending several months there in 1978, he realised his eyesight was beginning to fail and he gave up driving, selling the Cadillac to his brother-in-law.
Stories like this tend to follow a simple formula: the relative parks the car in a garage and forgets about it, and it remains there for a few decades until it is rediscovered and perhaps inherited by the next generation of the family. Prepare yourselves, then, for the twist: Pete’s cousin acquired the Cadillac, repainted it white and, after a couple of years, sold it. Forty years later, it was anyone’s guess what might have happened to it.
Now, let us turn our attention to Pete. It’s clear that the Cadillac had a profound influence on him growing up, as he contemplates what cars mean to him: “I think it’s my working-class Italian background – if you’re poor and marginalised and have a no-hope job, it’s about having that look of style, like in Chicano lowrider culture.
That’s why I like American cars; they were selling you a dream. It’s not about being admired, I’m just performing to myself all the time. The Cadillac’s something a little bit special in a world that’s humdrum, and I like the idea of preserving something old. It goes back to a time when we were more about freedom and less about control. When I passed my A-levels, my dad bought me a ’77 LT Camaro with a six in it, but I managed to chew that up. I was breadless at the time and it just became too much to maintain.”
There was a period in the Eighties when, as a Goth, Pete went bombing around London with friends in an old Wolseley hearse, and then motorcycles gradually took over. He got back into cars with a ’67 Camaro which, sadly, was stolen in 2020. With the insurance pay-out, he bought another, and now has the enviable choice of Cadillac luxury or Camaro power. On the subject of the Cadillac, he says, “I was hugely regretful that it left the family. I had a deep sentimental attachment, with memories of doing unbelievable speeds on European motorways, with my mum in the back cursing and my dad just doing what he wanted…”
Remembering that the Cadillac had been used for numerous family weddings, and was last seen painted white, he had a thought. “Many years later, when the internet became a thing, I looked for wedding cars near Rome and it came up. I contacted the owner. It had been one of his father’s pet projects. I had no intention of buying it, but there was a moment when he handed me the keys and it became quite emotional.” With a tear appearing in the corner of Pete’s eye, the Cadillac’s owner understood just what it meant to him and it was agreed that he could buy it back. It was 2019, and Pete feared that the sight of it after so many years might overwhelm his mother. After she passed away, he decided the time was right to reunite himself with what he considered to be a part of his father, and the Cadillac was repatriated to England in August 2022.
Now that it’s over here again, he’s slowly working through it to get it up to a standard he’s satisfied with, but he’s mindful of preserving its originality and intends to keep it in a useable condition. Brittle wiring means a new loom is his first priority and the convertible top’s hydraulic cylinders need renewing, but apart from that there’s not much to be done. The interior is wonderfully original, even retaining its rare floor mats with the big Cadillac crest, although the bright red carpet is clearly non-original and Pete is set on replacing it with something more appropriate.
Unfortunately, there are a few panels on the leather seats which he fears have come to the end of their natural life, but he’s in talks with leather conservationists to see that as much as possible is saved. Externally, he’s thinking of having the chrome re-plated, although, as it is, its patina has a certain charm. After spending the morning with Pete, I’ll be pleased to see his plans come to fruition. As an enthusiast, he clearly knows what’s best for the car and, as a man, he loves it as a member of his family. As for the car itself, we can only hope it appreciates just how lucky it was when Joe Valente picked it up for a song 58 years ago.
With thanks to the London Westminster & Middlesex Family History Society for assistance with research.
Steve Miles captured the Caddy… Caddy is a non-A/C car. … in London back in the day.
Caddy outside Valente ice cream business today. Bright red carpet replaces the original. Original Cadillac mat. Leather interior is well worn. Behind this wheel is a beautiful place to be. By ’63 tailfins were on their way down! Caddy doing wedding duties in Italy.
Pete enjoys cruisin’ in the Caddy. ’63 Cadillacs had parking lights distinctive from ’65s. That’s what we in the business call a ‘working engine’!