Art of the Automobile

21 November 2013

Previous Next

Lot 123

1941 Cadillac Custom Limousine "The Duchess" by General Motors

  • Engine no. 8363211
  • Body no. 5986

$500,000 - $800,000

  • A one-of-one custom creation, designed for royalty
  • Built under the supervision of Alfred P. Sloan Jr., for the Duke and Duchess of Windsor
  • Dozens of completely bespoke features
  • A New York society mainstay for a decade

Harley Earl fathered the modern automotive styling studio. The visionary move of placing an artist in such a position established General Motor’s design dominance, and the practice of an artistic styling department soon became the industry norm.

The “da Vinci of Detroit,” as he was referred to, enjoyed a successful career as a coachbuilder in California before Lawrence Fisher coaxed him to the Motor City, where Alfred P. Sloan, the head of GM, created the industry’s first Art and Colour Section and named Earl as its director. The move must have been met with immediate opposition, as American car companies that produced motor cars en masse did not give much thought to in-house body design. Earl, meanwhile, was a proponent of clay modeling to envision future production cars, and he introduced the modern concept car as a means of testing the industry waters. His career skyrocketed, and by 1941, Earl reigned as the arbiter of taste and style in Detroit.

Earl’s Art and Colour Section created this one-off Cadillac as an individual work of automotive art for two of the 20th century’s most renowned social figures: a king and the woman who could have been his queen.


Theirs became one of the most famous love stories of all time. Never before had a king given up his throne for a woman he loved. Edward VIII, King of Great Britain, Ireland, and the British Dominions, and also the Emperor of India, abdicated his throne on December 11, 1936, to marry Wallis Simpson, an American socialite from Baltimore. Henceforth, the couple became known as the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, and they embarked upon nearly 40 years of international jet-setting amidst the world’s most prominent people.

Edward VIII defined gentlemanly style. His clothing, pastimes, and habits were copied the world over, and his influence still reigns today, with men tying a “Windsor knot” in their neckties. Likewise, Wallis topped the international best-dressed list for decades, and her taste in jewelry and clothing captured the imagination of the world’s most famous designers.

During their first stay in late 1941 at the Waldorf Astoria hotel, where the couple kept a suite, the Windsors were greeted by adoring crowds. They also received a car from one of their society friends, Alfred P. Sloan Jr., the chairman and CEO of General Motors. It would carry them to the Empire State Building and through a ticker tape parade down Wall Street. The New York Times dubbed it a “glossy new Cadillac.” It was so much more. Delivered in the waning days of old coachbuilding and the Classic Era, “The Duchess,” as it became known, was one of the final, truly one-off, coachbuilt Cadillacs, as well as one of the most famous Cadillacs ever produced.

Not a single body panel on the Windsors’ car matched any other 1941 Cadillac. The hood, trunk, fenders, fender skirts, roof, and doors were all crafted by hand, and all interior appointments were hand-fitted.

The fenders were, and remain, the car’s outstanding feature. Beginning with a crest over the wheels, they extend and fade through the back of the body, forecasting Hooper’s future coachwork on Rolls-Royce. The streamlined appearance was so sufficiently striking that Buick would borrow the basic style of the design for its 1942 production models.

The car’s custom roofline, which dips between the windows to form a wide center post, would appear on the production 1942 Cadillac Series 60 Special. Other unique exterior features included the Windsors’ “W.E.” monogram and crown to the rear doors, unique stainless steel rocker moldings and drip rails, blacked out headlight and fog light trim rings, and the deletion of most chrome and excess emblems. On this car, Cadillac’s iconic Goddess hood ornament was plated in gold.

Inside, the car was upholstered entirely in rose-colored custom broadcloth, extending even to the headliner and sun visors. The floors were covered in Wilton wool carpet, which were custom-dyed to match the broadcloth. Conveying the car’s ideal combination of masculinity and femininity, these light colors were set against custom-finished walnut cappings for the doors, cabinetry, and divider window. Four brushed stainless-steel jewelry cases, each of them lined in velvet, served to carry the Duchess’s prized jewelry, and two custom lighted mirrors were hidden in the cabinetry. For the Duke, there were no fewer than three cigar lighters and two ashtrays, as well as a humidor and a custom rack for his favored Sasieni pipes.

This was one of the first Cadillacs to be equipped with power windows, with the side glass hydraulically operated, and an electric center privacy divider. All windows were equipped with satin privacy curtains, which rolled away when not in use, and the door handles and vent window cranks were crafted of Lucite.

As the Duke was a well-known enthusiast of automobiles and aircraft, Cadillac expected that he would take the wheel of this car on occasion. As a result, unusually for a limousine of the time, the front compartment was detailed to be as elegant and opulent as the rear, including its own radio, with a manually controlled roof-mounted antenna and buttons preset to New York City AM stations of the era. The custom rear radio, shrouded in solid copper, employed a vacuum-powered antenna, which could be raised or lowered with the touch of a chrome knob on the rear seat armrest.

Reportedly, even the Cadillac’s mechanical components were individually selected from the factory, to be the best of the best and to assure reliability and smoothness of operation. This car came from the factory with nearly every advanced feature that General Motors could offer in 1941. There were sealed-beam headlights with body-color lenses, safety glass, fully automatic heating, directional signals, power windows, power antenna, hydraulic brakes, independent front suspension, automatic thermostat shutters, ride stabilizers, and a fully automatic Hydra-Matic transmission.

According to Roy Schneider’s Cadillacs of the Forties, the Duke of Windsor paid an astonishing $14,000 for the completed one-off creation, which was an extravagant sum in 1941. He would use this Cadillac for 11 years. During that time, “The Duchess” was often photographed with the couple, appearing regularly in newspaper clippings and newsreels.

In 1952, the Duke traded the Cadillac in for a new Cadillac Series 75 and Buick station wagon. It was resold by General Motors to Charles Beswick, a noted dealer of luxury cars in Springfield, Massachusetts. The Springfield Daily News reported on the transaction in its July 17, 1952, edition, stating that the car showed 19,246 miles, and it gushed that its finish looked “twice the quality of newer cars.”

Beswick resold the Cadillac to early collectors Vernon and Bevline Bradley, of Springfield, who added some 50,000 miles before selling it through a New York Times advertisement in 1964. William J. Edmonds III, a Cadillac collector from Fort Worth, Texas, was the new owner, and he maintained the car in storage until its acquisition by the present owner, Morgan Murphy, in 2009. At that point, the process of extensively documenting and then restoring the long-lost “Duchess” began.

Today, following a nut-and-bolt restoration that involved many specialists, the car operates as it did originally. The six-volt starter gently fires the V-8 to life, without the aid of modern fuel pumps, and the engine idles at a near-silent 400 rpm; it is so quiet that one can only hear the fan blades. The 90-degree crankshaft and harmonic balancer, along with cylinders balanced down to .005 grams, gives the Cadillac unprecedented smoothness.

The interior was carefully brought back to its ornate original specifications, with seats and carpets painstakingly matched to the original material. They are identical in their color, feel, and quality. The black finish has been carefully recreated to original specifications, and all chrome has been replated to show standards.

As with all aspects of the Cadillac’s restoration, the chassis and mechanical components were finely detailed. The wheels are shod in Firestone wide whitewall tires, as originally specified for this car, and the original tags hide behind the seat cushions. Even the light bulbs have period-correct markings, and the electrical components, which are properly serial-numbered, have cloth-covered wire. The clocks, radios, windshield washers, heating systems, fans, and lighting all use original mechanisms and bulbs. Even individual screws and bolts were saved whenever possible, and then they were replated, restored, and positioned back into their original holes. Whenever possible, original parts were used, with new old stock components being the next best option, followed by having parts recreated from scratch.

“The Duchess” is accompanied by copies of original historic photography, showing the Cadillac as it was freshly completed. General Motors extensively photographed the car prior to delivery in 1941, both in the studio and in front of 854 Fifth Avenue in Manhattan, showing the car’s custom bodywork and interior fittings in exquisite detail. Also accompanying the vehicle are copies of its original build sheets, showing the car being accounted to “A.P. Sloan Jr., New York, N.Y.” and that its construction was handled by the factory engineering department. The car’s data tag on the firewall, engine number, and frame number all match the original build sheet. Lastly, the car comes with a copy of the 1952 New York State title, which bears the Duke’s signature, address at the Waldorf, and the car’s serial number.

“The Duchess,” built in the Harley Earl era, is a fully unique, one-off commission by General Motors’ legendary leader for the cream of 1940s society, and it is so more than a car. It is a part of New York City social history, and it is a bespoke design that is as tailored to the style of its original owners as their legendary wardrobe.


Please note that a reserve has been placed on this lot.

Please contact our exclusive automotive transportation partner, Reliable Carriers, for a shipping quote or any other information on the transport of this vehicle.

Alexander Weaver

+1 864 313 6844
California, United States

Alexander Weaver joined RM Sotheby’s in 2011 as a Car Specialist after graduating from Furman University in South Carolina. Born... read more

Augustin Sabatié-Garat

+44 (0) 74 1511 4179
United Kingdom

Augustin Sabatié-Garat joined RM Europe in 2012 as a Car Specialist after more than a decade in the collector car hobby. Gradua... read more

Barney Ruprecht

+1 203 912 7168
Ontario, Canada

Barney’s interest in classic cars began at an early age after being introduced to his father’s all-original 1965 Porsche 911. Barney l... read more

David Swig

+1 415 302 2247
California, United States

David Swig joined RM Sotheby’s West Coast division as a Car Specialist in May 2015. David is a life-long automobile enthusi... read more

Don Rose

+1 617 513 0388
United States

Don joined RM in 2006 after several years of professionally trading sports and classic cars, and after earning a reputation as a noted... read more

Donnie Gould

+1 954 566 2209
Florida, United States

Donnie Gould joined the RM team in 2002 as a partner and Car Specialist after more than two decades in the vintage automobile auction ... read more

Gord Duff

+1 519 352 4575
Ontario, Canada

Gord Duff began his journey with RM Sotheby’s in 1998. Since then, he has gained an intimate knowledge of a variety of marques a... read more

Jake Auerbach

+1 310 559 4575
California, United States

Jake Auerbach got his start in the automotive industry at an early age, spending his summers during high school working at a classic c... read more

Kurt Forry

+1 717 623 1638
California, United States

Having worked for Bonhams’ Automobilia department for over 10 years, Kurt Forry joined RM Sotheby’s with more than a decad... read more

Matt Malamut

+1 805 231 6410
California, United States

A long-time car enthusiast and Southern California native, Matt studied Automotive Technology at San Diego Miramar College and complet... read more

Michael Squire

+44 (0) 20 7851 7070
United Kingdom

Michael Squire joined RM Sotheby’s European Division in the summer of 2016. He comes to RM with a prestigious racing background ... read more

Mike Fairbairn

+1 519 352 4575
Ontario, Canada

As one of the three founding partners of RM Sotheby’s, Mike has a long-standing interest in the classic car industry. Graduating... read more

Oliver Camelin

+44 (0) 75 0110 7447
United Kingdom

With an extensive background in exotic sports car history and sales, a particular passion for American curves, and fluency in three la... read more

Paul Darvill

+44 (0) 20 7851 7070
United Kingdom

Paul Darvill joined the RM Sotheby’s European team at the beginning of 2015. Paul holds a degree in French and Politics from the... read more

Pete Fisher

+1 519 784 9300
Ontario, Canada

Pete Fisher was first introduced to antique cars in high school, working for Classic Coachworks in his hometown of Blenheim, Ontario. ... read more

Shelby Myers

+1 310 559 4575
California, United States

Shelby Myers grew up with the classic car industry infused into every aspect of his life. He had the unique opportunity to watch the R... read more

Tonnie Van der Velden

+31 653 84 19 60
United Kingdom

Tonnie Van der Velden joined RM Sotheby’s European division in September 2015 as a Car Specialist. A lifelong enthusiast, Tonnie... read more