In 1941, England’s Duke of Windsor, the once-king Edward VIII, was the epitome of style and fashion.
The most-photographed man in the world at the time set trends with the bold patterns of his suits, the details in his wardrobe—the Windsor knot popularly still tied in ties today is named for him.
When all eyes are on you as they were Edward, everything you do, everything you wear, everything you own makes a statement—including the car you drive. And the statement his personal Cadillac limousine made could not have been louder.
Built for a price that could fetch you 10 production Cadillacs, and highlighted by design cues and features a decade ahead of its time, the car that would be known as “the Duchess,” for his wife, was undoubtedly the most stylish automobile in the world.
London, Ontario’s Steve Plunkett has, like the Duke, a reputation known the world over—he’s famous not for his cufflinks or pocket squares, though, but rather as a collector of some of the rarest and most important Cadillac cars from the marque’s history.
The Duchess sits in his renowned Fleetwood Salon garage, alongside the prototype Coupe de Ville of 1949; a million-dollar 1934 Cadillac V-16 convertible coupe; and a 1938 Brunn-bodied roadster, each of them outstanding enough to be the centerpieces of their own collections.
Instead they share space with 46 other Cadillacs from across a span of more than 100 years, as well as three dozen other General Motors automobiles.
Plunkett added the Duchess to his collection after acquiring it in 2016 from Birmingham, Alabama-based food critic and Cadillac enthusiast Morgan Murphy, who’d put the car through a three-year $400,000 restoration beginning in 2009 and culminating in a failed-to-meet-reserve sale on the RM Sotheby’s auction block in New York in 2013.
Murphy had unearthed the Duchess from a Fort Worth, Texas barn where the car had hid the prior 60 years, essentially lost to the classic car community. The whereabouts of the Duchess may not have been known during that time, no; however, its legacy loomed large in classic car circles. The Duchess may be, it’s been said, the most famous Cadillac in the world.
Fit for a king
The car’s story, told properly, starts in 1936, when Edward, once Prince of Wales, and then King, abdicated the throne so he could marry U.S. socialite Wallis Simpson. Now Duke of Windsor, Edward left England for New York, taking out an apartment at the Waldorf-Astoria hotel (coincidentally, it’s the Waldorf’s ballrooms the Fleetwood Salon is built to emulate).
In 1941, he commissioned a custom-built Series 62 Cadillac limousine as his personal transportation, and had the order filled by GM’s president Alfred Sloan, who delivered Edward the car himself.
“The Duchess,” as the car came to be known, cost $14,000, three times the price of a top-line Series 75, or about $235,000 in today’s dollars. It would be the only American car ever built for British royalty.
The list of custom features fitted to it is long: aside from jewellery compartments and humidors, lit vanities and cigar lighters, the Duchess was one of the first cars – if not the first – to have power windows. Rose-colored broadcloth and Wilton wool carpets lined the seats and floors, including the front, since Edward planned to often drive the car himself.
Every fender and body panel was hand-built, and the car spoke volumes saying nothing: the Duchess instead wowed with an understated elegance. The headlight rings and other pieces were blacked-out instead of chromed; badges and trim were removed. What remained – a gold-plated hood ornament and his “W.E.” monogram crest on the rear doors – stood out starkly against the bottomless black paint.
The profile was defined by a falling character line coming off of the front fender and butting up against the rear fender; this styling cue was soon after picked up by production GM cars, and in the ’50s became the signature of Rolls-Royce coachbuilder Hooper.
The car would have turned heads, drew crowds, and made newspaper front pages even if hadn’t had its world-famous owners’ names on the title.
The Duke and Duchess traded the car in 1952 to a luxury car dealer for a Buick wagon and a new Cadillac, who flipped it to a Springfield, Massachusetts couple who logged 50,000 miles in it before selling it to the Fort Worth, Texas collector who would make it disappear for so many years.
The Duchess returns
The Duchess made its return to its native New York in 2013, at an RM Sotheby’s auction where it was expected to fetch as much as $800,000 but saw the high bid fall short, at nearly half that much. Then-owner Murphy held onto it instead.
Once in Plunkett’s hands, it was treated to some more minor revisions – even though it had just come off a restoration, Plunkett has some very exacting standards – and then sent off to make its car show debut at the 2017 Amelia Island Concours d’Elegance in Florida, one of the world’s most pretigious automotive exhibitions.
There it was awarded the Chairman’s Choice Award by Bill Warner, and, fittingly, joined seven other uber-stylish autos in a retro fashion show flanked by models in period-appropriate attire.
Plunkett has since added the Duchess to his regular driving rotation – he tries to drive three of his cars per day; the worst thing for them is to sit, he says – which means, far from being lost again, or hidden in some secret collection, there’s a chance if you’re in London, Ontario you may see the long, black limousine prowling around.
If you do, don’t doubt yourself when the thought comes to you: yes, you may very well be looking at the most stylish automobile you’ve ever seen.