It took nine years, but “he solved a mystery.” This is how Christie Lassen explains her husband’s quest to discover the story of a car that he bought and which now has become the fourth vehicle included in the new National Historic Vehicle Register, a project of the Historic Vehicle Association and the U.S. Department of the Interior.
Marc Lassen’s 1918 Cadillac Type 57, still bearing a bullet hole it sustained in France during World War I, was unveiled Wednesday during a ceremony at the GM Heritage Center just north of Detroit. The car will be on the show field Sunday for the Concours d’Elegance of America.
The car’s inclusion in the register coincides with the centennial of the start of World War I and the centennial of the first mass-produced automotive V8 engine, an engineering and manufacturing feat accomplished by Cadillac.
Marc Lassen was hunting on the internet for a tail lamp for his 1929 Cadillac when he noticed an advertisement for an olive-green Cadillac that, the ad said, “may have belonged to some general.”
Intrigued, Lassen drove across the state of Washington, from his home in on the Olympic Peninsula to Spokane, where the Cadillac was housed in a storage shed.
“He took a trailer, just in case,” Christie said, adding that discovering special vehicles is part of her husband’s heritage.
Lassen, who also owns his ’29 Cadillac, a 1929 Judson-bodied Lincoln and a 1936 LeBaron-bodied Lincoln, spent a lot of time as a youngster in the garage with his father. Lassen still remembers with fondness the smell of mothballs and mohair in his dad’s 1926 Buick. His father once drove to Arizona to try to search out the Willys Jeep that Marc’s grandfather had owned there. The Jeep was found and was driven all the way back to Washington, Christie said, at 35 miles per hour.
Like his father before him, Marc Lassen came home with the car, and then set out to discover its history. “History lost for more than 70 years,” Lassen said.
Lassen had some clues about the car’s history. There was the military green paint, still bearing some U.S. military stenciled identification and, of course, the bullet hole. Also a small plate on its tail indicating that the car, originally dark blue with a black top, had been sold through Inglis M. Uppercu, Distributor, and his Detroit Cadillac Motor Car Company of New York City.
Lassen said the GM Heritage Center provided a key part of the car’s story: its original build sheet. The automaker’s collection of historic papers and cars is housed in a building in a suburban commercial development. It grew out of a museum Cadillac started when it moved production out of its historic Clark Street plant just west of downtown Detroit. Cadillac is the only GM division that still has all its historic documents, which date to the division’s founding in 1903.
Greg Wallace, who helped establish that Cadillac collection at Clark Street and who is manager of the GM Heritage Center, said it was a happy accident that Cadillac’s records were not destroyed, but found tucked away in nooks, crannies and various rooms in the Clark Street facility.
At one point, Lassen spent nearly a year trying to find out information about the car’s original owner, whom he believed to be a John M. Denison. Turns out, the man’s name was John H. Denison, a doctor of divinity and the minister at the Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church in New York City.
Lassen explained that in the World War I era, the YMCA provided support services for the U.S. Armed Forces. Denison was from a wealthy Massachusetts family. To support the war effort, on August 9, 1917, he purchased the Cadillac (GM serial number 57A704), immediately turned it over to the YMCA and volunteered to serve as its driver in Europe.
In Europe, the car received a U.S. 1257X stencil, the X indicating it was a privately owned vehicle in the service of the American Expeditionary Force. In addition to carrying military officers, the car carried Mrs. Theodore Roosevelt Jr., the wife of the President’s eldest son, when she was in Europe for two months helping Rev. Denison set up leave areas for soldiers, who were granted one week off after four months in battle.
The car also was involved for two months in the Second Battle of the Marne, which is where Lassen suspects it received its bullet hole courtesy of a German aircraft.
After the war, the car is believed to have served in a motor pool at a base on the U.S. West Coast. Records indicate it was drummed out in January 1936, sold as military surplus to Major M.C. Bradley, who kept it until 1968.
The car, which has not been restored and shows the wear and tear of its military duty in worn seats and its bullet hole, is believed to be the only surviving American car with World War I history. Some 2,000 Cadillacs were used by the U.S. military as officer staff cars in the war.
The 1257X Cadillac joins a 1964 Shelby Daytona Coupe, a 1964 Meyers Manx dune buggy and the Indy-winning 1939 Maserati 8CTF “Boyle Special” on the historic vehicle register, a list that likely will increase to include hundreds of significant vehicles.
Criteria for inclusion includes an association with an important person, an association with an important event, valuable design or construction technology or “informational” importance, which Historic Vehicle Association president Mark Gessler said can include being the first, the last or the best surviving example.
Lessen’s Type 57 would seem to qualify on all four counts.
But while the car has won official recognition, Lessen said his work is not finished. He’s still looking for diaries Mrs. Roosevelt and Rev. Denison are believed to have kept during the war, and also for evidence of the car’s years of service after the war in the motor pool.
Don’t be surprised if he finds them. Christie noted that her husband was on his way home from his first meeting with the HVA in Washington, D.C. He had to change planes in Minneapolis, but the airport closed because of severe winter weather and he had to spend the night in a hotel.
That hotel was across the street from the YMCA headquarters that houses the association’s archives. While waiting, Lessen visited those archives and found a photo of Rev. Denison in the Cadillac in Europe.