Archive for Sunday, November 1, 1992


November 1, 1992


— The shiny red 1957 Cadillac Eldorado Biarritz convertible skims across a grassy stretch of ground, Lee Swieton at the wheel.

"I drive 'em all," Swieton said after the test spin. "You got to drive 'em."

The Tonganoxie man owns and operates Lee Swieton's Restoration, which offers specialty restoration services to antique car owners.

In the case of the antique Cadillac, Swieton first saw it a year and three months ago reduced by time and neglect to a rusted-out hulk.

When the car arrived at his rural Tonganoxie shop, he recalled, it was "partially disassembled, fairly deterioriated and didn't run. There was no floor pan, no upholstery and no glass."

THE OWNER, Kansas City, Mo., physician Larry Rues, called the restoration man after purchasing the car, learning of his work through word of mouth.

Recently, Swieton and his assistant, Greg Andrews of Tonganoxie, were putting final touches on the re-created '57 fanciest car they've worked on except for a '55 Rolls Royce Silverrath limousine that once belonged to Marilyn Monroe. That car, owned by another Kansas City man, Dan Aron, was completed over the summer.

Testing the Cadillac's power gadgets and making sure its two big four-barrel carburetors, "the high-performance package" of 1957, were firing properly are important final steps, Swieton said.

People who have such cars restored in the Cadillac's case to the tune of about $60,000 including purchase price of the car want everything to work, including "all the little trinket stuff."

THE CADILLAC'S accessories include a "wonderbar" radio, a scanning "pioneer" that tunes in only AM stations and takes a good minute to warm up enough to be heard. There's also a button on the floor of the driver's side for changing radio channels, and a power antenna, as well as power windows and seats, a clock, air conditioner, and an electronic eye that automatically dims and brightens the headlights.

"Cadillacs to this day have too many accessories," Swieton said, noting he plans to restore only one other Eldorado Biarritz one for himself.

The name is meant to reflect the quality of the car, he said, explaining that Eldorado means "The Gilded One" and Biarritz is "a very up-to-do place in France." The model continues to be made.

"There's hardly any more in junkyards," he said of the popular '57 models, as well as other antique cars that are in demand. "It's surprising where they're kept."

SOME ARE even hauled out of rivers and creeks and restored, he said.

The job begins by taking a car's body off its frame, putting the body on a turntable and turning it upside down.

"The car is completely disassembled," Swieton said.

Under the Cadillac, there's a lot of "new" all new exhaust, drive train, gas line and brake line, installed just as they would be on a car moving along the assembly line of a major automaker.

Electronic parts of most restoration candidates, the Cadillac included, are all corroded and rusted out and must be replaced.

"The wiring in this car is like a great big bowl of spaghetti," Swieton said.

He added that only 1,800 Biarritzes were made in 1957, when the car could be bought for less than $10,000. Today, restored '57 Biarritzes have sold for as much as $85,000, while those in need of a major restoration effort sell for about $7,500.

THE KANSAS CITY doctor, Swieton said, was anxious to pick up his newly refitted wheels.

"He's just now into it," Swieton said. "This is his baby."

Such automobiles usually are a grown man's toy, Swieton added. Mostly the cars are driven in parades and for other special occasions, not for everyday use.

"The '57s and '58s, they just drive nice," Swieton noted. "You can get any kind of date in this car."

Dates may be one thing, but gasoline mileage is another. He added Rues would be lucky to get six miles to the gallon.

The 39-year-old restoration expert has been fixing up antique cars since he was 16. In particular, he's known for his skill at painting the bodies.

"It's the first thing they see," said Swieton's assistant, Andrews. "It has to be flawless."

FOR 14 YEARS, Swieton worked at General Motors in Kansas City, where, he said, "I got introduced to assembly line work and found out it wasn't for me at all."

For the past five years, he's been on his own doing restorations full time.

"I'm pretty much self-taught," he said, noting schools for collision work exist but not for restoration.

He added it took him years to master the painting technique. Today, antique cars he restored as long as eight years ago continue to look like they've just rolled out of his shop.

"Painting is chemistry," he said, noting weather, time of year and contaminants in the air as well as a car's own condition can affect a finished job. "It's a nightmare."

NOW, Swieton said, he and his staff do all aspects of a restoration themselves. Most recently, they added the upholstery work, although the '57 Cadillac's upholstery was done by a subcontractor.

Andrews, who owns a 1939 Chevy two-door coupe that he and his father restored together, has been working with Swieton for two years. The other workers are Swieton's 14-year-old daughter, Stacie Lea Swieton, and his nephew, Tim Hatch, who helps on weekends.

Of Stacie, her father said, "For a woman, she's a go-getter in this stuff. She's superb help."

Today, Swieton said, 90 percent of his work is from out of state. Antique cars he's restored can be found "from Maine to California" and in Canada too, but there also are a few in the immediate area.

He's working on a black '57 Chevy now that will stay in Tonganoxie, he said. It's owner is Bill Stephenson.

1957 CHEVROLETS are "the most desirable antique car in the world," Swieton said, adding that the long-popular Model A Fords are now dying out because their generation of drivers also is dying out.

Of all the cars he worked on, Swieton said, "The Rolls, I think, because it was Marilyn's, was the most unique.

"It's (also) the one I hated the most because I couldn't get parts."

He added, "I try to do my best and put my heart in each car. Whatever you put out will come back to you."

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