."The Royal Baby Cadillacs" By Robert Maidment
In Maurice Hendry’s book, ‘Cadillac, The Complete History‘, there is very little information about the ‘Royal’ Baby Cadillacs. Certainly he includes a picture in the early chapters describing a one-off 1/3-scale Cadillac powered by the then all-new ‘revolutionary’ electric self-starter. In the other authoritative Cadillac source, ‘Master of Precision’, written by the Leland family telling the story of Henry Leland and Cadillac, there is more. Alongside the same picture are the words: “This Baby Cadillac once belonged to Prince Olaf of Norway..... and was later sent to Wilfred Leland Junior.”
Logged in the archives of the Beaulieu Motor Museum is a newspaper cutting with accompanying photograph of what would appear to be the same miniature car, and which tells a different story: “Queen Alexandra’s Baby Cadillac in Pall Mall. A baby replica of the four-cylinder Cadillac, which Queen Alexandra bought as a present for her grandson, Prince Olaf of Norway.” A further revealing piece described how the Baby Cadillac, weighing nearly 400lbs, was capable of travelling some 15 miles on one battery charge at speeds of up to 12mph. How, though, could a ‘one-off’ have been sold to Queen Alexandra in England and then, almost in the same instant, given to Henry Leland’s grandson in America?
When contacted, the registrar at The Royal Archives in Windsor Castle pointed out that material on Queen Alexandra, King Edward VII’s wife, was limited. They promised, however, to search what they had, while at the same time suggesting we approach the Norwegian Royal Household through the Norwegian Embassy.
Surprisingly, the embassy was quick to confirm that a certain Baby Cadillac was a very popular attraction at the Norsk Teknisk Museum in Oslo. Gunnar Nerheim, the curator of the Norsk Teknisk Museum, reiterated these assertions and explained that the little car had been given many years ago to Prince Olaf, before he became King Olaf V. “Yes, certainly, Prince Olaf’s little car has always been one of our most favourite exhibits.”
He then explained that over the years a number of people from England who had known about the car in its early days had contacted the museum. He offered to send the two-way correspondence along with photographs taken by the museum, copies of those sent in by well-wishers and those of its early days with the young princes. One photograph, a large professional black & white, was of the illustrious Fred Bennett of ‘Cadillac and the Dewar Trophy’ fame with some fifty staff gathered around the Baby Cadillac outside the manufacturers, Lockwood & Co, and, firmly ensconced in the little car, were some young Bennetts and a teddy bear.
One of the accompanying letters appeared to solve the mystery of the ‘one-off’ being in two places at the same time: the letter from a relative of one of the Lockwood & Co staff referred to there having been not one but two of these special cars. So, there had been two matching Baby Cadillacs, one would having gone to Wilfred Leland Jnr in America, whereabouts unknown, and the other residing happily in the Norsk Teknisk Museum in Oslo. Furthermore, a letter from the Royal Windsor Archives stated that on 28th January 1913 F. S. Bennett was paid £62 for a miniature car for Prince Olaf. What better way to end the story and tie up some historical loose ends?
Not so: no one had counted on Maurice Hendry, the official Cadillac historian living in New Zealand. On hearing the result, additional information, in the form of an article taken from Motor Sport dated January 1971, winged its way around the world. Part way through the article were the words: “It was around 1916 that Cadillac made a present of an electrically-driven working model Cadillac two-seater to King Rama VI of Siam. This passed to Prince Chula, who took it to Cornwall and one wonders if it is still there?“ Scribbled below by Maurice was: “What about this?” The King of Siam… Cornwall – this was getting ever more confusing.
Having by now made contact with Julian Bennett, Fred Bennett’s grandson, another potential source of information was to hand. When confronted, Julian confided that over the years his mother had related stories of Baby Cadillacs sold to Queen Alexandra and to the King of Siam, little of which, however, Julian had tended to believe. His grandfather having died long before Julian was born, and his father’s interest having waned when the family had moved to Africa, meant that Julian was not particularly ‘up’ on family history. All the same, in amongst the papers handed down from his grandfather, Julian produced a photo-postcard of a Baby Cadillac, with his uncle and aunt as children in attendance, on which reference was made to both Queen Alexandra and the King of Siam.
Prince Chula, as mentioned in the January 1971 Motor Sport article, was apparently well known in Europe in the 1930’s for his prowess on the race circuits. Reference in the article to the effect that he and the Baby Cadillac had “collided with chairs set at a tea table, luckily, before anyone had sat down” perhaps indicated the Baby Cadillac having been his early racing inspiration. Interestingly, Prince Chula was the great-grandson of the much romanticised King Rama IV (1851-1868) of ‘The King & I’ and ‘Anna and the King of Siam’ fame.
As further sleuthing was pointing to the likely new owner of this car being Prince Chula’s only daughter, another letter came from Mr Maurice Hendry. Dated February 1975 and written to Maurice, a Mr David Weguelin in London asked Maurice for further information on a most unusual 1/3 scale electric car, as he had been requested to give it the ‘once over’ by the owner. Not only did the letter’s content confirm that Prince Chula’s daughter was that owner but it also stated that the little car’s bodywork was “still in fabulous condition”. Although Maurice had replied to the letter, he had heard nothing more and had been unable to follow it up due to his workload at the time. So, although the Siam (Thailand) car was re-established as recently as the mid-nineteen-seventies, it had managed yet again to slip the history books.
Mr Weguelin, when eventually tracked down, confirmed that the car had remained in the hands of the Thai Royal Family until the mid-nineties, at which point it was sold on to a Japanese collector. However, as is their right or any owner’s right, it seems that they do not wish to display the car or for its whereabouts to be known. Sad for us maybe but it is good to know that both Baby Cadillacs are still in good order and in caring hands.
Therefore, if there were only two Baby Cadillacs, had someone been mistaken about Wilfred Leland Jnr and the car in America? When, as a member of the Cadillac-LaSalle Club, William H Leland II, Henry Leland’s great nephew, was contacted, he well remembered the many occasions his father and grandfather had discussed young Wilfred’s little car. An e-mail from Richard Sills, CLC recent past-president, quoting from Walter McCall’s book, ‘80 Years of Cadillac LaSalle,’ stated that it had long since been confirmed that “this Baby Cadillac was presented to Wilfred Leland, Jnr. on his fifth birthday.” Furthermore, Matt Larson, CLC technical editor, and Greg Wallace at the Cadillac Museum, remember a photograph sent in some years earlier purporting to be of Wilfred Leland’s little car, dismantled and in ‘rough’ condition – they had both concluded that the photograph was in fact genuine. Then Yann Saunders of the Cadillac Database, stated in an e-mail: “I think the toy I saw at the Huntington Beach swap meet in California some 25 years ago, probably was the Leland car.” There had then to have been a third car, as neither of the other two had ever been in anything other than ‘excellent original condition’ condition.
Why the confusion over these little cars? Certainly, with the passing of time, it is easy for facts to become blurred, especially when the destinations of these three cars were so diverse. Perhaps Frederic Bennett, purely for commercial reasons, promoted only the two cars sold to royalty, while the history books concentrated more on the Leland connection.
Then, when the Baby Cadillac story appeared in the Cadillac-LaSalle Club’s magazine, along with an array of pictures of the cars, Norman Uhlir, co-founder of the American club, quickly pointed out the differences of three cars. There were, as he explained, some obvious variations in the body styles that could never be attributed to later changes – nobody had previously bothered to check.
So, of the three Baby Cadillacs made nearly a century ago, two at least are known still to exist – and in excellent condition. Just imagine if the third should surface now – three out of three. What motor manufacturer could match that? It matters not that they were built in England under Fred Bennett’s direction; such is their place in history that they will always be seen as a great trans-Atlantic joint venture. Cadillacs they were, and Cadillacs they will always be – and powered by those very units that gave its name to the Cadillac-LaSalle Club’s monthly magazine: ‘The Self-Starter’.
Finally, this club’s thanks must go to all those above – and others – who have assisted with this research and helped put a somewhat unusual early motoring story into a semblance of meaningfulness.