NEW MILFORD, CONN. -- It's a reality of auto restorers' existence that their handiwork is often scattered far from where the makeover was performed. Seldom are the cars reunited in the way that the creations of a painter or sculptor are assembled for a retrospective show.
But here, parked outside an unremarkable industrial building, were three showstoppers making the case for the craftsmanship of Frank Nicodemus, known to collectors and his clients as Mr. Cadillac.
All three cars were 1960 Cadillacs, which was fitting because Mr. Nicodemus, 68, who grew up fixing cars at his parents' auto business in the Bronx, specializes in the fin-and-chrome 1959 and 1960 models. He restores all sorts of cars, but it is the owners of older Cadillacs who speak of him with special reverence.
The Elvis-era models have a mythology of their own. With some trepidation, Cadillac introduced modest tailfins on 1948 models, after the designer, Harley Earl, was inspired by the Lockheed P-38 fighter plane. A fin war ensued among American automakers, and the styling trend reached its pinnacle of expression with the 1959 Cadillac, which finished each huge rear blade with bullet-shaped taillights.
Ken Gross, an automotive historian and museum curator, said that airplanes and rocket ships were a major influence on car design in the postwar era.
"Cadillac's fins didn't look like anything anyone else had in 1948," Mr. Gross said. "They were something new, different and exciting."
Auto restorations can vary greatly in quality, but Mr. Nicodemus, who works with a combination of old-school hammers and dollies and the latest plasma cutters and grinders, produces Cadillacs intended to hold up under a judge's magnifying glass. Panel fit is critically important; Mr. Nicodemus said that aligning a door properly can take five hours.
"Poor metal work such as grind marks will show up under the paint unless your finishing is absolutely perfect," he said. "And you pick up a lot of points with the judges if you go the extra mile and restore the underside of the car to the same standard as the body."
Details matter. When the paper labels for late 1950s Cadillac windshield washer fluid bottles proved unobtainable, Mr. Nicodemus had them reproduced, as he has done for other parts like floor mats. "What I can't get, I can make," he said.
This is a love affair that's lasted more than half a century. "In 1960, our next-door neighbor bought a brand-new Cadillac Eldorado Biarritz convertible in Heather metallic, paint code 99, a very rare color today," Mr. Nicodemus said. "I fell in love with it and told myself that one day I'd own one just like it."
His childhood dreams were realized many times over; at onetime he owned more than 40 Cadillacs.
Among Mr. Nicodemus's favorites is a red 1955 Eldorado Biarritz convertible -- nicknamed Bad Girl -- that he said was driven, with Mick Jagger at the wheel and the rest of the Rolling Stones enjoying the view, over the Brooklyn Bridge to announce the 1997 "Bridges to Babylon" tour.
Mr. Nicodemus, who was an auto insurance appraiser at one point, has had at least nine cars win first-place awards at the huge Hershey classic car show in Pennsylvania. He has also provided cars for the Robert Redford period movie "Havana," and for Brian De Palma's "Wise Guys" with Danny DeVito.
"They wanted a 1959 Cadillac convertible, with three extra front fenders and three doors because it was going to have several accidents," he said.
The Cadillacs here in New Milford -- two Eldorado Biarritz convertibles and a Coupe de Ville -- were polished to a high gleam. The stunning Coupe de Ville, owned by Joe Terico of New Rochelle, N.Y., was sold in Brooklyn; at one time it was driven by an Elvis impersonator in Canada.
Mr. Nicodemus had two Cadillacs competing at Hershey last year -- a 1936 model and the Biarritz owned by Gerald Lambert, of New Rochelle, and both won awards. Mr. Lambert's Eldorado Biarritz, a top-of-the-line model that cost $7,400 in 1960, was a first-place winner at last year's Greenwich Concours d'Élégance in Connecticut.
Jack Haverty's Eldorado, which has factory bucket seats, took top honors at the Rhinebeck Car Show in New York last May. According to Mr. Nicodemus, only about 100 to 200 Biarritz convertibles were made with bucket seats in 1960. (The records are imprecise.)
Mr. Haverty, of Pleasant Valley, N.Y., bought his Cadillac at an estate sale two years ago, and it only recently emerged from Mr. Nicodemus's shop as a national show winner .
Mr. Nicodemus knelt by its arrow-straight left flank.
"Chevrolet attached its fenders with 12 bolts; Cadillac used 24," he said. "My restorations are fully photo documented, because I want everything to go back on the way it came off."
Even so, Mr. Nicodemus works quickly in this rarefied sphere. Many of his restorations take a year or less.
Mr. Nicodemus co-owned and operated a restoration shop and parts business in Wappingers Falls, N.Y., until several years ago; it was housed in a castlelike 22,000-square-foot building that included storage space for cars on three levels. That shop is in the hands of a court-appointed receiver, caught up in Mr. Nicodemus's divorce and estate settlement. He is now working from temporary quarters in Westchester and Dutchess counties, and he hopes to reunite his old restoration crew in a new shop.
A full off-the-frame restoration by Mr. Nicodemus on a 1950s or 1960s car is not for the casual enthusiast. It's likely to cost from $90,000 to $150,000, though extras, from air-conditioning and continental kits to upgraded engines and stainless-steel exhausts, can push up the total as much as an additional $40,000, he said.
Mr. Nicodemus says he gets satisfaction from seeing a neglected wreck resurrected. "To have the car come in on a truck, not running, needing a full restoration, and then go out the door as a work of art, that's a great thing," he said.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.