Gardiner classic car buff restoring unique World War I Cadillac (**Gallery**)

GARDINER — Antique car buff Marc Lassen, who in 2006 was casually surfing the Web for a 1929 Cadillac taillight, stumbled upon a big discovery.

Lassen, a Gardiner resident, found the last surviving World War I Liberty Cadillac, he said, and since 2006 has uncovered a fascinating history he painstakingly researched and relentlessly documented.

His grand disclosure has since caught the attention of General Motors Heritage Center, the Smithsonian Institution and national war history museums, he said.

Seeing it almost as a patriotic mission for his country, Lassen said, “My goal is to preserve it and be its custodian for as long as I can.”

In his studies, Lassen found the car was originally purchased by author, cleric and patriot, Dr. John Hopkins Denison, in the U.S.

It was shipped from New York City across the Atlantic in its original dark blue color and identified as the “A-57-704.”

Stationed at front

The Liberty Cadillac was stationed at the front near Chalon, France, for the second “Battle of the Marne,” the turning point of World War I.

After the battle, Gen. John Pershing commissioned Denison, a clergyman with the YMCA who walked with the assistance of a cane and was too old to be drafted into the Army, ordering him to chauffeur President Theodore Roosevelt’s daughter-in-law, Eleanor, on a two-month tour to create leave areas for the 2 million American soldiers stationed in Central and South France.

In Eleanor’s autobiography, a copy of which Lassen tracked down, she fondly remembers Denison and his car: ” . . . I was sent with four other (YMCA) people on a tour of south and central France. We went in luxury in a big open Cadillac touring car . . .”

“The other Eleanor” Roosevelt — not to be confused with President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s First Lady Anna Eleanor Roosevelt — Theodore Roosevelt Jr.’s wife, Eleanor, was the first woman to go to combat areas with the American Expeditionary Forces during World War I.

Lassen bought the car from a relative of an aging owner who was moving to Florida and needed to unload the treasure that was sitting in a Spokane storage unit.

Bought on eBay

A 42-year-old former TV advertising and music video director in Los Angeles who also worked designing unique pool tables with the late Port Townsend artist, Russell Jaqua, Lassen originally found the 1918 Army ordnance green roadster listed on eBay, the global Web auction site.

“I was the first person who got there and I bought the car,” he said, for a price he declined to disclose while acknowledging it was far less than the value today.

That value has soared since he pulled together the intriguing facts of Cadillac, the official car for officers in World War I.

“The Army Ordnance Museum curator was trying to get it, but I beat him there,” said Lassen, who co-owns Wild Birds Unlimited in on U.S. Highway 101 in Gardiner with his wife, Christie.

He has owned and sold some 100 antique autos and motorcycles since he became a “car guy,” buying his first 1967 Ford Mustang convertible at 15.

Now 43, he has restored many of those cars.

When a friend told him it was “just an old green car” until the Liberty Cadillac’s past was documented, Lassen set out on a mission to track down lost history.

Hunting down antique stores online, Lassen bought up all the history books, pamphlets, letters, photos and documents he could glean on the Liberty Cadillac and the people in its 93-year lifespan, including a copy of General Motors’ original bill of sale bearing Denison’s name.

“Now everybody is quite thrilled about it,” Lassen said, including the General Motors Heritage Center.

America’s national education facility, the Smithsonian Institution is excited about it, he said, and the National World War I Museum at Liberty Memorial in Kansas City, Mo., wants to exhibit it.

But Lassen figure he has his work cut out, restoring the car to running order, carefully uncovering original lettering hidden under a second coat of OD green, re-upholstering the rotting leather seats, replacing the fold-back canvass canopy and other detail work.

Bullet hole near fender

The car comes with a bullet hole Lassen discovered behind the front fender on the driver’s side.

He said he has a German World War I bullet that matches the impression left, with the projectile passing through the car’s steel rail.

After the war, Denison left the car in Europe and the military stored it away until 1936, when it was sold to a private owner and went though several ownerships from Burbank, Calif., to Portland, Ore., before ending up in Spokane, Lassen’s documents show.

A reflection of his hard work to reconstruct the Liberty Cadillac’s place in military history is an extensive website and blog Lassen has built at www.libertycadillac.com, detailing his findings with photos, documents and a time line.

“The other stuff is eye candy,” Lassens said of his antique auto collection that includes a 1957 Bentley he sometimes shows in the Wildbird’s Unlimited parking lot.

“But this car is my honor,” he said of the Liberty Cadillac, “to be working with the car and its history and putting them together.”

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Port Townsend-Jefferson County Editor Jeff Chew can be reached at 360-385-2335 or at [email protected]

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