Johnston man shows ’34 Cadillac in Newport's 2021 Concours d’Elegance

By RORY SCHULER
Posted 9/30/21

John Ricci unveiled his 1934 Cadillac slowly. He peeled off sheets and blankets like small strips of wrapping paper. The bright red hood and its chrome accents flashed in the afternoon sun streaming through the garage door windows. "

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Johnston man shows ’34 Cadillac in Newport's 2021 Concours d’Elegance

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John Ricci unveiled his 1934 Cadillac slowly. He peeled off sheets and blankets like small strips of wrapping paper.

The bright red hood and its chrome accents flashed in the afternoon sun streaming through the garage door windows.

“I like cars,” he said, pulling off the final bedspread. “Right now, this car’s a showstopper.”

Two years ago, Ricci traveled to Newport to witness an arrangement of the world’s best automobiles assembled for the Concours d’Elegance. This year, his Caddy will be part of the show in Newport.

“I can’t imagine myself in it, with the car I drive,” Ricci said as he pulled a pair of photo albums – photographic restoration journals – from the passenger side seat. “To me … it’s above me. I’ve owned this car for 55 years. But it sat in the corner as a shelf for 40 years.”

Ricci is a self-confessed “car guy.”

“I loved watching the cars come over the bridge and line up at Fort Adams,” he recalled from his time as a spectator at Newport’s last Concours d’Elegance. “There was so much to see.”

Since his teens, he’s been finding old cars and restoring and customizing the rusted-out machines; turning scrap metal into art.

A toolmaker by trade, and frugal by nature, Ricci has combed the East Coast looking for parts. And when the part was unreachable, he made it himself.

“My 1934 Cadillac was purchased in 1966, at age 28 … and amidst restoring a 1930 Willy’s,” Ricci and his daughter Jennifer wrote in their application to the organizers of the Concours d’Elegance. “This very dilapidated convertible coupe was found in an opened garage about a quarter of a mile from my house by a friend who traveled by horse and buggy.”

It’s been 51 years since Ricci asked “Mac,” a character in the neighborhood, who’s buggy lantern could be seen swinging back and forth as he roamed Johnston’s roads at night, to watch out for interesting old cars.

Mac scored for Ricci, discovering the ’34 Caddy in a garage on Waveland Street.

The future “showstopper” was just a dusty and dinged-up green monster, with dark blue and maroon undercoats, creased bumpers and a decimated interior.

“I never saw one before,” he said, thinking back to 1966. “I knocked on the door and asked, ‘What is it?’ I asked the owner if I could go look.”

He pointed out the details that distinguish the 1934 Cadillac from the far more common 1935 model.

“I saw the bi-plane bumpers and the way the fenders are cut away; a little like an Auburn but with that bubble in front. I was overwhelmed,” Ricci recalled. “The rest was good. It wasn’t all rotted. I just had to make it up and make it work.”

The previous owner stored the Cadillac in an unfinished dirt-floor garage with no door.

“Not aware of what it was, it’s intriguing body and unusual fenders sparked my interest,” Ricci wrote. “I approached the owner to see if he would sell it, providing I could get it to start.”

He left and returned with a can of gas and an electric pump. He took all the spark plugs out and squirted oil in every cylinder.

“But it just went ‘Eh!’” Ricci said.

The car’s original home was atop a hill.

“With no shift or operating brakes, I was able to jump start it going downhill, then proceeded to drag it home,” Ricci wrote in his Concours d’Elegance application.

“That year, I built a large enough garage to occupy it, while completing my Willy’s restoration,” Ricci wrote. “It remained there under clutter for over 40 years before starting the restoration in 2007 and completing it in 2017.”

He approached the car’s front-end carefully, bending forward at the waist. His eyes met the chrome “Goddess” hood ornament.

“First I saw her in Hershey, but the guy wanted $400,” he recalled. “The next year, I went to Carlisle, and saw the same guy. Now he wanted $500 for the hood ornament. Then I found out I could buy a reproduction, but it would cost me $400, and it would be smaller; it wouldn’t be the same. So I bought the original.”

Under the “Goddess” shines the brass wings of the Cadillac emblem. Ricci considered gold-plating the wings until he discovered they were factory brass. When brass is original, it’s better than gold.

Ricci used old Cadillac brochures as restoration reference guides.

“The 1935 is almost identical to the 1934,” Ricci said. “The only thing different that’s noticeable are the bi-plane bumpers, with bullets in the middle and a bar on the top and the bottom. The bullets are spring loaded, so if you hit somebody, it’s not supposed to spoil the bumper.”

His daughter Jennifer added to the conversation.

“It has more sex appeal than the ’35,” she said. “Whatever he couldn’t find, he built.”

Eventually Ricci bought a junker ’35 for donor parts.

He cannibalized the ’35, painstakingly crafted replacement parts by hand, and combed flea markets and car shows for the rest.

Half of the stripped ’35 sits in the yard behind his Tara Street home.

Ricci’s wife Donna and children – John Michael, Jennifer and Jaclyn – gave money every holiday, deposits toward the Cadillac fund, in an effort to motivate their dad to restore his ornate garage shelf into a show-worthy ride.

In 2014, his daughter Jaclyn (Ricci) Snow, a retired star with the Festival Ballet Providence, passed away after a long illness.

As a tribute to her sister, Jennifer gave her father an ornament of Jaclyn with angel wings.

John Ricci proudly placed the memorial to his late daughter on the passenger’s side dashboard, the same place of honor where many classic car owners prominently display car show badges.

Eventually, after four decades as a shelf, and another decade of restoration, the cherry red Cadillac, with its slightly darker red fenders, was ready to road test and show off a little.

Ricci opened the Cadillac’s suicide doors. He adjusted the spotlight and his reflection smiled back from the glowing chrome.

On Saturday, John Ricci’s 1934 Cadillac will be on display with some of the world’s most amazing automobiles. Car show judge Jay Leno will assess his work.

Trophy or no trophy, Ricci is honored to compete.

“I can only enter it one time,” he said. “That’s enough.”

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