James Cantrell still remembers the day he bought Elvis Presley’s 1956 Cadillac Eldorado.
This time of year he thinks about that June 1976 day and what was the best purchase of his life. He thinks about it, in part, because Saturday marked 37 years since Elvis left the building.
But Cantrell’s story started about 38 years ago when he read in the Columbus newspaper that Elvis’ Eldorado was going to be auctioned off in Phenix City.
How the car ended up in an estate sale in Phenix City is another story, but there is a brief version. Not two years after Elvis bought and had it customized with a purple paint scheme, he tired of it. He traded it, and Lena Moskovitz, an Elvis fan then living in Memphis, bought it.
She kept it until her death in 1974. For many years the car had been kept under a shed in Phenix City, where she lived at the time she died. By the time the car was auctioned, it was in bad shape.
“The top was raggedy and hanging loose, the fur carpet Elvis put in it was rotten and smelled,” Cantrell remembers of the first time he saw the car.
Still, Cantrell — a Columbus car dealer at the time — was prepared to pay $10,000 for the car.
He only needed a fraction of that.
“The bidding started at $600 and I couldn’t believe it,” he said.
It ended at $975 when Cantrell outbid two other people.
The purchase was reported across the country. A few days after he bought it, Cantrell got a call from a man in California.
“Sight unseen, he offered me $10,000 for it,” Cantrell said.
In August 1977, Cantrell was in the process of restoring the automobile at a cost of about $30,000. He wanted Elvis — a man he never met and never even saw in concert — to see it.
Elvis died Aug. 16, 1977. But the car found a new life in the wake of Elvis’ death. Cantrell quickly finished restoring it and took it on the road. The first stop was Elvis’ birthplace, Tupelo, Miss. Everywhere he went, the car drew big crowds.
“Sometimes people would come up, stand next to it and just cry,” he said.
The car has been in a museum in Canada and currently is in the museum at Graceland, Elvis’ Memphis home. Cantrell leases the car to the museum on a handshake deal.
He has no plans to take it out of Graceland. As he puts it, “I don’t really know what I would do with it.”
But that $975 purchase has appreciated greatly.
“Many years ago I turned down an offer of $900,000,” Cantrell said. “It came from a man representing a group of Chinese investors.”
Great irony in that, huh? There is nothing more American than Elvis.
Cantrell, who owns Action Buildings in Columbus, is now 80 and plans to hold on to the car and leave it to his four sons.
For now, the car will stay in Memphis as long as the museum owners want it.
And Cantrell, a successful businessman, can relish in his good fortune.
Only in America.