It’s all Wine and Roses for this Custom 1961 Cadillac Coupe De’Ville
There comes a point in most men’s lives when they set aside the fun and reckless cars of youth and buy a sensible, practical vehicle. For most of us, that might mean a roomy SUV or, gasp, maybe even a minivan! But when you’re the owner of a successful Texas-based hot rod shop like Heath Murray of Murray Kustom Rods, it means a mild custom 1961 Cadillac Coupe DeVille.
Heath has had his share of cool and fun cars, including a bitchin’ chopped ’51 Chevy coupe, and he has even had the opportunity to race a customer’s ’34 Ford roadster at Bonneville. As he neared the end of his 30s, though, thoughts of a roomier and more comfortable cruiser entered Heath’s mind.
“I was searching for a larger early-’60s car to build as a ‘family’ car,” Heath says. “I wanted a ’62 Bel Air when one of my employees sent me a Craigslist link to a 1961 Cadillac down in Houston. I have always loved Cadillacs and thought that would be a perfect family car. So, I set out to build my wife a car.”
Heath didn’t even have a chance to get started on the build before the big Cad became a “custom by crunch.” “I sent an employee with a truck and trailer to go pick the car up,” Heath says. “He loaded the car by himself and ran the passenger fender and rocker panel down the side of the trailer.” So, in addition to his custom plans, Heath and his team now had a few wrinkles to fix.
Beyond those bumps and bruises, the Cadillac also had a little rust in the usual areas, the worst being at the front of the hood, which was rusted out. “I couldn’t find a hood for it, so I made the front portion,” Heath says. The Murray Kustom Rods team also shaved the car’s emblems, door handles, side mirrors, antenna, and trunk lock. The rear portion of the deck lid also had to be cut off and rebuilt.
While the metal work was being done, the Cadillac’s chassis was being updated. Murray Kustom Rods has developed a line of suspension parts that includes air spring systems for Cadillacs from the late-’50s through the 1960s. For Heath’s ’61, that meant using the shop’s upper and lower control arms for the front suspension, as well as new tubular rear control arms and a redesigned wishbone. A Murray Kustom Rods front disc brake kit augmented the new air spring system, while Truespoke 15-inch wire wheels and Hankook 1-inch whitewalls provided the right custom flavor.
The car’s original 390c.i. V8 was freshened up and treated to some detailing, including new accessory drive brackets, a custom air cleaner with a stainless filter screen decorated with Cadillac logo cutouts, and Sanderson headers leading to a dual exhaust system with Smithy’s mufflers and Bellflower tips. A U.S. Radiator keeps things cool, and a 700R4 overdrive transmission keeps rpms in check on the highway.
Heath’s shop does not do bodywork or paint, so when his team completed the metal work he sent the car to Star Autobody Restorations. The crew there finished up the bodywork and applied the finish, a deep PPG Garnet Red hue that has a richness and depth befitting a classy Cadillac.
“The interior was redone to be reminiscent of the original,” Heath says. “The cloth material and buttons were something I scoured the internet for, trying to find something I liked.” Pedro Gomez of PG Upholstery brought Heath’s vision to life, combining that cloth with burgundy leather and stitching it all in classic, OE-inspired patterns.
The original Cadillac style shines through on the dash, which has been fitted with a Vintage Air system with under-dash vents. Heath also had the steering wheel recast in translucent red and made sure the speakers matched the rest of the interior appearance. “I machined the speaker pods for the dash, kick panels, and package tray,” Heath says, “and then pressed the grilles for those.”
Even though Heath is the shop owner, the Cadillac was still relegated to mostly night and weekend work so it wouldn’t affect customer builds. “The car was never intended to be as nice as it came out,” Heath says. “If I had a chance, the space, and the time to go back, I would have pulled the body and done a frame-off restoration. The car was really clean on the bottom, so I only did a firewall forward restoration on the frame.”
One upside to the frame-on build is that Heath has no hesitation driving the car. “I completed it at the beginning of 2022 and with about 50 miles on it I asked my dad and a close friend if they wanted to ride out to the Grand National Roadster Show in California with me,” Heath says. “They were crazy enough to say yes! That was an awesome experience; we got caught in the snow, rain, warm weather in California, all of it! A hundred miles from the shop a big rock came up and cracked the windshield from top to bottom.”
Since that initial break-in trip, Heath has regularly cruised the classy mild custom to shows and events closer to home. We’re not sure how much his wife gets to drive “her” car, but there’s certainly enough room in the 1961 Cadillac Coupe DeVille to bring her and the couple’s daughters along whenever they want.
“I would like to thank my wife, Sissy, and the girls for being patient with me as I did this,” Heath says, “the guys at the shop for the help, Star Autobody for the paint work, and Pedro Gomez of PG Upholstery for always helping me get my projects knocked out.”
Thanks to the efforts of everyone involved, Heath has given us all a reminder that big, comfortable “family” cars can be cool, too.
Photos by John Jackson