It turns out that infamous mob boss Al Capone played an early role in the development of the modern armored executive car, and now there’s another chance to own his bulletproof 1928 Cadillac Town Sedan, which is being offered by Celebrity Cars of Las Vegas for a cool $1 million. It was last seen netting $341,000 at auction by RM Sotheby’s in 2012 and does not appear to have undergone significant restoration since then, raising the question of why its value has jumped nearly threefold.
Painted green with a black roof, fenders and bumpers, the car is said to be the earliest surviving bulletproof vehicle, with nearly inch-thick glass and once lined (but no longer; read on) with nearly 3,000 pounds of asbestos-wrapped steel armor plating. It features a rear window rigged to drop quickly, so the tough guys in the rear seats could fire on any pursuers. Heavy spring lifts operated the side windows, which were also rigged to raise higher than usual to reveal a circular cutout big enough for the muzzle of a machine gun.
In this case, the factory specs may be the least interesting part of the car, though it is undeniably a looker. It features a Series 341-A, 90-bhp, 341 cubic-inch L-head V8 engine mated to a three-speed manual, with a beam front axle and full-floating rear axle with semi-elliptical leaf springs and four-wheel mechanical drum brakes. It has only 1,111 miles on the odometer, having spent much of its history in museums or on display at carnivals and amusement parks.
It’s believed to have flown under the feds’ radar in a Chicago garage owned by Emil Denemark, a known mafia associate and South Side Cadillac dealer who was related to Capone by marriage, when the mob boss began his slide into legal troubles leading up to his eventual felony conviction and jail time.
In 2008, an elderly man named Richard “Cappy” Capstran told a friend that he had once helped his father install armor plating on a Cadillac owned by Al Capone. His father, Ernest Capstran, had repaired another of Capone’s vehicles and earned the mobster’s business fortifying the brand-new Cadillac. “My dad said, ‘We don’t do that kind of work here.’ And they (Capone’s men) said, ‘You do now,’” Richard Capstran recalled in a recorded interview, per Sotheby’s. Capone’s associates reportedly also backed the car into the shop so no one could see what kind of work was being done to it.
Capone later showed up in person to settle the bill and paid twice the asking price, giving the young Capstran a $10 bill, the equivalent of about $150 today.
Using newspapers, the IRS and information from the family of the second known owner, Sotheby’s said it was able to confirm its infamous lineage, and its full history since the spring of 1932.
It was then that Patrick Moore, who worked for a traveling carnival and reportedly lacked a permanent address, purchased the vehicle from an agent in Chicago, with whom it is believed Capone had placed the car. The Moores worked with a traveling carnival in the summer and exhibited the car with it, intending to use it to make some extra money during the winter off-season. That apparently didn’t work out, so they sold it to a man named Harry LaBreque in May 1933. He had the car shipped from Chicago to New York, then to England, where it was displayed at the Southend-on-Sea amusement park and later the Blackpool Fun Fair in Manchester.
From there, the car was purchased in 1958 by a dance hall owner, then sold months later to Harley Nielson, a businessman and enthusiast from Todmorden, Ontario, who gave it a comprehensive restoration, including the removal of most of the heavy armor plating but not the bulletproof glass or drop-down rear window. “In a Letter to the Editor of Esquire,” Sotheby’s wrote, “Neilson explained that in 1939, the U.S. government asked the British government to intervene and take the car off display because of the ‘poor public relations it could cause by pointing up American Gangsterism.’”
It also spent time at the Niagara Falls Antique Auto Museum in the mid-‘60s and the Cars of the Greats museum in Niagara Falls, Ontario, then at B.H. Atchley’s Smoky Mountain Car Museum in Tennessee in 1979, where it underwent further restoration, including replacement glass. Collector and attorney John O’Quinn purchased it for $621,500 in 2006 but died in a traffic accident in 2009. The car was a no sale at RM Monterey in 2010, where it attracted no bids above $355,000, before the successful 2012 sale.
Capone was famously convicted of tax evasion and prohibition charges in 1931 and sentenced to 11 years in federal prison. He was released on Nov. 16, 1939, after 7½ years behind bars and paying all of his fines and back taxes, then he immediately entered a hospital to treat paresis derived from syphilis, having suffered steep mental degradation while in prison. He died of a stroke and pneumonia in 1947.