Driving Nudie Cohn's dazzling Cadillac

Nudie's Caddy is a cowboy's dream car
Nudie's Caddy is a cowboy's dream car

Despite his name, Nudie Cohn was known for clothes. He created some of the most famous show business outfits ever. People like Roy Rogers, Elvis Presley, Teddy Pendergrass and Glen Campbell wore his glittering rhinestone studded suits on stage.

I didn't really care that much about the clothes, though. I cared about Nudie Cohn's cars. They weren't the focus of Nudie's life, the way the outfits were. They were intended to market his clothing business. But these cars, with steer horns on the front, silver dollar encrusted interiors and six-shooters all around, have become pop culture icons in their own right. That's true even though most people have no idea who made them.

He was born Nuta Kotlyarenko in Kiev, Ukraine, in 1902. As a child, he and his brother emigrated to the United States where, after a while, he ended up in New York City making costumes for burlesque performers. The work involved minimum fabric and maximum rhinestones.

One day, as his granddaughter retells the story that he used to tell her, Nudie was in a movie theater watching a western. He thought the costumes lacked something. Specifically, they lacked rhinestones. So Nudie picked up his rhinestone setter and headed out west to fix things up.

Peter in nudie car in desert

His work caught the eye of some of country music's biggest names -- as it would tend the catch the eye of anyone standing within about 150 yards -- and the business took off. Soon, Nudie was chumming around with big name entertainers.

But I'm not a fashion writer. As I said, I wanted to find out about the cars. Nudie's granddaughter, Jamie Nudie, now runs Nudie's Rodeo Tailors in Southern California. Nudie died in 1984 but Jamie still has a Web site where you can order your own Nudie-style clothes and arrange to rent the two family Nudiemobiles she still has.

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There were 18 Nudiemobiles in all. The first was a Hudson but most were Pontiacs. Once the cars really caught on, General Motors' (GM) Pontiac division would actually provide Nudie with free cars to customize, Jamie said. As with the clothes, a lot of the customizing consisted of covering nearly all available space with highly reflective objects.

"When he wore his Nudie suit, he also wanted to stand out in his car," said Jamie.

The two cars that remain with the family are now housed at the Valley Relics Museum in the desert suburb of Chatsworth, Calif. A 1975 Cadillac Eldorado convertible and a 1964 Pontiac Safari wagon, they're parked among relics of the San Fernando Valley's past. The chrome cowboys and horseshoes on the hoods reflect the light of bright neon signs and catch the glint off the handlebars on rows of BMX bicycles.

nudiemoble

I like to immerse myself in an experience so, if I was going to drive the car, I wanted to wear the clothes. I had to don a Nudie suit.

I was disappointed to see, hanging on a rack in Jamie's office, a few jackets but only one full vintage suit. I put it on and felt the chill of metal studs studs against my legs. By some strange cosmic coincidence, that old suit was made for someone almost exactly my size. It was like Nudie Cohn knew that, someday, I'd be coming and, darn it, I was gonna need some clothes.

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Along with Shane Stewart, who helps run the museum, I grabbed the chrome revolver door handles on Nudie's old Cadillac and took it out to the California desert. It's hot out there and the sun is bright. The windshield filled with reflections of sparking silver dollars.

When it was my turn to get behind the wheel, I realized something. A 1975 Cadillac Eldorado is a big, big car. Imagine driving a a full-sized SUV from the backseat. Out ahead of me was something like front lawn of white paint decorated with chrome sculptures and firearms.

Another car stopped next to us to tell they'd seen the Cadillac in a parade just a week earlier. It's in a lot of parades. When we pulled over the side of the road to discuss setting up for our next shot, a pickup truck swerved off the road and stopped a couple dozen feet ahead of us. Two women got and started walking fast toward us. One of them, an older woman, looked like I had just kicked her dog. Hard. I tried to imagine what I had done.

Apparently, she just looks that way.

"Can I get my picture with that car?" she yelled.

Nuta Kotlyarenko surely knew how to get attention. Thirty years after his death, he's still getting it.

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