Behind the Wheel: A ride fit for a beer baron

By: Jennifer Sigouin | Rochester Post | Published May 23, 2017

 The car has been in Wolken’s family for 55 years.

The car has been in Wolken’s family for 55 years.

Photo by Donna Agusti

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Rochester Hills resident Steve Wolken describes his car as an “ostentatious, chrome-laden monster” — but he means that in a good way.

Wolken owns a 1958 Cadillac Fleetwood Sixty Special that he inherited from his great uncle, Ernest J. Netzhammer, who was the secretary/treasurer of the Bluff City Brewery in Alton, Illinois, near St. Louis. 

The brewery, originally owned by Netzhammer’s father, had a successful run from 1882 to 1952, even surviving Prohibition by producing products like “near beer” and root beer. As a result, Netzhammer became relatively wealthy, and he wanted a car that reflected his affluence. The exclusive Cadillac Fleetwood Sixty Special was the perfect fit.

“Every bell and whistle was thrown into this vehicle,” said Wolken.

In its day, the car was considered the height of luxury, and it was designed to be owner-driven, as opposed to chauffeur-driven. Netzhammer’s first Sixty Special was the 1940 model, which he purchased for $2,325 — the equivalent of around $40,000 today. He upgraded to newer models in 1946, 1950, 1954 and 1958, changing only the color. When Netzhammer died in 1962, Wolken’s father (Netzhammer’s nephew) acquired the 1958 model from his estate for $1,600. 

There was only one problem: The nearly 19-foot car wouldn’t fit in the 18-foot detached garage of the family’s 1940s-era home near St. Louis. The garage door had to be extended by 2 feet.

“However, after the heavy sectional door was relocated, my mother got the first Sears automatic garage door opener in the neighborhood,” Wolken noted.

During the 55 years that the car has been in Wolken’s family, it has always been used as a functional vehicle rather than as a showpiece. Wolken’s mother drove it for a while, and then, despite its conservative appearance, Wolken proudly drove it to high school when he was a teenager. In 1972, the car came with him to metro Detroit, where he worked as an engineer for the General Motors Co. until his retirement. Over the years, he has also driven the Sixty Special back to the suburbs of St. Louis for reunions.

Wolken also takes the family heirloom to events like the Woodward Dream Cruise, uses it for charity functions, and has displayed it in the lobby of the GM headquarters in downtown Detroit.

“I drive it whenever the occasion presents itself,” he explained. “The car is meant to be enjoyed.”

And after nearly six decades, Wolken added, the car is “completely unrestored” and remains driveable with its original engine and transmission. The only update that Wolken made was cosmetic. He stripped the paint and then repainted it in its original color, Prestwick Gray.

“It’s a testament to the engineering and manufacturing of the time,” he said. “I refuse to put something new in it. This is the way it was.”

Wolken added that the Sixty Special will continue to have a special place in his family in years to come, as he plans to eventually pass it down to his nephew.


Do you own a vehicle that has an interesting history or a special meaning to you? Contact Staff Writer Jennifer Sigouin at jsigouin@candgnews.com, and you could be featured in an upcoming edition of Behind the Wheel.

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