by Peter Ratcliff

Most of the Cadillacs on this website, and indeed, throughout Australia are right hand drive.

Right hand drive has an interesting history, and few countries have clung to it as keenly as has Australia. There are many theories about the origins of right hand drive. RHD dates back to well before motor cars, in fact to horse-drawn days. It appears that riders have always mounted horses from the left, so that mounting platforms were on the left of the track. In crowded areas, it made sense to stay on the left of the road once you had started there. That may or may not be the correct explanation, but it does not explain why the US decided to abandon RHD at the end of the horse age.

When the motor car arrived, there was no standardisation of left- or right-hand drive among governments or among manufacturers, who equipped their vehicles as they pleased. In the US, most cars were built LHD, but manufacturers of more expensive makes chose RHD as a mark of distinction and superiority. Cadillac and other quality-makers continued to build all of their cars this way until 1914, when America appears to have settled on LHD. However, US car makers at all levels eagerly sought sales in far-off countries where local jurisdictions might prefer (or insist on) RHD. Almost all makers would build export cars to the specification of the ordering dealer.

With its British heritage, Australia naturally followed the example of "home", and decided to drive on the left of the road in RHD vehicles, and so it remains today. Cadillac and most other manufacturers were happy to supply RHD chassis for orders from General Motors Australia, as well as to other countries including Sweden, Britain, and the many countries of the former British Empire.

Cadillacs (and later on, La Salles) sold in Australia until World War Two were factory RHD. But as all Australian states would just as happily register LHD vehicles in the early years, some Australian travellers bought cars while in the US, and simply brought them back and drove them here. Most roads were very lightly travelled, so no problems were encountered.

During World War Two, thousands of military vehicles were brought to Australia from America (as Britain was under siege and unable to help). After the war ended, Jeeps and trucks were in unprecedented demand following years of shortages. Postwar US cars and trucks were difficult to obtain due to tight restrictions on US currency, so our roads were flooded with LHD ex-army vehicles. By 1949 the governments of the most populous states (Victoria, New South Wales and Queensland) legislated that no new registrations of LHD vehicles would be accepted, but provided for any pre-49 registration to continue indefinitely, so long as registration did not lapse.

For many years following WW2, left drive cars and trucks shared the narrow, usually unmade roads with right drive, and bus fleets and even government departments operated some LHD vehicles into the early sixties. However, people felt safer with RHD, so they started to convert the steering and controls to the right side with varying degrees of quality and safety. Conversion shops sprang up to cater to this need. The need became greater after 1960 when the postwar currency restrictions were finally lifted and US car imports increased substantially. Those who preferred to leave their car LHD could make clandestine arrangements for registration in one of the few Australian territories or state which continued to allow LHD.

Some conversion shops became specialists at performing expensive mirror conversions which were difficult to detect. This usually involved removing the car's firewall and relocating heaters, air-conditioners, wiper motors, etc, in addition to instruments and dash controls, seat adjusters, window switches, remote mirrors, pedals, brake systems and so on.

Cadillac did not resume manufacture of right drive vehicles after WW2, so all Cadillacs built after 1941 left the factory left-hand-drive. If you believe you know of a FACTORY right drive Cadillac built between 1942 and 1999, I would love to see evidence, especially the car's factory build-sheet.

Australia remains a haven for right-hand-drive American cars, whether factory original or ingeniously converted.

Some further historical information courtesy of Oliver:

The UK legislated in 1756 to officiate the driving on the left based on two factors. The majority of human beings are right-handed and naturally use their right hand to draw either swords or weapons when encountering the foe. The Romans established that regulation for the same reason thousands of years earlier. In the UK, many carriages and cargo wagons are very tall, necessitating the drivers to sit on the right side of carriages and wagons as not to damage the cargo or injure the passengers with whips.

The USA turned toward the LHD during the colonial era. With prodigious land and space to build roads and the like, the farmers found it ideal to tow larger cargo wagons with four cattle. Henceforth, it was easier and more manageable for the driver to sit on the front, left cattle as to regulate the three other cattle from his position. The wheels had protruding hubs, necessitating careful attention when the wagons were passing each other on the road. Consequently he drove on the right to mind four cattle (with his right hand) and to watch the clearance between two passing wagons.

On a side note, USA does not prohibit the importation and registration of RHD vehicles, with the understanding that those vehicles are US complianced or at least 25 years of age (without US compliance). The RHD Rolls-Royces from the 1960s and 1970s were all the rage in Dallas, Texas during the late 1980s.

It is reputed that Lancia persuaded the Italian government to switch over to LHD in the early 1950s so as to reduce the cost of building both left and right hand drive vehicles. Lancia has not built the RHD vehicles since it's ill-fated marketing scheme in the UK. They rusted long before they arrived at the sales centres.

Cadillac Right Hand Drive Conversion

Changing Sides
Conversion from left to right as experienced by Adam Laws.

Adam Laws discusses the pros and cons of remaining LHD, what options there are for conversion and where the money goes...

Car in Left Hand Drive Format

Is RHD conversion necessary in Australia?

That depends - on your view of originality, how often you want to drive the car, where you live and the model, year and value of your Cadillac. Some purists would argue that as these cars were never built factory RHD (post war) a conversion removes a substantial component of vehicle originality and therefore should be avoided. To balance this is the fact that conversion to RHD prior to sale was a standard modification in Australia. Realistically, the car is still a Cadillac provided the RHD conversion is done well.

Regarding driving a LHD vehicle, in my experience you do adjust to driving from the left and after a relatively short time think little of it. However, there are situations requiring greater care. Most notably, merging to the right where traffic is generally moving faster i.e. motorway on-ramps, letting front seat passengers out (on the traffic side), and on a lighter note - toll booths. On balance and over some 3000 miles of Sydney driving I had very few problems.

The model and year of Cadillac is relevant in terms of how conversion to RHD affects resale value. The cost of conversion does vary somewhat but is effectively a fixed cost not related to the vehicle value. Generally the market for RHD cars will be much greater making resale for a higher price almost certain - although the increase is unlikely to fully offset the cost. If your car is highly collectible it may have an “international market” and therefore resale may actually be reduced by conversion to RHD. Converting a car of very modest value is likely to be over capitalisation - but this really doesn’t matter if you intend owning it long term.

What are the options?

This depends on the car’s vintage to some extent. However, for 50s and 60s Cadillacs the choices are:
1. Steering linkage system
2. Partial mirror image conversion
3. Full mirror image conversion

Linkage system

The best known is the “A.R. Engineering” system where the steering wheel column is cut (under the dash) and the “top” section moved to the right hand side. The linkage system then joins the lower and upper column. The major advantage is that the steering box stays in the same position and therefore the steering geometry remains unchanged. However, for most model Cadillacs (due to the steering column/dash shape) the linkage box will be at least partially visible. There is also a great deal more involved to a conversion than repositioning the steering box and on balance any cost savings will be minor.

Partial mirror image conversion

This is the most practical conversion technique for most Cadillacs. It involves a replacement right hand drive steering box and complete cosmetic mirror image conversion inside the car. Typically the brake master cylinder remains on the original side as do air conditioning components. Linkages are fabricated to reposition the controls. This results in minimal changes within the engine bay and significantly simplifies the amount of work involved.

Full mirror image conversion

This requires the removal of the engine from the car and major work on the fire wall for repositioning of all components to the opposite side. This technique while more common on recent model cars seems rare - probably for reasons of cost, on older Cadillacs.

There are no books, factory RHD parts or published guidelines on how to convert these cars. Therefore there are variations even for the same model year - especially related to the appearance and quality of the cosmetic restoration. Sometimes it is simply not practical to producte an exact mirror of some features. The creativity and eye for detail of the person doing the conversion is therefore a major factor in the outcome.

In relation to the steering geometry and handling there should be very little room for variation. This is an area where exact replication of the existing set up to right hand drive is very important. Some dimensions are critical and must be duplicated to within a millimetre or less of the original - others are less dimensionally sensitive. It is vital that the person doing the job understands the critical dimensions and has a system for ensuring their accuracy. Otherwise handling problems will arise and in extreme cases may be dangerous. There are many stories of conversions going wrong and mostly they relate to positioning of critical steering components. Fixing mistakes in this area after the car is completed can be extremely expensive and involve major rework.

There are then two major areas to consider in a conversion: the cosmetics and the steering geometry. Often a conversion service will have greater strength in one of these two areas. It is necessary to be satisfied with the quality of work for the complete job before trusting your car to major surgery! Unless you have a trusted reference this will require doing some homework so you know the questions to ask and understand the answers! Reputations come and go - usually with the people. Speak to the person doing the work and make sure they are happy for you to be involved.

When the word gets out, someone good may become very busy and the wait may be many months. They may also employ others and quality may suffer. It is probably best to find someone who has had a similar car converted to a standard you are happy with and ask for the same person to do your work.

How long should it take and what is the cost?

Be assured conversion to right hand drive is a huge job. Those that see it as simply a matter of swapping over the steering wheel and pedals haven’t seen a job in progress. Whilst most work is common to all cars, some design issues will increase the amount of time involved. If the dash area of the car is highly asymmetrical, more time will be required for cosmetics. Also, extensive chrome and other bright work may increase restoration costs.

Before we get to the cost let’s look at what’s involved...

Dash under complete rebuild

- disassembly of existing dash/instrument components
- cutting and mirroring of lower dash, glove box, ashtrays, etc
- cutting and mirroring of upper dash and recovering
- conversion to the RHS of instrument assembly, clock, controls and associated dash bright work
- removing old steering box and replacing with RHD version (typically requiring modifications to chassis).
- Repositioning idler arm and drag link (modified on some models)
- modification of steering column to reposition gear selector linkages
- fabrication of linkages for transmission and accelerator
- repositioning park brake and cable linkage
- cross linkage from repositioned brake pedal to master cylinder
- re-ducting of air conditioner/heater hoses
- cutting and extending wiring looms as necessary
- changing door/window/seat controls to right hand side
- painting/rechroming modified components
- reassembly

In addition to the above it is often necessary in cars of this age to replace or restore broken parts whilst the dash assembly is out.

ImageNow to the costs. External supplier and part costs will typically be around $2,500. This will cover the right hand drive steering box, the soft dash pad recovering ($700 on 1963 model), rechroming, new bulbs, connectors, paint, etc.

The amount of full time work involved obviously varies but seems to average around 5 weeks. Based on a 35 hour week this equates to approximately 175 hours. Even at a very modest $40 an hour, this would give a labour bill of approximately $7,000 making a total of $9,500. This approximation fits quite well with the range of estimates on my 1963 Cadillac convertible - from $6,500 to $12,500. Whilst not immediately obvious there is actually more work in conversion of 63/64 Cadillacs than 59/60 models for example - primarily due to asymmetry of the main instrument cluster and lower dash

Factors that increase or decrease the price include whether or not the car has air conditioning, any work that the owner may do themselves (usually cosmetic/restoration work) and the age and condition of the car. It is quite usual to see the benefits in fixing components whilst the conversion process is in progress such as the radio and clock. Obviously whilst less cost at this stage inevitably the total cost rises.

New Right hand Drive Setup

A more expensive conversion is not necessarily better but is likely to indicate greater care and attention to detail. For example wiring looms when extended should have soldered connections rather than clips and be cut at different points to avoid “clumping” and stress at the join area. Don’t forget the other costs...Engineering certificate (around $300), stamp duty (if unregistered) and registration.

In conclusion

Shot Shows the Uneven dashboard of the 63 - harder to mirror than the 50's cars

Was it all worth it? In most respects the conversion exceeded my expectations (thank you Erol) especially in the all important area of handling. Contrary to several peoples comments that the car would never be the same (i.e. as good) I can say it is probably a little better - seeming somehow more direct. There are a couple of minor fit issues I wish to fix and a less than ideal fuse box location but the overall cosmetic result is excellent.

And the real pleasure is in the driving... it’s more relaxed and I no longer feel I’m asking anyone a favour to drive the car ... It’s mine to drive when I want.

Note: Most states and territories now allow full registration for LHD vehicles over 30 years old. Please make your own enquiries as to the exact requirements in your state or territory. Information from the NSW RTA is available here

Adam Laws