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Profile: Dream Car Garage

What do you do after more than 30 years in the auto industry engineering vehicles under OEM restrictions and timetables? You build your own car to OEM standards in your garage.

When they first met in the personnel office at Ford on July 1, 1963, Gene Dickirson and Chuck Carlson had no idea they’d not only become friends, but bona fide vehicle manufacturers some 40 years later. In the garage of Dickirson’s home they didn’t restore an old car, despite starting with a rolling chassis from a crashed 1994 Corvette. Rather, they and their team engaged in computer-aided modeling, aerospace-spec welding, electrical system creation, fabrication, and more to build a new car around those mechanicals. Today, the one-and-only GDT Speedster is for sale, being auctioned off on the company’s website (www.gdtspeedster.com), but Dickirson and Carlson aren’t ready to stop. They are planning to build another car. Here’s what they did…

Gene Dickirson left Visteon’s climate control unit on January 1, 1999, moved into a new house, and set the groundwork in place for a project he had been thinking about since he was a teen: building a car of his own. Chuck Carlson followed him from Ford one year later. “The house is as integral to the project as the Corvette donor car,” says Carlson, “because it has a three-car garage, a studio and workshop separate from the finished portion of the basement, and two stairways into it.” It was their base of operations over the next five years as they worked from the first team meeting on Feb. 6, 2000, to vehicle completion in late 2005. Dickirson and Carlson brought Ford Design personnel Larry Ronzi (clay modeling) and Craig Sandvig (interior and exterior design), among others, into the fold, and insisted on lunch-hour meetings and after-hours work. Over 13,000 man-hours (10,000 belong to Dickirson, who worked six hours per day, six days a week on the car) were spent making the dream come true.

Unlike most hot rod projects, this one followed OEM conventions. CAD drawings were created for 724 systems, subsystems, and components; an electrical schematic was created and each circuit was laid out on the computer; a clay model was built and scanned, and the resulting “data cloud” was surfaced in ICEM/Surf and sent to the body builder; and the suppliers were judged on a total value scale to get the best part at the best price. This OEM mindset also led to the decision to paint the car a standard Corvette red and trim it in production leather. The reasons are simple. Since most of the pieces beneath the skin are from Chevy’s sports car, the owner can order parts—including paint and leather—from any Chevy dealer.

Dickirson measured the undamaged side of the Corvette and used this information to create a CAD file from which a complete frame could be designed and built. The pieces were sourced from and cut by a local company specializing in square and rectangular-section steel tubing, and then arranged in position on a stable surface—4x6 plywood attached to industrial-strength sawhorses—that could be adjusted via a set of screws until plumb. Call it the poor man’s chassis plate. The welding was done by aerospace-certified welders in Detroit. “Our frame measurements are well within half of what Chevy allows,” claims Carlson.

While this was taking place, Sandvig and Ronzi ran through design iterations with the team, who insisted on consensus before moving forward, and Carlson worked on the electrical system. “There was a lot of work taking place on this project simultaneously,” says Dickirson, “and we had a completed rolling chassis about the time the clay model was completed.” While the body panels were under construction in North Carolina, the team took everything apart, cleaned and rebuilt them, then reassembled the rolling chassis. Dickirson even consulted with the folks at FedEx Freight before designing dunnage that would ensure the body panels would arrive in Detroit safely.

Now that the project is complete and the car is for sale, Dickirson and Carlson are ready to do it again. Though there will be only one GDT Speedster, the next car will use the same frame, electrical circuits, and Corvette base. “Why reinvent the wheel?,” Dickirson asks as he contemplates what it will look like. The smart money is on a coupe for the simple reason that, as Chuck Carlson puts it, “roll-up windows would be a new challenge.” 

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