Story and photographs by Tom Strongman
APACHE JUNCTION, Ariz. — Jerry Nickel’s dream car sits quietly in a car trailer. Its handmade wooden body has a light coating of dust. The battery is dead, so he can’t move it into the afternoon light.
I heard of Jerry Nickel’s car while flying to Phoenix in December. Art Tangeman of Seneca, Kan., was seated next to me. He spends the winters in Phoenix, and when our conversation turned to cars, he told me he had an Arizona friend who built a car out of wood. It had two Cadillac engines.
A wooden car with two engines was too much to pass up, so I contacted Nickel. We managed to rendezvous on short notice in mid-January.
To simplify finding each other, Nickel suggested we meet at a local watering hole and he would take me to his car. Nickel, with a flattop haircut and broad shoulders, was chatting with friends when I arrived. It looked like an episode of “Cheers.”
I had hoped we could move his car out in the sunlight for photography, but that was not to be. A few photos shot in the cramped trailer would have to do.
There’s little doubt that this car is one of a kind. Nickel got the idea to build a wooden car from an article in a 1955 issue of Hot Rod magazine. Once Nickel retired from the waste collection business, he began making his dream come true. He decided to use two 500-cubic-inch Cadillac V-8 engines because someone told him it wouldn’t work. One engine and transaxle, from an Eldorado, drives the front wheels. The other engine, from a Deville, drives the rear wheels. Although the engines aren’t synchronized, Nickel said they work fine together.
It took Nickel more than four years to form the body by laminating 1-inch strips of mahogany. He used 1,000 board-feet feet of wood cut into 4,183 individual pieces, five gallons of glue, 60 pounds of drywall screws and four gallons of varnish.
Nickel has displayed his car at shows in Germany and the U.S., and he’s driven it in numerous parades.
But that was years ago. His pride and joy is relegated to trailer life today. Nickel considered putting it up for auction at Barrett-Jackson this year, but he didn’t submit it in time. Missing the deadline may have been a subconscious way of holding onto his dream a little longer. Four and a half years is a lot of labor, and I’m sure it would be hard for Nickel to let go of something so much a part of himself.
Nickel fabricated his car from more than 4,183 pieces of wood.
The article below gives a look at the car outside of its trailer.
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