Make sure you check out the “happenings” at this years Street Rod Nationals in Louisville where Egon’s Buick, designed by Charlie Smith was featured. Ron Martinez and the 1967 and ’68 AMBR winner… “The Invader” was also on display… check it out in this additional Forum coverage.
An episodical story of “carmaroderie”
Egon Necelis was a unique sort of fellow. Though he’s gone now, never again to apply his mastery of metalwork to another automotive creation, his legacy lives on. East of the Mississippi and around his Carney’s Point, New Jersey location in particular, Egon was a car building legend. I feel fortunate to have known him for the 13 years that we managed to cultivate our designer/builder relationship. Carried on almost exclusively by phone and mail, this short period of “carmaroderie” has spawned several automobiles of note. — probably the most important being a 1941 Buick custom rod that we collaborated on during the late 1980’s. Our association concerning a common goal became symbiotic, although our dissimilar natures occasionally made it appear as though we not only possessed differing opinions, but “came from different planets”. I think one could safely say we were each a bit headstrong. Through it all though, we managed to meld ideas into hard realities and in the process make a lasting and positive impression upon one another. It was a fine trip!
Sometimes the shortest distance between concept art and driving reality is a long and winding road.
by Charlie Smith
A first encounter -
I was driving through the Ohio Sate Fairgrounds in 1984, taking in the sights and sounds of that years N.S.R.A. National Event. Although each participant’s car is distinctive in nature, a herd of approximately 8,000 street rods has a tendency to blend into an homogeneous mass of sameness after you’ve been to several of these events. That was certainly my experience that day, until I caught a glimpse of a car that immediately captured my full attention. It literally “drew me in”, almost as if it were something I was familiar with… like something I might design. For my tastes, it had the right stance, chop and body modifications. I even caught what I thought was a contemporary Cadillac badge adorning the cowl, a device I like to use when redesigning older cars – to link them to the present. From a distance, I hadn’t recognized the make of the vehicle, but that Caddy badge gave me a clue that I might be looking at a LaSalle. At any rate, and without knowing the owner, I knew then and there the builder and I were kindred spirits and that we would become friends. I knew this!
Not being able to stop (I was en route to my vendor’s concession – Top Flite Concepts, in a late model car), I continued to my destination. I made a mental note of where this memorable car was located and hoped that I would be able to find it again for a closer inspection and a meeting with the owner. When that little “slammed” Oldsmobile of mine came to a rest at my T-shirt joint, I was immediately off again like a man possessed, on foot this time, leaving everyone at the tent in bewilderment. I found the car, of course, and though the owner wasn’t there at the time, I introduced myself to a lady who was with the vehicle. Finding that it was the owner’s (and builder’s) wife Peg, I proceeded to tell her of my admiration for the constructor’s talents. I even went so far as to gush, “Anyone who can build a car like this, can come down to my Graphics Tent and pick out anything he wants.” I somehow trusted this guy — that he wouldn’t take everything in sight. I instinctively felt that I already knew him. An hour or so later the LaSalle pulled up in front of the Top Flite tent… Peg introduced me to “Egon” and thus; our friendship and designer/builder association began. Looking through my auto design portfolio that day, he echoed my thoughts by remarking that, “the two of us seem to be on a similar automotive wavelength”. By the way, they went easy on me with their T-shirt selection.
A Buick torpedo is loaded -
In the summer of 1986, I was setting up the Top Flite Tent for another one of those great N.S.R.A. Nationals, this one in Oklahoma City. That year we featured Pete Chapouris’ recently completed purple ‘39 Ford convertible as our centerpiece, and I was hanging up the “Pete & Jakes” banner as Egon and Peg rolled in from New Jersey. As we all stood around admiring the Rickleffs flames on Pete’s ragtop, Egon tugged at my sleeve and drew me aside. “Hey, what do you think about designing a car for me?”, he asked. Before inquiring as to the type of vehicle, I shot back, “Sure, I’m ready – let’s do it.” “Well”, he continued, “I was thinking about one of those ‘fast back’ GM cars from the 40’s… I’ve got a ‘41 Buick sitting outside the shop just waiting for some attention.” “Egads Egon!”, I exclaimed, “Not one of those damned torpedo bodies?” I’d hated those things from my childhood. My dad had a ’46 Pontiac fastback, and I literally hid from view whenever I rode in that thing.
Oh well, sometimes the most undesirable of circumstances lead to unique solutions, so the pre-war fastback bodystyle was agreed upon as our point of departure. Consequently, I set about gathering some reference and checking out examples of that body style at the “Nats” that year. My reconnoitering, by the way, resulted in some mighty slim pickings. Evidently, I wasn’t the only one who had taken a dislike to that particular GM offering.
As if my distaste for that “torpedo” body shape wasn’t enough… a few weeks later, eye-popping reference arrived from Egon in the form of actual pictures of our “starter” car. E-Friggin-Gads! It wasn’t getting any better, in fact it was progressively getting “worst”. That thing was the pits. Adversity had by now reached it’s truest definition; this shell of a car was most assuredly woeful as a road-kill weasel. It was not only destined to become a super challenge for my skills, but for Egon’s abilities, as many potential difficulties were readily apparent regardless of the direction my design would eventually take us. Adversity, I would soon learn to appreciate, could be Egon’s middle name.
The Buick “torpedo” is launched -
During September and October of 1986, I did a series of pencil preliminaries for the Buick project. After much discussion, choices were pared down to two versions for possible “build-up”. Both were contemporarily distinctive, yet somewhat different in their overall styling approach. One had that unique GM formal notch-back top, reminiscent of the early 60’s Rivieras. The other was a radical number with a deeply tunneled rear glass, somewhat similar to a late 60’s Dino Ferrari, but still maintaining a semblance of the original torpedo styling. I set about doing finished illustrations of both, and sent them to Egon for a decision in early January of 1987. Well, he took the longest time getting back with me, and when he did, he said his delay was only because he couldn’t make up his mind. (As a side note, obviously this was true. Some of his last work in the late 90’s was spent building that second version of the Buick design – The Riviera Classic – though it was never completed.) As things progressed, a design I called the Centurion Roadster (a portion of its top was removable) became the basis of our combined efforts. Though radical, considering the street rod scene at the time, its design managed to reflect a proper essence of the period production car, although very little of that original shell would ultimately escape extensive modification. The idea was to embrace a distinctive “deco-Buick” look, while stretching the then current envelope of what a “pre-1949 NSRA qualifying street rod” was expected to be. In retrospect, it was actually both rod and custom, yet shifting away from the general customizing trends of 1986. Some say it will always remain a ground-breaking effort.
Little did we both know how serious a commitment we were making to one another, as we casually discussed that damned torpedo body in the tent that day in Oklahoma City. I didn’t know it at the time, but the project was to involve countless sketches and illustrations, to say nothing of the numerous telephone calls, plus trips back to New Jersey during the course of construction. The undertaking was to take me into all areas of the styling process. This included the interior, unique billet wheel design and styling the engine compartment. What it brought Egon was an even more time-consuming obligation. Almost three years of his life were spent down at the garage engineering and constructing this “monster” that I had created on paper. I’ve always hoped that it was an enjoyable experience for him, though Peg at times cursed me for causing him so much anguish. Still, it was a fruitful process, and Egon even assured me that she’d forgiven me in the end. However, I am not so sure she ever did.
So in January of 1987, having received my latest illustrations, Egon called to say that they were hanging on the wall of his shop as his building reference. Consequently, he had already placed the old body on a late model Buick Chassis and proceeded to remove the top. I foolishly asked, “How long do you think it will take – about a year?” He only growled!