Ron Cherry: Body by Apple — Part one
In the early days of the automobile, there were companies that specialized in building the bodies for various auto manufacturers. If you’re old enough to remember, GM sill plates had “Body by Fisher” on them until 1985. That’s because Fisher was an independent company that built bodies for Packards, Hudsons, Studebakers, pre-GM Cadillacs and even Fords before being bought by General Motors in 1919 and becoming strictly GM.
By the 1930s, most manufacturers made their own bodies, stamping them out of sheet metal using molds. However, the highest dollar (or pound, franc, Deutschmark or whatever) cars still produced only the frame, suspension and running gear while allowing the buyer to choose his own coachbuilder for the body.
Packard by LeBaron, Duesenberg by Rollston and Rolls Royce by Vanden Plas are a few examples of cars that had custom designed, hand built bodies specially made for the buyer. While this practice faded away during the Depression and most of those coachbuilders are now gone, a few custom coachbuilders still exist.
Ghia and Pininfarina keep up the tradition in Italy. And now there’s a new kid in town, our town: Apple Coachworks of Grass Valley.
With his own two hands
Gary Apple hand crafts car bodies using the same methods and tools as were used by LeBaron, Rollston and Vanden Plas. These are not expensive, computer-controlled power machines, but hand tools.
While they are not found in the normal hot rodder’s garage, they are readily available from such places as Harbor Freight, known for low cost tools.
“You can get a whole set up for maybe $700, including a small wire-feed welder,” Gary said.
The main tool is an English wheel. It consists of a larger upper wheel, called the rolling wheel, that rolls against a smaller wheel with varying slopes to the sides, called an anvil wheel.
The operator pushes and pulls a piece of sheet metal between them, slowly stretching the metal, which causes it to curve. He also has a shrinker and a stretcher, both foot-powered, that work the edges of the metal. Other than that, Gary said that only a pair of tin snips and a couple of hammers are all that is necessary to form the body panels and the welder is needed to attach the panels together.
“It can pretty much be done in anyone’s garage pretty cheaply,” he said.
Before starting his coachbuilding career, Gary took a class from Lars Jansson a.k.a. “Lazze” (pronounced Lassie, according to his website) in Pleasanton and bought his equipment from him.
“He’s a real teacher,” Gary said. “Ingenious. I’ve seen incredible things he’s made.”
It was then he decided to build his first car in 2014.
Gary decided to use a donor car for the passenger compartment, chassis, running gear, suspension and electrical. He opted for a 2008 Pontiac Solstice GPX with a 250 horsepower turboed 4-cylinder engine and 5-speed manual trans.
“I chose it because it had independent suspension and a convertible top, and I found an inexpensive one with only 15,000 miles on it,” Gary said. “But it made the design a convoluted process. I took the dimensions around the passenger module, the doors and the windshield and went from there.”
Lest it sound like anyone can just grab a piece of sheet metal and make a car body without a plan, there is more involved.
Blending the old with the new
In the old days, a designer would fashion a clay model to see how the finished product would look. Gary used Alias Design and Inventor Pro from Autodesk, Computer Assisted Design programs that give a three dimensional design that can be rotated on the screen to view from any angle, just like a clay model but much better in many ways.
One of those is that he used it to design and cut out the buck. A buck is a pattern used to shape the panels for the body. It can be made of clay, wood, metal, or even foam.
Gary made his out of metal, forming a framework that looks like a series of ribs that the body will be formed to match. He cut them out with a Computer Numerical Control plasma cutter, then assembled them like a model of a T-Rex skeleton.
Then he worked the 19 gauge steel sheets to form the metal panels. It takes time, patience and practice.
Using his English wheel, he formed the body to fit it over the buck. It might take a whole day just to form one small body panel to the right shape. He worked on the car like it was a regular job, not a hobby, spending all day on it.
“It was what I was looking for when I retired. I was used to big, big machines and automation. The English wheel, the shrinkers and the stretchers are all person powered,” he said. “It was kind of fun. I’d listen to country music and get in a groove.”
Although he designed the body to use the basic parts of the donor car, he remade the rear frame to move the rearend back 11 1/2 inches and moved the front suspension forward 10 inches, lowering both of them 3 inches. This entailed making a new drive shaft and emergency brake cable as well as new brake lines and wiring to the lights.
He incorporated the existing passenger compartment, doors, windshield frame and top into the new body, but it was 20 inches longer and 3 1/2 inches wider than the original Solstice. Once finished, he changed to larger 18 inch artillery-style wheels and painted the car copper.
“It’s heavier and has a wider stance, so it rides much smoother,” he said.
It took almost a year to finish the car. In retrospect, he would have done differently if he’d known then what he knows now.
“It was harder to rebuild it so heavily modified than to build everything myself,” he said. “In CAD, it looked perfect. In the real world, it was plus or minus a lot. Trying to make it happen right was way more than I expected.”
But he wouldn’t make that same mistake on the next Body by Apple car, one inspired by a 1938 Alpha Romeo.
Ron Cherry’s books, including the Morg Mahoney detective series, are available on Kindle and in print copy at Amazon. His new book, “The St. Nicholas Murders,” is a Christmas mystery that takes place in a small town in the Sierra Foothills that is remarkably similar to Nevada City and is now out in paperback and Kindle on Amazon. Check out his website at http://www.rlcherry.com.
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