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Ron Cherry: Body by Apple — Parte Due

Ron Cherry
Because each coachbuilder made his version of the car a little differently, there was no standard windshield and Gary Apple designed his own. Although the original cars had wire wheels, he didn’t think they would survive the 551 foot/pound of torque the engine puts out. For more on building this Alfa Romeo, go to Youtube under “gary apple.”
Photo by Ron Cherry

While Body by Apple’s first serving was American, a Pontiac, with the design from the mind of an American, Gary Apple, the second one, or il secondo, was definitely Italian.

In an Italian dinner, that’s when you get the meat and his next car was meaty. It was a recreation of a 1938 Alfa Romeo 8C 2900 Mille Miglia roadster, a car built for racing. With an inline 8-cylinder engine with dual overhead cams and two superchargers, it took the dominance of European racing away from Mercedes Benz for four years.

In the five years of production, less than 40 of the “2.9s” were built. Probably only four of these cars survive, with at least one in Europe, two in America and one in Australia.

The Australian car was rebuilt for a cost of over a million dollars from a frame, engine block and nameplate found in Italian burn pile.

“I wanted to build a car like the Alfa originally, but I didn’t have the confidence to do everything,” Gary said. “And my first car gave me an opportunity to do the sheet metal without doing a frame and running gear.”

But all that changed with the Alfa.

From the ground up

Although Gary had never done a frame before, he was qualified. He started as a welder for UC Davis.

“I was the ‘go-to kid.’ I built everything from flying saucers for Paul Moller to grape harvesters. You name it,” he said, then added about his artistic side. “I worked my way through college creating metal sculptures for bank and hotel lobbies.”

After graduation, he planned to be an industrial arts teacher, but found those jobs scarce. So he and his wife, Gloria, started several businesses, finally opening Innovative Metal Fabrication in Grass Valley in the late 1970s.

“My wife is a great welder. We teamed up and worked together our whole lives,” he said. “We started fixing lawnmowers and anything we could do to make money.”

The business grew, going into such unusual areas as manufacturing slot machines for Australia, before evolving into building processing equipment for computer manufacturers like Dell and HP.

“We made everything but the building,” he said.

It was lucrative, however, not fulfilling.

“I always enjoyed the art of metalworking, not so much the science of manufacturing,” he said. “If I tried to bring art into the manufacturing designs, they cut it because of costs. I dreamed of doing things that got back to my roots, creating sculptures.”

After having the business for 25 years, Gary sold it and retired.

Diving into the build

For Gary, retirement didn’t mean golf and TV, so he got back to creative metalwork, in this case cars. After building and selling his “What’s That Roadster,” he looked for a new project for 2017, settling on making the 1938 Alfa Romeo 8C 2900 in the longer 3000mm wheelbase.

“I liked the flow and design,” he said. “With many photos on the Internet of it, there was plenty of material. I improvised a little, by guess and by golly, but it worked out okay. I design stuff in CAD (Computer Assisted Design) instead of making a bunch of cardboard cutouts. It’s easier to draw in CAD and that data I use throughout the process.

“When you’re finished, you can put it all on a thumbdrive. If it gets damaged in an accident, you can pull up the data and quickly make a buck (a pattern used to shape the panels for the body) to replace the parts without any drama.”

After using Alias Design and Inventor Pro from Autodesk, programs to make the design, Gary made the buck and started making the body.

“I started with the body, which is the way you should build a car from scratch,” he said. “You have the body dictate the project. The last thing you build is the frame.”

Using his English wheel, stretcher and shrinker, he fashioned the body panels.

“I made the fenders twice because I didn’t like the first ones,” he said. “I’ve still got the first ones, trying to figure out how to sell them.”

Each fender was composed of 12 pieces and each piece took at least a day to make, so it was not easy to just toss them, especially since some hot rodder might want them. The body was made of 19-gauge steel for durability, while the inside panels were from aluminum to save weight.

Once the body was complete, Gary built a custom tube frame to fit it.

For suspension, he went with Heidts front and back. Steering was handled with a Flaming River power rack and pinion set up that he modified. For an engine, he chose a 566 horsepower, supercharged LSA E-ROD GM crate engine.

“It’s a perfect solution,” he said. “It comes with everything. You drop in the engine, hook up the wiring, turn the key and you’re gone.”

Since this is California Air Resources Board certified, the car needed no special exemption to be registered as a 2017 model. A double-disc clutch conveyed the power through a Tremac 5-speed overdrive trans to a Currie rearend with inboard disc brakes.

The wiring was a Ron Francis loom with every wire color-coded and labeled for easy tracing if there were a problem. Since this was a one-off car, it did not need things like ABS braking and safety air bags.

Tipping the scales at only 3,000 pounds and having so much power, its performance was very impressive.

“It’s a fun car to drive,” Gary said.

Big man in a little car

One change in the design Gary made was to widen the passenger compartment by 100 mm (4 inches).

“Italians in the 1930s were small guys,” he said. “You would have had to put your arm around me otherwise to fit inside. It wasn’t made for big people. The rest of the dimensions are sized correctly.”

But this is not a luxury model.

“It’s a no-nonsense sports car,” he said. “No frills, no windows, no top. It’s just a hardcore, get-out-and-go roadster, but it’s dependable. I didn’t build it as a show car. It’s a driver, for someone who wants something unique, something you’re not going to be seeing everywhere.”

Gary is selling his Alfa and for far less than the Australians spent to restore theirs.

Although he has not sold the it yet, he has already started on his next project. For that one, he is venturing across the Alps for his inspiration.

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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