I get pretty focused sometimes, especially when I’m writing a book, but I have nowhere near the attention span of Louis Chenot of Carl Junction, Missouri. Here’s a guy who, from scratch, built a one-sixth-scale 1932-era Duesenberg SJ dual-cowl phaeton (body by LeGrande) with a running straight-eight engine. Yes, it runs, and nearly every component works as it does on the original car, including the geared transmission and differential. Read a full account here.
Building the Duesenberg was a 10-year undertaking, involving the fabrication of more than 6,000 parts (966 in the wheels alone), from complex cylinder heads to tiny spark plugs. “Holy Toledo,” says Ray Magliozzi, “Ten years! That qualifies him for sainthood, or maybe total nuthood. I imagine his car awes everybody who sees it.” Indeed it does. Here’s Chenot, on video, running the engine just before installing it in the chassis:
Chenot’s shop includes a Bridgeport-type milling machine (I have a soft spot because I used to live in Bridgeport), a 12-inch lathe, a horizontal and vertical index table, cutter grinders, belt sanders and tube benders. Fabricating the tiny working radiator shell took nine tries to get right. The car was finally finished two years ago, and now he’s building a similarly incredible boat.
I was curious to meet a guy with that kind of obsession, and gave Chenot a call in the Joplin, Missouri suburb where he lives. He’s a 75-year-old mechanical engineer (retired from the Leggett & Platt Automotive Group), who works on the models full time, seven days a week in his shop.
The first thing I wanted to know: Wouldn’t it actually have been easier to build a full-sized car from the ground up? Chenot laughed, and agreed it is probably so. “The tolerances are about the same—you need the same clearance on a model bearing as on a full-sized one,” he said. “And on the full-sized cars the allowances for fit are of course much larger.” Easier, maybe, but he has more fun with tiny cars.
Chenot, who’s from Ohio originally, started out building model airplane kits (as most of us did) when he was five. My guess is that his actually came out well, even then. He also built car models, including one-cylinder tether cars, also known as Spin Dizzys. The name was apt. The cars I remember had tiny Super Bee engines by Cox with displacements of 0.049 cubic inches that ran on a mix of methanol and lubricating castor oil. You staked them to the ground and let ‘em run in a circle, thrilling to the high-pitched whine—meeeeeeeee—and the smell of “racing gas.” I had a bunch of those, and so did Ray Magliozzi.
“My cousin Dennis lived next door, and his house had a huge garage that was great for racing our car,” Ray told me. “After a couple of runs the fumes were getting to us so we opened the garage doors a crack. That’s when the spike we’d driven into the concrete floor let loose, causing the car to fly out the door, straight across a busy street and into a snow bank. I went chasing after it, risking life and limb, and found it still running. I twisted the needle valve to turn it off but somehow made it run three times faster—which caused the tiny engine to glow bright red. I was showing it to Dennis when the Super Bee seized, never to run again.”
C’mon, kids, can a video game give you that kind of excitement? The engines on these cars screamed like berserk bees, and I still remember the smell of that fuel. There were planes, too, and I crashed a good number of German fighters.
Chenot graduated from youthful models and Spin Dizzys to larger pursuits in 1960 when his uncle discovered an 80-percent-complete 1930 Cadillac that had been put to pasture on an Ohio farm, complete with a cab from an International truck mounted—with sheet metal screws!—in place of the long-gone convertible top. Chenot bought that car for $900 and restored it over seven years, also taking on a Jaguar and a pair of 1949 Cadillac convertibles.
So what’s the difference between restoring a full-sized car and building a model? “Real cars are huge by comparison, and take up a lot more space,” Chenot said. “It’s heavy work, and there’s a lot more area on, say, the fenders, meaning more grinding, polishing and painting.” This is obviously a guy who prefers working on Lilliputian scale. The Duesenberg, large as it is at one-sixth scale, fits on a bench.
Probably about the time he was getting bored with the full-sized Cadillac, Chenot says he heard that people were building tiny precision model engines that actually ran. “I was totally intrigued,” he told me. He has also built a model American-LaFrance fire engine and a nine-cylinder radial airplane engine (based on a 1919 Bentley design). And now, a boat.
“It’s a 5.5-foot-long model of a Garwood mahogany-hulled triple-cockpit boat with a Liberty V-12 engine from World War I,” Chenot said. “Due to lack of common sense, I’m building two motors for it. It does save a bit of time to build a second engine while you’re working on the first one.” This is another long-term project—the hull is built but not varnished, and the engines are expected to take another two years to complete. Just doing the hardware will take another year.
But this boat will float, and Chenot plans to get it in the water and run it with radio controls. I never got that far into the hobby myself, but Ray did—the last radio-controlled plane he crashed was called a Duraplane. An unfortunate name, since it broke into a zillion pieces on impact.
I discovered while researching this story, by the way, that other obsessives out there are building tiny engines, too. This is supposed to be the smallest V-8 engine in the world, the “Victory 44”:
And here’s the world’s smallest V-12, crafted by someone with the prosaic name Yesus Wilder. Or at least it’s the smallest until Chenot builds an even tinier one. “If he lives that long,” Ray said.