Wednesday, January 21, 2009

The Bill Niekamp Roadster ( Part 2 )

One thing I've found to be fairly consistent in the motorsports world is that special cars seem to have special stories. This makes sense to me for a few reasons; special cars are usually designed and constructed by pretty exceptional people...  exceptional people usually have exceptional or interesting stories... and it seems that these folks take their stories or back grounds and use them as inspiration for doing things in a special or exceptional way. And by all accounts, our man Bill Niekamp definitely falls into this category. 

By the time the late 1940s had rolled around, Bill Niekamp had long since settled down into adult life, working as a full time auto painter and body man ( or "panel beater" as they called it then ). The days of his youth were behind him and the responsibilities of keeping a small business running were his focus. But just as the war years were starting to fade and Bill was settling into his life, something started to nag at him. Something that only a man with such exceptional standards would take notice of and begin to ponder. 

You see, Bill was then living in Long Beach California and had a front row seat for the show being put on by the So-Cal youth; the immediate-post-war hot rod explosion. Hot rod roadsters were everywhere and with every passing week there were more. Cars were being bought, stripped of their fenders, hopped up, and turned into respectable hot rods in no more than a weekend by enthusiastic kids who had loads of energy, time, and drive. They quickly became the standard mode of transportation for young So-Cal kids who wanted some inexpensive fun and to be part of this new scene. 

Being a car guy, Bill Niekamp was both entertained and intrigued by what these kids were up to. But being a seasoned craftsman with years of experience making cars shiny and beautiful, with an emphasis on attention to detail and high quality execution, he was more intrigued by how these cars 'could' be built than how they were generally turned out. So, at the ripe old age of 44 ( an unheard of age for a hot rodder back then...  maybe the equivalent of a 44 year old skateboarder today ),  Bill Niekamp set out to show these kids how it's done. 

Now, this is not to say that a finely turned out hot rod had yet to be built before Bill Niekamp came along. The Doane Spencer and Bob McGee cars had been built in '47 and '48, but they were the exceptions. In fact, many younger guys built nice appearing, safe, and competitive cars in the day, but at 19 or 21 you can be expected to have only so much experience and funding. The spirit of hot rodding was indeed fully established by this time; the idea of using a lot of ingenuity and determination to transform discarded jalopies into high performance machines. Only now, Bill Niekamp was going to take that spirit and ad to it the patience and skill that only come with wisdom, and the adult paycheck that would be needed to fund this dream. 

First off, Bill started with a 1927 Essex frame, as it had a distinct and radical kick-up in the back, and added model A crossmembers. For the body, Bill took the best parts and sections from 4 '29 model a bodies. He did all of this cutting and sectioning using a hand saw because he felt the warping that would result from using a torch would make it that much more difficult to get the body panels straight on the car. Being a paint and body man he had to have an arrow straight body when done. One of the more distinct and innovative things that he built into the car was the use of hand formed aluminum body panels which made up the floorboards, the hood, a full underbody bellypan, and that signature track nose. Though Niekamp was an expert body man, the talents needed for the aluminum work were very special, so he brought in the great fabricator "Whitey" Clayton to do the panel forming. While there, Whitey also made up the grill insert as well. 

For power, a trusty 239ci '42 Merc flat-head was built and installed using Evans heads, a Weiand dual intake, Kurten ignition, and a Winfield cam and was connected to a '39 trans with 3.54 gears out back. Other than the aluminum work, the entire car was built by Niekamp in his one car garage behind his home in Long Beach. A stickler for detail and organization in every way, Niekamp kept track of his time and expenses to the penny. All told, the build took 13 months from start to finish and cost Niekamp $1,888.52. The car was rolled out in late '49 and within weeks was loaded on a trailer and towed up to Oakland for its show debut at the 1st GNRS. Well, we know how that turned out for Bill Niekamp. 

After cleaning up at its first show outing, the roadster was then put into typical double duty by Niekamp, becoming a regular-use street roadster and occasional dry lakes competitor. Niekamp joined the Road Runners and became, along with his stunning GNRS winning blue track roadster, a fixture at the local dry lakes meets. And in keeping with his "I'll show these kids" spirit, Niekamp ran the car through for a time at El Mirage in 1952. Proving once and for all that this show piece was not just a pretty face, the little blue roadster astonished onlookers by running an impressive 142 mph. A very fast speed for a flat-head powered car at that time. 

What a lot of people don't know about the roadster, is what happened to it between the time it was owned by Niekamp, and when Jim Jacobs purchased and restored the car in 1971. Interestingly, after turning down many offers to sell, Niekamp decided to raffle the car off to raise money for a friend who was injured at Bonneville. Rumor has it that only $700 was raised. The car went on to receive a red paint job and a Chevy V8 by its next owner and was known to show up as a competitor at the Santa Ana drags. In 1957, a 3rd owner began an engine swap to a nail-head Buick V8 and never finished the project. The car stayed in this 3rd owner's garage until Jacobs came along nearly 15 years later. 

Fortunately for all of us, this wonderful piece of early hot rod history was saved and is still with us today. Again, if you're ever out in the LA area, you can see the Bill Niekamp roadster in person at the Petersen Automotive Museum where it is prominently displayed with several other historically significant hot rods in the Bruce Meyer gallery. 

1 comment:

biggearhead said...

It's amazing how some of these cars have survived. How many were cut up and parted out after they'd been ragged to death, or just out of the desire to do what rodders do: make modifications and build something else.

I did some quick research yesterday, and it is indeed the Mack T that was stuck in my head. Unfortunately, I cannot come up with a rear photo of the Mack car, and I'm wondering how it compares to the Niekamp roadster. Niekamp's has an amazingly smooth flow downward from the deck that makes the whole body look like it's hustled down over that rear suspension. Cute trick with the exhaust through the tail panel as well. Amazing piece of work for its time, and I didn't know Niekamp was 44 when he did it. Clearly it was an amalgamation of experience, talent, and cash that helped to make this car what it is.

As for the track nose, that was something I didn't get in the beginning either. I didn't even know what it was. I just thought of it as "a funny-looking front end" and wondered where those things came from. I didn't realize they were handmade, or that the grille and shell was such a sign of prestige and ability in craftsmanship and performance. There is so much to learn about these old hot rods. I envy the men who got to live through these early evolutions. I've had to read a lot of magazines instead, which is probably not *quite* like growing up in the 40s and 50s. Just my guess.