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Why is Gene Dickirson not the slightest bit worried when people tell him they don't like the looks of his new car, the GDT Speedster that took almost six years to hand-build? "Some people like the way it looks, some don't," says the retired Ford engineer calmly.
Dickirson just smiles when he looks at his baby. It's a smile of sublime contentment, of being completely happy with what he's done, and of being optimistic about the next car he will build, plans for which are in progress.
Constructing the torch red two-seater you see here didn't begin until after Dickirson finished his 30-year career that focused narrowly on engineering climate-control systems for Ford, but the broad vision of building his own car began many years before he retired.
The GDT (Gene Dickirson Team) Speedster is a home-built car, based on the driveline of a 1994 Corvette, with a 300-hp LT1 pushrod engine and four-speed automatic transmission. It was built by a crew of seven retired auto company engineers, plus a couple of gainfully employed designers, in a cramped three-car garage in suburban Detroit.
The frame is not from a Corvette, only the driveline, which includes the engine cradle and locations for the suspension mounts. Dickirson and his team actually built their own much stiffer and thicker frame, taking care to preserve only the driveline mounting points from the 1994 C4. The new frame holds the thick-skin GDT Speedster fiberglass body. "Chuck [Carlson] and I built that frame, and it took 12 trips to the welding shop," recalls Dickirson, who titles Carlson, a retired 36-year Ford engineering veteran, as his assistant chief engineer, and credits him with spending the second highest number of the 13,000 working hours it took to complete the project.
Most of the 721 miles on the odometer of the GDT Speedster were accumulated while its body was still white gel-coat. Many of those miles came while searching for suppliers to finish details on the car. Only three members of the nine-member team that built the car have ever driven it, and it's never left its Southeast Michigan birthplace. "No, I don't dream of driving it cross-country, I don't think it's the best car for that," Dickirson says.
What the GDT Speedster is best at is cruising. We'll do a little comparison here: To us, an Acura RSX is probably better to drive than any home-built car ever made. That's a nod to what a big factory can do. A relevant comparison of the GDT Speedster means how well it stacks up against the one-off private label cars that we've sampled. Closest to mind is the Perkins M2, a SHO Taurus V6-powered mid-engine coupe built by Texan Mike Perkins because he couldn't fit his torso (with the two extra vertebrae he was born with) into a Ferrari. It was a very well-sorted car, and he got some assistance from Ford during development, just because it was an interesting project. But the Perkins had some handling quirks that made it feel fragile. By contrast the robust GDT Speedster is a tank.
The Mark Charles Jaguar D-Type replica we reviewed on these pages in 1988 had a soft ride, but the sightlines over the bulbous fenders made city maneuvering hard, where the view out the front of the GDT Speedster is very good. The windshield is close to your head, but wind noise is low, owing to the lack of any windshield header.
Pontiac's Banshee show car that we reviewed in 1987 was built by fabrication experts at Dynamotive but suffered from a lack of wheel travel, which the GDT Speedster has preserved from its later-year C4 chassis. The first John Greenwood C4 convertible, which debuted in 1985, a year before the factory's version and was an AutoWeek feature that year, is close to the supple ride of the GDT Speedster, yet the Corvette that year rattled and wiggled until those issues were addressed by Chevrolet in 1992. Greenwood greatly improved his car's suspension with a unique fiberglass variable-rate leaf spring.
The GDT Speedster is otherwise pretty much like driving a C4 Corvette, which was produced from 1984 to 1997, except that the GDT feels a bit lighter, and it doesn't flex nearly as much. Although the frame and body are relatively heavy, Dickirson says the GDT Speedster weighs no more than a C4 because it has no roof. Depending upon what year your C4 was built, the GDT rattles slightly more. It is stiffer but not race car stiff like the mid-1980s C4s.
You get the impression that you could dash the GDT Speedster over a rough railroad crossing with the steering in full lock and it wouldn't bottom or bend. The instruments, interior and comfort are as well thought out as (and in some case better than) a production Corvette. Other things feel similar to a custom street car: The PRNDL is actually a gauge, the gas cap is from a Bullitt Mustang, door hinges are from a Ford F-150, and the windshield is from a Jeep Cherokee.
The fit-and-finish of the car is beyond a normal production car, a quality that can be attributed to the painstaking preparation of each of the 2000 new parts created for the car. Every part was drawn, often by hand, sometimes by computer-aided design software. Both scale and full-size models were made.
The process to assemble the car depended on the layout of the new house Dickirson bought when he retired. "One of the guys that had an influence on me was a go kart builder and racer, and he says you gotta watch out, when you're in a little shop somewhere, the overhead can eat you up. He was right. This thing took 5.7 years, and if you rented a little shop, at $300-to-$500 a month, you got insurance, utilities, drive back and forth everyday, and so I thought we'll buy this house and it is set up perfect to build it. I'll just figure out how to do this thing here."
The entire project was financed out of Dickirson's pocket, although the team donated their time. To start the next car, the team has to sell the first car. It was up for sale at the RM Auction in Novi, Michigan, in September, but the $70,000 bid did not meet the $95,000 reserve. It will go on the auction block again at the RM auction Feb. 9-11 in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. The buyer will get two notebooks full of the build history of the car, along with design layouts and the small clay model that was used for styling, as well as a service manual Dickirson developed.
When you mention the next car, Dickirson's eyes open wider when he speaks of a modern Corvette driveline. "We'll use the C6 platform. Why reinvent the wheel?"
(source: text, AutoWeek, 02/09/07, by Phil Berg. images, GDT).
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