John Chesnut's Account of The Maiden Voyage and Debut of the Dragon SeriesII
photos by Lee Chesnut & Paul Carlson
Designing and building the Dragon was supposed to be a "fun" hobby for me and my friends, Paul Carlson and David Childress. We loved the 50ís and 60ís sportís cars and wanted something different than a Cobra. We decided to build a car that had the look and feel of that era, but used modern parts, and it HAD to be comfortable for large occupants. If people wanted to duplicate our cars, then we would sell them as a kit.
For the first car, we used independent contractors to help with the design and fabrication of the body and molds, frame and jigs. Both of them were located hours away from us, which meant that we would visit them every couple of weeks to provide input and then they would continue on. The result of this approach was that the car ended up being their interpretation of what they thought we wanted, but not necessarily exactly we had in mind. This wasnít their fault, just a reality of that process. In addition, after building several cars, we had hundreds of ideas about how to improve it.
We decided that to fulfill the vision, what we had to do was redesign the car. This time all work would be done at our facility. We would hire a welder to fabricate the frame and jigs on site and we would shape the body ourselves. Our passion had just crossed over to obsession!
We began full time in December of 2003 with the goal of unveiling the car at the 2004 Carlisle show. We built the body on a frame that was set at a comfortable work height in a single car garage. We lowered the car down and rolled it outside for the first time in May, the day that we needed to leave for Carlisle. Once we saw the car at ride height and from a normal prospective we realized that it was butt ugly!!!! Frankly I just wanted to cry because of the time, money and effort that was essentially wasted. We took the car to Carlisle but kept it under cover to hide it from potential customers. While there we discussed the changes that needed to be made whether or not we were willing to invest the time and money to do it all over again! We decided to do it ONE MORE TIME1
During development, Kit Car Magazine visited us and witnessed the final frame and body plug first hand.
Liking what they saw, they ran a full article on the new Dragon.
Wanting to capitalize on that exposure, we ran advertising stating that we would
be displaying the car at the Knottís Berry Farm show. In addition, we took four orders
for the kit even though the car had yet to be completed. We were committed to a deadline
and could not miss it!
If youíve watched Monster Garage, American Chopper, or American Hot Rod on TV, you know that the completion of any project comes right down to the absolute drop, dead deadline. The Dragon was no exception. Originally, we were going to have the car transported and fly to the show. But it became obvious that we were not going to have the car done early enough for that. We thought about towing it, but 9 miles per gallon, reduced travel speeds and 7000 miles of wear and tear on the tow rig nixed that idea. LETíS DRIVE THE CAR! A brilliant idea was hatched, My brother Lee, who lives in San Diego, would fly out and drive west with me. Paul would fly to the show and make the return trip.
The original Dragon utilized 88 Ė 96 Corvette suspension parts and the customerís choice of small block Chevy power. Wanting to broaden the appeal of our kits, we designed the new Dragon so that it could use either the Corvette parts, or the complete drive train from a Camaro or Firebird. The car that we were building used the engine, transmission, rear axle assembly, fuel tank, battery, and shortened drive shaft from a 1996 Pontiac Firebird.
This particular car featured a 275hp V8, and a 4 speed automatic,
which had 96,000 Ďre thinking that 96,000 miles is a lot, but a good friend of mine
has an identical car with 187,000 miles on it and it runs perfectly,
Lee arrived four days before the departure date and was anxious to see the hot new sports car that he would travel across the country in. I had to explain to him that it wasnít quite done yet. We still did not have all of the fiberglass parts out of the molds. The windshield frame still had to be assembled. We still had to wire it, finish installing the suspension and brakes, allign it, paint it, install the lights, seat belts, gauges, and interior. But honest, Lee, it will be done. It really is a simple kit and everything will just bolt together. TRUST ME!
Lee wasnít convinced and wanted to know where the heater and top were. I explained to him that we didnít have time to fabricate and install them. But hey, it will make the trip more fun, we will have an adventure! What if it rains? He asked. It wonít, I replied. TRUST ME!
Some how I couldnít help feeling a little like Tom Sawyer by involving innocent bystanders in my misadventures.
During the last days of the build, friends and curious onlookers would stop by to see the car. Upon seeing itís uncompleted state they would make encouraging remarks. Like: "There is no way that youíre going to get that "thing" done!" "You really donít have a top!?" "You are leaving cross country in a car that you designed and havenít even tested?" "You havenít even tried the engine and transmission yet? I thought ,"Thanks for the support, guys."
With three days to go the final body parts came out of the mold. A friend of ours agreed to paint the car over the weekend in his garage. Fortunately the parts all have finished edges and returns. The parts were beautiful and required no filling or body work to complete. The gel coat was block sanded, sealer was applied and than it was sprayed torch red. The total paint job was completed in two days and looked terrific.
We were to leave on a Tuesday. The car was complete and while still on jack stands, was fired up for the first time. The engine started on the first crank and sounded perfect. The brakes worked, the transmission shifted, it steered and there were no leaks. We brought it up to operating temperature and everything seemed fine. The only problem was a malfunctioning alternator. The soonest we could get one was 7am Wednesday. We had missed the deadline!!!
The next morning, the new alternator was installed, we packed and headed out of the driveway at around noon. The temperature was in the 40ís and it was spitting snow as we left. I felt sorry for Lee, as he wasnít used to near freezing weather or riding in an open car. His normal transportation is a Mercedes 600 SL.. We wore four layers of clothing including hooded outerwear and ski gloves. I couldnít help thinking that we looked like a cross between Obi-wan Kanobi and a couple of ax murderers!
At first my body was tense as I listened and felt for any irregularity or out place noise that the Dragon might make. Apprehension gave way to exhilaration as the car drove perfectly. The chassis was rigid, the suspension compliant, the handling impeccable, and the steering precise and light. The engine, transmission, gearing and brakes worked in perfect harmony as we played sports racer on the black top. The more I drove, the more joyous I felt. It is this feeling of being one with the elements and one with the road that building the Dragon was all about. I silently screamed, "Thank you God! Thank you God! Thank you God!!!!!!!"
From Albany, we took I-88 to Binghamton, NY and than headed south on I-88. Our goal was to get south as soon as possible, and get to warm weather as soon as possible. As the sun dipped below the horizon, the temperature dropped significantly. It was then that I realized I had forgotten to put anti-freeze in the cooling system.
Lee took over driving and we continued south. At night ,it seems like all of the normal vehicles disappear, and the only remaining ones are the convoys of 18 wheelers desperate to get to their final destination in record time. Looking up at them from the passenger seat ,it occurred to me that we could drive completely underneath most of them. I was hoping that Lee was a defensive driver!
We had thought about driving through the night, but at about midnight, it was 36 degrees. We were freezing and I was exhausted. Not from the drive, but from the accumulation of the long working days of trying to complete the car.
The next morning we left at 6am and continued south towards Knoxville, TN. It was sunny and cold ,but we were ready to go and looking forward to the day. Fortunately, it had not frozen overnight, so the cooling system was fine. We were amazed out how comfortable the car was to drive. One of the unique designs of the car is long and roomy foot boxes. Even with my 34in inseam, my feet do not touch the end of them.
In Knoxville, at the first exit past the intersection of I-81 and I-40, we had arranged to meet one of our customers and his son. He had been building his chassis and was anxious to see the final body shape. At a little past one we pulled into the agreed to McDonaldís meeting point. It had warmed up to about 80 degrees now and it was bright and sunny. I stripped down to a T-shirt and applied judicious amounts of sun block to my already frying nose and face.
As I was showing the car to the excited and happy customer, I noticed that we were being swarmed by a large group of Japanese men in business suits. They took lots of pictures and seemed genuinely excited by the car. Lee, in talking to one of them who spoke English, discovered that they were automotive designers and were in the United States to attend a symposium. As we headed down the road, I wondered if someday I would see a car with similar lines to the Dragon in a major automotive showroom.
At around 4 pm we were getting close to Nashville when I noticed traffic backed up for as far as I could see. Seeing a sign for an Outback Steakhouse Restaurant ,I decided to quickly exit and have a good early dinner instead of fighting stop and go traffic. When I went to stop at the end of the off ramp, I noticed that the brake pedal was soft. Our first problem! Pulling into the Outback parking lot I noticed that the curbing was cut at an angle and would make a perfect ramp. I backed the car up to the top of the curb and was able to climb under it. I found a hard brake line leaking at a T fitting. Tightening did not solve the problem. We made a quick trip to Auto Zone to buy a replacement line and we returned to Outback to use their repair facilities. I replaced the line, and with Leeís help, bled the brakes. The Steak sure tasted good and when we left, it was clear sailing through Nashville. Thankfully, this was the only mechanical problem that we encountered.
We stopped somewhere in Arkansas the second night around mid night and attempted to get a room at a motel. Lee went into the lobby to make arrangements but shortly returned. In a stunned voice he said "You are not going to believe this but all of my credit cards have been rejected!" I went to get a room and used a credit card that I knew had a high limit and a zero balance. The lovely man from India behind the counter took my card and began punching numbers into a computer keyboard. Looking up at me he stated this card is no good either! I asked him to call the customer service number, which is on back of the card. He stated that it wouldnít do any good because he could not let us have a room without a computer authorization. I offered to pay cash but he still declined. As we left I was fuming and thinking "Man, havenít you seen my car!"
We went further down the road and successfully procured a room using one of the bad cards.
It was only when we got the room and I saw myself in a mirror that I realized why we had been denied a room. Our eyes and faces were bright red and hair a wind blown mess. Lee and I looked like we were in the middle of a drinking binge!! It is the only time in my life that I felt like I had been discriminated against. It didnít feel good.
We left early the next morning and settled into our normal routine. We would drive for 3 hours, stop, refuel and grab a snack, and quickly get back on the road. The car had electric gauges and I had not had time to calibrate them. The speedometer always read 160mph. The gas gauge registered half full when full, and full when half empty. Our fuel tank holds 15 gallons and our consumption averaged 3 gallons per hour. So, we had plenty of range. Unless you donít really fill the tank!!!!
We were into an extra long stint when I felt the motor stumble for the first time. I instantly knew that we were running out of gas. I slowed down and hoped to nurse it to the next exit with fuel but ran out miles short. Lee called triple A and within 30 minutes a truck arrived with two gallons of gas. On our car you access the filler by opening the trunk. As we stood there holding up the trunk lid, a string of 4 semiís roared past. The suction was strong enough that it actually snapped the driverís side trunk hinge in two! I unbolted the hinge and using the hinge bolt holesí zip tied the hatch to the deck and used duct tape to make a piano style hinge. It didnít look pretty but it held for the rest of the trip. When Paul came out, he brought a new hinge.
The end of daylight hours found us in western Oklahoma hurtling ever westward at ever increasing speeds. We had been lucky because we had not had to deal with rain, but the horizon in front of us and to the north looked ominous. Crossing the Texas boarder in the dark ,the speed limit increased to 75mph so we increased our pace. Not having a functioning speedometer, we timed ourselves between mile markers. Of course, for us to be accurate using this method we actually had to use math. I am pretty sure that I had told my math teachers on numerous occasions that I would never have to use what they were trying to teach me. So, why did I have to learn it? Lee remembered the correct formula. Divide 3600 by the time to determine the speed. Let's see, we're doing a mile in 42 seconds, that's 85 mph!
As the sun set, we found ourselves in western Oklahoma, hurling towards the Texas panhandle at an increasing pace. As we crossed the border the horizon in front and to the north of us looked ominous. We had been lucky to escape rain to this point but it looked like our luck was running out.
For hours we drove on hoping to make Albuquerque before stopping. It began lightening and thundering and soon the entire sky was in constant illumination from the rapid fire bursts. Seemingly paralleling our progress just yards to our right we skirted the storm. Lee had picked up a safety pamphlet in Oklahoma on what to do in lightening storms and tornadoes. Letís see, it says donít try to out run a tornado and that being in a car with a roof is a safe place in lightening. ROOF! We donít have no stinking roof! Does a blue tarp qualify?
The lightening show continued with dozens of ground strikes occurring simultaneously. At many times the lightening was horizontal and fractured off into fingers of erratic light seemingly seeking something to make contact with. One such bolt fired just above our heads and just then we ran head on into a wall of cold, fast moving air. Knowing that a down pour was eminent I took the exit that we were just coming to, San Jon, New Mexico.
Filling up at the sole gas station, we asked the attendant if there was a motel in town. He directed us to the San Jon Motel, which was in a residential neighbor hood, a few blocks away. As we pulled into the gravel parking lot of the small L shaped facility Lee commented that it looked like the Bates Motel!
As Lee stood in front of the lobby door pushing the ringer button that was supposed to roust the clerk, the yellowish light above him flickered. I was thinking that maybe we should sleep in the car with a tarp pulled over us Route 66 memorabilia and stuffed animals and rattlesnakes. This was our lucky night, he did have a room available!
We used duct tape to fasten a tarp to the windshield and cockpit coaming to cover the car and had just opened up the room door when the deluge came. Lee used the restroom and returned holding a roll of toilet paper and a towel. In black magic marker "Property of the San Jon Motel" had been written on them. In fact every thing on the room had been marked in the same manner. A small sign taped to the bathroom mirror read: " If you wish a souvenir towel, they are available for purchase in the lobby. It is far cheaper to buy one than to pay court costs!" The towels looked to be 40 years old and completely worn out. I decided that I didnít need a souvenir bad enough to steal or buy it!
It was past 1am when I pulled down the sheets and climbed in. Imagine my pleasant surprise when I discovered that the sheets and pillowcases were made of plastic. As I dozed off, I wondered if they were plastic to keep old odors in, to eliminate laundry, or if it made for easy clean up if one just happened to be stabbed to death in ones sleep! Despite these worries I slept soundly.
We left at 6am Pacific Time with the goal of making San Diego that day. The rain had moved on and we drove on at a good pace. Upon reaching Holbrook, AZ, we left I-40 and took beautiful secondary roads to Payson and on to Phoenix. Dropping from over 6000 foot in elevation into the desert valley, the views were spectacular and the temperature change dramatic. In the desert it was 95 degrees.
Lee took over driving in Phoenix. By now he was anxious to get home and kept lamenting that he had never been away from his wife this long! I was trying to doze when a change in the sensation of the car woke me up. I knew that our speed had picked up but not wanting to sound like Chicken Little, I didnít say anything. Instead, I started to time our miles. Let me see, that last mile was done in 35 seconds. Thirty five seconds!! "Lee, youíre going to get a ticket!" I yelled. "Youíre going over 100mph!!" "But other cars are passing me!" he yelled back!
We made the last driverís change in Yuma and proceeded to climb over the mountain range that protects San Diego from the Sonora desert. It became cold and foggy. Dropping into San Diego, we came upon a border patrol checkpoint where ALL vehicles are required to stop. As I approached, I yelled "I canít hide anybody in here!" The officer laughed and waved us through.
We made San Diego on Saturday, just before midnight. Lee lives in San Diego, and I was taking the following week there as vacation. My wife and children had flown out and had already arrived. I looked forward to a week on the beach and some needed rest.
Paul flew out and our other partner David arrived on Thursday. On Friday we drove to Anahiem for the Knottís Berry Farm Show.
The show was a huge success with a steady stream of admiring viewers and potential customers. The positive comments that we heard about the looks of the car confirmed that we had addressed the negatives of the first style. People loved it and the show promoters loved it. We were awarded trophies for Best sports car by a manufacturer, Directors choice award, and the longest drive award!! .. (Dan Burrill photo)
I was sweating this one. What if some one from Maine drove his
car all the way?!
As Paul and I planned our return trip we consulted with the weather channel and were horrified to see the entire country under rain, FOR THE WHOLE WEEK!!!!!!
We left early Monday morning under beautiful conditions, despite the dire predictions.
I was in heaven as I drove through the California and Arizona mountains, stopping in Scottsdale for lunch with my Sister.
My confidence in the car and itís performance potential was high and I played racer on the lightly traveled mountain roads. Corners that had 45 mph limits were easily taken at 85mph.
The car actually felt more glued to the road the faster we went.
It simply hunkered down and stuck like glue.
In Arizona climbing from Phoenix to Payson, I noticed a white Toyota trying to keep pace with us. I would lose the car in the twisty stuff, but it would catch up in the straight section as I slowed to a reasonable speed. In Payson, I noticed that the car turned off as we continued on into what was now a severely threatening sky.
Shortly later we pulled off the road as the skies opened up and
dropped about an inch of hail. Sitting there with the tarp pulled over our, Paul
noticed the skeletal remains of an Elk just beside him.
While parked I heard a car pull up beside us. Peeking from under the tarp, I recognized the white Toyota that had been playing with us. The passenger window went down and I saw an attractive young woman in the driverís seat. She wanted to know if we needed rain parkaís, rope, or anything else. I assured her that we were all right. After some further small talk she drove off. I thought that it was pretty cool that a young woman would be hitting on this 49 year old grandfather!!! But than I realized that it was the car that had caught her eye. No body ever hit on me while I was driving my truck!
We took I-40 to Oklahoma and then deviated from our original route by heading to St Louis. Our homeward route would take us through Indianapolis, Cleveland, Buffalo, Albany and then home. Although the skies continued to threaten and it rained all around us, it never rained again until we hit Albany.
In Oklahoma, Paul was gassing up and I was inside the service center when I heard a young woman ask a young man working behind the counter what kind of car the red one was. He replied that it was $150,000 to $200,000 exotic. He added that on his 21st birthday he was inheriting $45,000,000.00 and was going to get one of "those" cars. I gave him my card and told him to give me a call on his birthday.
In Indiana, we pulled in for fuel and a bite to eat when we noticed a big rig follow us in. A statuesque man jumped out and exclaimed. "What kind of car is that? How much is it? And, How can I get one?" His name was Sterling Miller, his uncle was a famous physicist. He was a professional golfer, on the senior tour, and drove the truck for fun. He wanted to buy one of the cars to use to promote charity events that he held at the golf tournament!! Sterling proceeded to show us his scrape book of articles, and pictures to prove he wasnít making these statements up and to show us a letter from Frank Sinatra, who he credits with helping to overcome a stuttering disability. It seems that as a teenager, he would recite Frankís songs until he could make it through with out stuttering.
It was dark and Paul was driving when a Nissan 300zx went zooming by with a few other cars following. Paul jumped on the gas and soon we were having fun too! I Yelled: "Youíre going to get a ticket!" The driver of the Nissan waved as it veered off and we continued on. A short time later Paul said: "I think that weíre running out of gas." We took the first available exit and found a remote filling station. The man behind the counter informed us that we should there last night because there had been a stabbing. "Look, You can see the blood stain." Thanks, but I think that Iíd just like to leave now.
Once we hit New York we felt like we were getting close to home. Paul was driving when I noticed that he had hooked up with a couple of other cars and our rate of speed of travel had increased. I was thinking to my self that he was going to get a ticket. But at the risk of sounding like a worried old woman, I kept my mouth shut. Thatís when I noticed the flashing lights behind us.
The officer approached the car and said: "I stopped you for speeding and I wanted to check out the car." Paul responded by saying: "Well, you had to pick the red one." I am thinking: "Paul, just be quiet! The officer is smiling. I think weíre going to get away with a warning, but not now." Unbelievably, the officer just asked us to slow it down and sent us on our way.
We hit Albany at 1am on Thursday morning and the rain that we had been avoiding finally hit us. It was remarkable that as long as we didnít stop no water fell into the cockpit. Poor visibility and slick roads made the last few hours of the trip seem endless, but just before 5am we pulled into our garage, safe and sound.
You can not imagine the elation and satisfaction that we have experienced as a result of this trip. We drove over 7000 miles in a car of our own design without any serious problem. Everywhere we went people honked their horns, waved, and gave the thumbs up in admiration and approval. People take photoís and take video. Their comments of what a beautiful car, what great lines, and that is the best looking car that I have ever seen make us proud. Our hard work had paid off. Perhaps because the car is not a replica, every one thinks that itís an expensive rare exotic, not a kit. Most people think that itís some kind of Ferrari. We told this to a man wearing a Ferrari suit, driving a Fiero rebody. He stared at us and said incredulously, "What, 'cause itís RED?!"
Would we make the trip again? Absolutely! I am ready for another adventure. Alaska anyone!