By Joe Hadsall
Globe Features Editor
CARL JUNCTION, Mo. —
Louis Chenot knew since he was 17 that he wanted a 1932 Duesenberg. The classic car is rare -- only about 500 were built. But they were built well: Almost half of them are still running, he said.
"The Duesenberg is a lovely car," Chenot said. "It was one of the most efficient automobiles, and one of the most expensive. The chassis alone cost $9,500 in 1932."
The Carl Junction man finally has one, but not because he bought it.
He built it.
His 1/6-scale model features authentic details, right down to the fenders and wheels. It even has a working engine.
Those parts are all authentic because Chenot made each one. Using photos and precise measurements, he created authentic-looking parts, right down to the engine.
The model has drawn attention from model enthusiasts and Duesenberg collectors across the country, including comedian Jay Leno. He has won several awards and has been featured in "Ripley's Believe It or Not."
And it's only one example of his unique modeling work. A longtime modeler, Chenot devotes himself to making his own models from scratch, crafting the parts he needs.
Chenot is living his retirement dream. He works about seven hours a day on his models.
"I knew I'd dive into this," said Chenot, 76. "Every morning I know what I'm going to do, and I look forward to it.
He and his wife, June, moved to Carl Junction from Ohio about 27 years ago so he could take a job with Ace Electric, in Columbus, Kan. Soon after, he took a job with Leggett & Platt and became chief engineer of the Flexolators engineering group.
But Chenot knew what he wanted to do during retirement before he took either one of those jobs. He took up modeling when he was 5 years old.
"That's what led to my engineering career," Chenot said. "I enjoy talking to younger people about what I do. Once in a while, a kid will be fascinated, so I'll spend time with them."
While Chenot knew he loved modeling, he didn't have plans to make his own working models with their own internal combustion engines until about 25 years ago.
The notion of making such models hooked Chenot almost instantly, he said.
"It works far different from static models, which are typically glued together," Chenot said. "A working mini has to be able to be disassembled, so that's why they take so much time."
Jack of all trades
Planning for retirement, Chenot collected power tools and heavy equipment he knew he'd eventually need in his workshop.
Creating an authentic scale model requires several different skills, from welding to sewing and sheetwork to painting. His workshop is filled with a variety of machines that let him make whatever he needs.
His workshop has accumulated 50 years of gear, and he uses most of it often -- especially to make his own parts. Many of those parts require building custom items in order to get the part to his exact specifications.
"In order to make a part, you have to make a part to make a part to make a part," Chenot said.
He said his introverted, non-emotional personality is perfect for dealing with the trial-and-error process of part-making. Sheetwork has been the most challenging process, he said. It requires constant attention and can become intense.
It took him nine tries to get a radiator shell for the Duesenberg model that was perfect, he said.
"It's a help to be (not so emotional)," he said. "I can make a mistake and ruin a part that took three days to make. But I don't get upset. It has to be what it has to be, so I start over again."
The Duesenberg took about six years of work and more than 6,000 parts -- Chenot estimates about 15,000 hours of work. That work included trips to museums and car resellers, where he took pictures and sketched out details and measurements.
One of those trips was to Leno's garage, where he got to take pictures and meet the comic.
"I had the phone number for his garage, so one day I called it, and he answered the phone," Chenot said. "I couldn't answer back for a few seconds. But I told him what I needed, and he helped out."
The Duesenberg isn't his only model, however. He has also reconstructed scale models of a fire truck and two airplane engines, including a Gnome Rotary and a Liberty.
Currently he is working on a Gar Wood Model 50 speedboat. He chose that project because Garfield Wood, the creator of the boat, also owned the patent for a hydraulic lift for trucks. The money he made went into creating boats, and the Model 50 features the same model of Liberty engine that Chenot built.
"It was the Cadillac of boats; an exclusive, big boat," Chenot said. "The Liberty engines were extremely powerful, and they went surplus after the war."
Chenot's models have earned him awards from the International Craftsmanship Museum and a lot of attention -- he has shown the Duesenberg to clubs and groups as far away as Houston, Detroit and both coasts.
Though Chenot appreciates the reactions his work gets, he doesn't pay much attention to it. He's content to work each day in his shop, making parts to make parts so that he can make more parts.
"I like the fact that people talk about what I do," Chenot said. "But I've (given demonstrations) so much that it becomes boring."