Model Citizen

As an expression of his love, Jack Harper improves upon exotic cars.

Jack Harper draws his index finger along the left fender of a Ferrari 166MM Barchetta. It is rough. The car is primer-grey, still scratched and pitted. Imperfect. The wheels aren’t quite right either. They leave the car sitting too high when the body is lowered to the frame in a test fitting of various bespoke parts. Technically, the car is correct, but it looks wrong. Someone with a sense for the Platonic ideal of a Barchetta would see it immediately. The lines don’t flow.

The Barchetta, the little boat, is Jack’s labor of love to his wife Anne. He hasn’t had a windfall, nor is he trying to use the sports car as a two-seated apology for some indiscretion with the divorcée next door. He’s giving her the car because she is Anne and he is Jack. It’s no more complicated than that.

Over the next few months, in a workshop behind their home in western Marin County, Jack will fix the suspension to correct the height. He’ll do several days of bodywork to smooth out the finish. Finally he’ll paint it Vinaccia, a red so lush and deep you’d think the car had been finished in the delicate skins of Sangiovese grapes.

Jack lifts up in the palms of his hands the first Ferrari he gave Anne. It’s yellow, no bigger than a breadbox. He wants to show the custom fuel tank he fabricated because the one from the factory didn’t fit. He’ll likely have to do the same with her next Barchetta too. By the time Jack is done with Anne’s car he’ll have labored hundreds of hours with X-acto blades, picks, and tweezers. He’ll have improvised rivets with jewelers wire, upholstered the seats with leather of heirloom gloves, and placed cubic zirconia in the taillight housings. When photographed without reference to scale it’s hard to distinguish Jack’s masterpiece rendered in resin and glue from its big brother rendered in hand-pounded aluminum. Jack’s cars may be miniature, but they are grand and full of stories.

♦◊♦

I first learned about Jack Harper at Gunning’s hobby store in San Anselmo, California. The owner displayed Jack’s creations as a come-on for the buyers of Revel plastic model cars, Breyer horses, and military miniatures painted in Saint Petersburg. After a quick introduction, Jack invited me out his place.

The way to Jack’s home is a fantasy for car advertisers. Every one of them looking for a money shot of California’s golden undulating hills films the road to Jack’s house. The roads take you past the happy cows on earth and during the early morning hours the whole scene is cocooned in a blanket of fog. Driving out see him was an ideal opportunity for me to get some saddle time on my motorcycle on some of America’s prettiest county highways.

Jack’s homestead is at the end of a dirt driveway easily missed from the pavement. I roll up on the bike and he comes out smiling to greet me. I don’t recall if he said “Hello” or not but I do know one of the first things he said was, “Bike is off. About three-thousandths I’d guess.” Hearing the valve lash he could specify the adjustment. Without a set of feeler gauges up my sleeve, who was I to challenge micrometer fingers?

♦◊♦

Before he started replicating exotic cars in 1/12 scale Jack spent the 1960s and 70s as a master mechanic in his own Marin County shop. Marin was a rock star oasis at the time. Janis Joplin, the Grateful Dead, Jesse Colin Young, Dan Hicks, and the Doobie Brothers, were neighbors. They’d get record company advances, buy fast cars, and many would bring them to Jack for repairs and maintenance.

Aston Martin DBR

Jack got to know the details of each car, the curvature of body panels, and nuance of fit and finish. He was working on them day in and day out. He developed a sensitive touch for the mechanical “rightness” of things. In his hands, motors from Germany and Italy were made to purr like baskets of milk-fed kittens.

Even then, Jack was more than a pure mechanic. He was a creator and artisan. When Jesse Colin Young wanted a tour bus for his new band Jack did forty years ago what Chip Foose and Jesse James now do every week on The Discovery Channel. He took the theme of “Tour Bus” and riffed on it, creating a monster vehicle in the process. The transmission was custom built by Hot Rod Hall of Famer Art Carr using designs created for top fuel dragsters. It had to be. The balanced and blue printed 455 Olds big block produced too much torque for the stock unit. The motor exhaled through a hot rodder’s favorite at the time: custom headers and glass pack mufflers. To call them mufflers though is an egregious disservice. Jesse’s bus would rend the atmosphere and roar its unholy song deep in your thoracic cage. Nothing was muffled.

For a man who loved fast cars, rock and roll music, and good conversation with his friends, 1981 was a devastating year. Jack was struck with chronic Tinnitus Hyperacusis, acute ringing in the ears. The condition made his hearing so sensitive that the composition of white-noise from wind and tires rolling on blacktop made riding in an ordinary passenger car unbearable. Conversations were too loud. The celebratory clink of glasses may as well have been nails on a chalkboard. His internal volume control had been turned to 11, and then broken off. Everything was loud all the time. It is not uncommon for people suffering from Tinnitus Hyperacusis to become suicidal.

Jack was forced to cloister himself. A friend lent him a tranquil apartment on Tomales Bay where Jack could come to terms with his forced monasticism. For a while he made a quiet living selling pictures and fixing the bicycles of local children. Then he hit upon the idea of using his experience with exotic cars to build miniatures. The work, it seems, is his hobby, his therapy, and his livelihood all rolled into one.

“I knew the cars from having worked on them,” he reminds me, “knew how they looked, how they felt.” Even more than knowing first-hand how the cars feel, Jack knows the impact they can have. He knows how artistry can inspire awe and an emotional response, first in the originals, then through the realism of his models.

“If you build them accurately, in scale, they look awful,” he says. They’re just off, technically correct, but they fall short visually. Jack wasn’t going for replicas. He was working to impart, in 1/12 scale, the “Zen and Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” notion of Quality that the real cars have.

♦◊♦

Jack starts with top-quality materials. The resin kits are larger than the plastic mass-market boxes from Revel. They’re from small Asian and European companies that produce tiny batches. Instead of $20 a pop he’s spending several hundred for a rare kit, one of maybe 200 made. One model Jack completed a few years ago replicates a 1958 Testa Rossa Pontoon that recently sold for over $10 million. Rare and expensive as Jack’s models may be, they pale in comparison with the exclusivity of the actual vehicles.

Anne’s new Ferrari arrived in a box with several hundred parts. The contents are like coffee-stained sheet music—something needing an artist’s hand before coming alive. The resin body is a putty-colored extrusion. It exists only as potential, an approximation of a classic Mille Miglia winner. Mere scratchings show where the doors should be cut out. There are indentations marking where rivets would be on the body of the real car. Other parts such as seats, shifters, exhaust assemblies, and engine components are rendered in a photo-etched web of thin metal. Jack has to clean and prep every small part; even the cast white metal wheels have to be polished.

To the layperson, the model is a mess. There’s excess material from production called “flash” that Jack will trim away. Parts won’t fit and will need filling material, such as Bondo®. If one simply glued it to together as instructed it would look like a caricature of car, something whittled from a large piece of gum by a cretin with a butter knife. No prestige in that. A Dremel® tool can help with cleaning up the flash. It’s a high-RPM, handheld rotary machine, like a drill, that speeds a modeler’s work. But Jack’s hyperacusis makes long-term use of the Dremel difficult so he uses it primarily to drill holes twenty-five thousandths of an inch wide for improvised rivets. A jeweler friend provides Jack with 14 carat drawn gold wire for fabricating the tiny rivets, themselves one twelfth the size of an actual fastener. He has nipped 1,200 pieces from the spool, each between two and three millimeters then filed them down to smooth the finish.

On a macro level, Jack’s process would be familiar to members of the United Auto Workers. Anne’s car needs a frame so Jack builds one from dozens of latticed pieces. He adds assemblies such as an engine, exhaust systems, and steering linkages, bolts down a chassis and sets a body over the whole works. Doors and windshields are added as needed. The scale of the resin models adds a few challenges for Jack. Small holes he drills for his custom-made gold rivets fill with primer and paint and must be reopened with the twenty-five thousandths drill, a second or third time depending on how many coats of paint he applies. Jack may have to clean up each of the 1,200 rivet holes as many as four times before the body is complete. Almost none of the Barchetta’s parts fit together as designed. There will be hours of steady-handed cutting, scraping, filing, and fabrication just to get the pieces to match up.

The shape of the firewall is close but huge gaps need filling. Jack practically builds the needed part like Morgan builds handcrafted body panels for its cars. Over several weeks of exercising his fine-motor skills—of painting, shaping and improvising parts from baubles and bits—Jack orchestrates the pieces into place: the small parts, the systems, and the tub for the interior fit onto the chassis. Gradually a car emerges and the body is test-fit once last time before gluing. Now it looks like a Barchetta.

Anne’s car is going to have a few surprises built in. The details in paint, the minute unbroken lettering in photo-etched parts are table stakes—every modeler worth his salt can do that. This car is going to carry part of Jack’s heritage. “Almost every model I do something like that; put some kind of quirk in there. This one will have seat covers made from my mother’s kid leather gloves. It only means something to me or my sister. You wouldn’t even know unless I told you.”

He’s adding a tonneau cover to the passenger seat to reduce high-speed buffeting. The original car didn’t have one, nor does the miniature from the European maker, so I ask Jack, “Why add the filigree?”

He tells me, “Just to see if I get the darn thing in there with those pins so close to the edge of the leather, which is really thin. I love doing that kind of stuff where you think, “Nobody can do that.” He says it’s like the horn player, Jim Rothermel who Jack met while driving Jesse’s bus, “He went into this store and came out with some sheet music … he says, ‘God, this great! No one can play this!’” The tiny holes, the drawn gold wire, the tonneau cover are like that—sheet music for virtuosos.

There are more “quirks.” Jack’s brother-in-law, also a jeweler, passed away a few years ago, bequeathing a handful of gifts. Jack’s eager to try them as tail lights in the Ferrari. “Cubic zirconia tail lights are killer, man, compared to some stupid plastic thing.” Few will be able to describe the improvement that elicits the emotional response. There will just be something “better” about the way his finished product looks. It has Quality.

♦◊♦

After almost three months of squinting over small parts, cutting, cleaning, and painting, the Barchetta is done in the way any artisan’s work is complete. Jack will always see where it could have been better. He could have wrapped the 1/12 scale steering wheel with the kid glove leather to match the seats and tonneau cover. He could have had a fellow obsessive, another modeler in Switzerland, make scale versions of the tires the factory used when it shipped the original car. It’s been done before. At some point you have to let go. You have to say “enough.”

Jack’s customers are like the customers whose cars he repaired decades ago. What they wanted was quality work; bespoke is even better. Jack is a firm believer that “When you deliver the goods people will pay.” Like hand-made Purdey Shotguns or bespoke John Lobb shoes (fit for kings and still have every hand-carved last made since 1856), customers don’t argue about how much it costs or how long it takes. They might ask, without any real concern, when it will be ready. A small deposit and a handshake gets one in queue. It will be ready sometime after he begins.

His work sits alongside the car collections of a well-known film maker in Marin County. It matches some of the vehicles owned by Martin Swig who founded the California Mille Miglia. And Jack’s cars can be found in the collection of Pierre Bardinon, owner of the Mas du Clos racetrack in southern France and renowned vintage Ferrari collector.

Jack has sold these creations but his preference is to keep them as part of a “museum of musical chairs” where he’s rotating his inventory of some of the most desirable cars in the world through your office lobby or airport terminal. One car though, Anne’s Sangiovese Barchetta Mille Miglia, is priceless and will stay home.

Some modelers compete at shows, usually with planes, tanks, and war machines. Jack’s a tenth generation Quaker and doesn’t care for the sycophancy of destruction. He’s built models for guys who want junior versions of the classic planes they own, but they want the precise replicas even if it loses the sense and the artistry of the thing. Creative differences. Jack doesn’t do planes anymore. The shows are also tough because of the Hyperacusis. The ride itself to a local exhibit is painful and the exhibition space itself can be noisy and unpleasant. He still judges the annual Marin Sonoma Concours d’Elegance but stays away from the modeling shows.

Jack gregariously shares his several lifetimes of stories. In our short time together we covered lightweight two-stroke racing motorcycles he built and ran up and down Highway 1. We talked about his early years hot rodding on Texas drag strips where the entry fee was a dollar. Black kids joined them and regularly won the quarter mile in beat up rigs, giving a whole different meaning to “race” relations. We talked about the myriad ways he’s hustled for a living. He’s distilling his big life in 1/12 scale, an artful history made manifest in model cars.

The world could use more Jack Harpers, more kick-ass models for living a full life, and more gift Ferraris.

After writing this piece Jack Harper moved to the family homestead in Texas to try out retirement. He and Anne live apart.

 

See more of Jack Harper’s models on his website, Model-Citizen Jack Harper.

Read more in Hands On on The Good Life.

Images courtesy of Jack Harper

Sponsored Content

Premium Membership, The Good Men Project

About Kevin Buckholtz

Kevin Buckholtz writes in case the big corporate day job doesn't work out. His essays have been featured in motorcycle magazines and on National Public Radio. Kevin lives in Northern California with his first (and last) wife and their two children. The kids' best qualities are blamed on their mother. Kevin has volunteered with Marin Search and Rescue since 2004; he swims the San Francisco Bay with the South End Rowing Club and is a certified Emergency Medical Technician.

Speak Your Mind