The Internet Craftsmanship Museum Presents:

Michael Dunlap

Added to museum: 4/3/06

A career built on car models as presentation trophies to race car drivers

Mike Dunlap at work in his shop holds the body of one of his 1/12 scale models. (Click on photo for larger image.)

Exceptional results based on a father's advice

My father was a fighter pilot in World War II. He flew P47s and P51s. He remained passionate about those and other WWII aircraft the rest of his life. I can still remember sitting at our kitchen table watching him build plastic models of those planes. He was so slow at trimming the pieces, painting them and gluing them together. It seemed like it took forever to build a single model but when they were done, they looked as if it could really fly. I remember him saying to me, ďPatience will produce a much more satisfying result.Ē

By the time I was ten I had already assembled a number of airplane kits of my own. By twelve I had begun building model cars. The first was a model of a 1957 Thunderbird. Besides being a cool looking car, this was a model of something I could really identify with because you could see a real one on the street most any day.  

Around age fourteen I remember stopping by a friend's house so we could walk to school together. This particular morning he came out of his house carrying something wrapped in a towel. When he uncovered it and showed it to me I was stunned. I still remember thinking, ďThis is the coolest thing I have ever seen!Ē It was a model of an early thirties vintage Ford body, just the firewall, doors and trunk, no fenders or engine cover. It had been hand carved and sanded from a solid block of balsa wood so that the body thickness was quite thin. It was so delicate and yet so well shaped, so perfect I thought. I wondered how he had managed this feat. He said he was going to build a Hot Rod like one he had seen in a magazine. It made quite an impression on me.

From kits to building models from scratch

Prior to that day I had never considered building a model from scratch. In fact, I didnít build any scratch-built models until many years later. However, from that moment on my enthusiasm for assembling kits by the instructions was greatly diminished. So, I began customizing my models. At first, I simply exchanged parts from different kits. Soon I was chopping windshields, radiusing wheel wells and piecing parts of different bodies together. The last plastic kit model I built began as a 1963 Corvette and evolved into something a great deal more radical. It turned out to be more of a skills exercise than anything else, and while it wasnít the most pleasing of designs, it was my own creation.

Over the next ten years, I had a number of jobs and even started a business of my own, but none of them could hold my attention for long. Most of my spare time was spent making minor modifications to the numerous cars I owned and driving them too darned fast. At the same time I was becoming increasingly interested in auto racing, especially with the appearance of CART (Championship Auto Racing Teams) which promoted a full series of open wheel, road course racing events in America.

Wire models lead to a first professional sale and a new career

At the age of 28, I found myself with a lot of spare time on my hands. My fascination with miniatures had only intensified over the years and I still remembered quite clearly my initial impression of my friend's scratch built balsa wood model. So I decided to begin building models again as a hobby, but this time I would build them from scratch rather than kits. I had recently seen a 5 foot long model of the Hindenburg Blimp which was built completely from thin copper wire. I adapted this technique to automobiles and was off to the races. My first model was a 1954 Corvette. The next was a 1978 Corvette. These were simple models built using 12 and 14 gauge copper wire to represent the body styling and parting lines as well as the tires. They were built strictly from photos I found in books and brochures, giving attention to proportion but not to scale. The issue of scale would be addressed while designing the next model which was to be patterned after my own car, a 1973 Corvette. I worked in 1/12 scale because it was easy to convert feet to inches and it gave the model enough size that the wire didnít look too bulky and yet had enough strength to retain its shape when handled. The only tools I had were a 4" riveting hammer that had been passed down from my grandfather to my father to me (and I still use it every day), an old pair of needle nose pliers, a propane torch and several fairly dull metal files.

Without realizing it I had just embarked on a new career, doing the very thing I enjoyed most as a young boy. Eager to get a second opinion on my newly rediscovered hobby, I took them to show to a friend, Bob Schuler, who owned a thriving car customizing business named American Custom. He liked them enough to put them in a display case in his showroom and within two weeks had sold them to his customers. He immediately ordered a couple more models of a limited edition Corvette (the Duntov Turbo) he was building with the approval of GM to honor the accomplishments of Zora Arkus-Duntov, generally referred to as ďThe Father of the Corvette.Ē  Over the next year or so we sold another couple dozen models of various corvettes thru his shop before other clients began commissioning me to build models of their cars. It was a blast making model cars and then having people like them enough to buy them. Thatís when I began thinking that, with a little promotion, this could actually become a business. However, I kept my day job for a while longer.

Meeting the right photographer leads to contacts in the big leagues of racing

The following year I began searching for a photographer to help me produce a brochure to advertise my models. I finally located one who just happened to be the official photographer that year for the CART Racing Series. A few introductions later and I was building models of Indy Cars. Shortly thereafter a waiting list of clients developed which still continues to this day.

(Left) Dale Earnhardt receives the trophy model of his car after winning the 1986 NASCAR championship. Robert Mercer,  then chairman of Goodyear (center in photo) presents the award to Dale and car owner Richard Childress. (Right) A young Mike Dunlap holds one of his cars which is being presented by Tom Monahan to Rick Mears for winning the 1983 CART Triple Crown. For the past 20 years, Mike has built the Goodyear Gold Car Award that is presented annually to the winner of the NASCAR Nextel Cup championship.

In a more recent shot, Mike (2nd from left) is seen with 2007 Nextel Cup winner Jimmy Johnson and team owners Jeff Gordon (L) and Rick Hendrick (R). (Photo: George Tiedemann)

I have built model cars throughout most of my life. In the beginning it was because my dad did. Later, I built them in pursuit of my own interests. Since 1980 I have built models as a career. Iím continually amazed when I reflect on my good fortune. And Iím grateful for the people and events which have influenced my life. One of the most rewarding benefits has been working out of my home. This has kept me close and involved in the lives of my two sons, Rick and Tom, while my wife, Sue, has been required to travel extensively throughout her career.

How the car bodies are formed

(Click on this or any following photo to view a larger image.) The process begins much the same as it did back when I built that model of my 1973 Corvette. I go to the actual car to be modeled and take hundreds of measurements from which I produce a set of 1/12 scale drawings. Then I shoot over 300 photos, mostly detail shots.

Back at my shop I begin by sculpting a master model of the cars body from which Iíll make a mold. This model is made of plaster, although in the past I have made them from both wood and clay. Itís surfaced by painting with 15 to 20 coats of lacquer, sanding between each until a smooth finish coat is achieved.

This master is then fixed inside a Plexiglas mold box. The resulting space around the model is filled with polyurethane rubber and left to cure. The box is then disassembled and the master removed from the rubber mold, revealing a reverse image of the master model.

With the box reassembled and the mold back in the box, the surface of the mold is electroplated with copper to a thickness of .025Ē - .030Ē. When this copper part is separated from the mold, I have a metal reproduction of the body of the car. This process is called electroforming.

Next, I cut, fabricate, file, sand and buff until I have a finished part ready for engraving. Since I build primarily race car models, a complete set of decals is required so the engraver can reduce the patterns to 1/12 scale. He then has to position them correctly on the body, tires and any other parts to be engraved. After cutting them into the metal, the parts are again buffed and polished before going to the plating company where 24 karat gold is applied. Of course this whole process is a bit more involved than a few sentences can describe, but you get the idea. (For more information on the outside contractors I use visit my website at www.michaeldunlapstudio.com)

Thatís just the process for producing the body and some of the other larger parts such as the seat and rear wheel deflectors. Other components which include the chassis, wheels, tires, transmission, suspension, steering wheel, cockpit controls, instruments, etc. are machined and/or handmade.

 I havenít always used the above described methods to produce the bodies. Different problems over the years have required different solutions ranging from metal stretching, casting and good old fashioned metalsmithing. In fact, I still use each of these processes from time to time. The constant drive for more efficient methods and thus, better reproductions is the overriding motivator that keeps me interested in modeling. Even when a commission calls for two models of the same car I use what I learn from the first to refine the second. Itís just instinctive to want to improve on each part and each model.

The purchase of new machine tools creates renewed inspiration

To this end Iíve been adding new equipment to my shop for a while. Four years ago a friend of mind, Augie Hiscano, suggested I replace my old jewelers lathe with a Sherline lathe. I researched the idea and concluded Augie was right. I purchased a Sherline model 4400 shortly thereafter. This single piece of equipment made a huge improvement in my ability to produce high quality parts. This was the proverbial Breath of fresh air I needed to take my models to the next level. And, just recently I purchased the Sherline 2000 CNC Milling Machine. While Iím just becoming acquainted with its capabilities it has already enabled me to make improvements on the model currently on my bench.

Mike at work in his shop on a lathe (left) and a milling machine (right). He is now tackling the learning curve of CNC, having decided he needed to bring those jobs in house rather than depending on others for complicated 3D machined parts. (Click on either photo for a larger view.) While good tools won't turn a hacker into a great craftsman, once a good craftsman reaches a certain level of skill, the only way to achieve better results is with better tools.

Updating my shop with new equipment has a double benefit. I can make more accurate reproductions and I can make them faster. Since I work by commission I must produce one-off originals on a schedule dictated by my clients. For example, each year Goodyear Tire Company (a client for the past 21 years) presents to the NASCAR Nextel Cup Champion a gold model of his actual race car. Without a crystal ball in hand, that means they will need one of the three body types (Chevy, Dodge or Ford) for the trophy. The model must be detailed inside and out exactly as the real car driven by the Champion throughout that season. The number of possibilities is great and time is limited. Goodyear will need the model for presentation at the NASCAR Banquet which takes place each year, two weeks after the last race. Many times the Championship is not determined until the last race of the season. So you can understand why both accuracy and speed are required if I am to accommodate my clients demands.

As a model builder I take pride in being completely self-taught while constantly searching for new methods and better techniques to raise my skill level. To a large extent, thatís the fun of my craft. The issue I struggle with most days in my shop is, ďWhen is it good enough?Ē Whether Iím assessing the quality of an individual part or a complete model my answer is this. Itís good enough when, based on my current ability, any further attempt to improve it will probably cause it to be damaged. That having been said, my constant goal is to improve my abilities tomorrow over what they are today. For me, building models cars is a very personal expression. When I cease to improve my skills and thus, my models, Iíll go do something else.

Fifty years later my fatherís words ring more truly than ever, ďPatience will produce a much more satisfying resultĒ. Thanks, Dad.

More views of Mike's shop shows that it doesn't take a lot of space of expensive equipment to produce world class models. (Click any photo for a larger view.)

Contacting Michael Dunlap regarding custom commissions

Michael Dunlap is available for high-end custom automotive model art commissions. See his web site at www.michaeldunlapstudio.com for contact information.

Here are several examples of Michael Dunlap's work:

(Click photos for larger images.)

A gold plated wire model of a Corvette Grand Sport. This type of model was what got Mike Dunlap started in a career of model making.

 

2005 Nextel cup champion Tony Stewart's #20 Home Depot Chevrolet.  (1/12 scale, gold plated, engraved.)

Tony Stewart is seen receiving his award from Goodyear chairman, Jon Rich.

2004 Nextel Cup champion Kurt Busch's #97 Sharpie Ford (1/12 scale, gold plated, engraved.)

Mike starts the racing season modeling each of the three potential winners--Ford, Chevrolet and Dodge. If the championship winner isn't decided until the final race, Mike only has two weeks to finish the winning car and have it engraved and plated before it is presented at the NASCAR awards ceremony. Often a courier flies the car from Mike's shop directly to the awards ceremony, arriving only hours before the presentation.

2003 Winston Cup champion Matt Kenseth's #17 DeWalt Ford  (1/12 scale, engraved and gold plated.)

 

2001 Winston Cup champion Jeff Gordon's #24 DuPont Chevrolet (1/12 scale, engraved and gold plated.)

2000 Winston Cup champion Bobby Labonte's #18 Interstate Batteries Pontiac (1/12 scale, engraved and gold plated.)
2002 Indy 500 winner, Helio Castorneves's #3 Penske/Dallara. Though the cars may appear similar, every year to year change, no matter how small, is incorporated into the model for a particular year. (1/12 scale, engraved and gold plated.)
2001 Indy 500 winner, Helio Castorneves's #68 Penske/Dallara (1/12 scale, engraved and gold plated.)
2000 CART Champion Gil Deferan's #2 Penske/Raynard also commerated Roger Penske's 100th victory. (1/12 scale, engraved and gold plated.)
1994 Indy 500 winner Al Unser Junior's #31 Penske PC-23. (1/12 scale, engraved and gold plated.)
This 1981 Suzuki GS-1100 showcases a 2-wheeled vehicle.
In January, 2008 Michael donated a 2005-06 Dodge Charger carved plaster body original, urethane mold pulled from the original and a copper electroformed body made from the urethane mold. The body has had extensive work done on it that includes installation of the gas filler cap, air box, B-pillar, rear spoiler, front air dam and strengthening under the top. The body is highly polished. Once it became clear that a Dodge would not win the 2007 championship, work on this body was stopped. We also thank Goodyear Tire & Rubber Company who commissioned Michael to make these models for their permission to display this. Normally, unused bodies are destroyed. Only the top NASCAR driver gets one of these each year, so we are proud to be able to display one for you to see the craftsmanship that goes into one racing's best made trophies.
Michael also provided this unpolished copper electroformed body that is like the one used to complete the Penske/Dallara IndyCar driven by Helio Castroneves to a win in the 2002 Indy 500. The other photo shows the completed model. This electroformed body is now also part of Michael's display in the Vista museum.
The molds and body are now on display for visitors to examine in the Craftsmanship Museum in Vista, CA.

Construction Details

Interior components for Matt Kenseth's DeWalt Ford are laid out in front of the finished body.
The rolling chassis for Jimmy Johnson's #48 Lowes car ready for polishing before gold plating.
A Ford chassis, a Chevrolet body, two Chevy chassis, a Dodge body and a Dodge Frame all had to be built to assure having the right car at the end of the season. The Ford body that is missing has already been sent to the engraver and will be fitted to the Ford chassis. The rest is scrap.
Mike is seen at the workbench positioning electrical wire details during final assembly.
Engraver Rex Pederson has one of the last jobs on the cars before final assembly. Headlights are engraved by hand from drawings and a pantograph engraver is used to do all the numbers and small sponsor decals. At this point the car is gold plated and the body finishedómistakes are not an option. As Joe Martin has noted, you have to work on a part that has this many hours work in it differently than you work on one that can be easily remade. A high level of focus and an attitude that accepts nothing less than perfection is needed in addition to practiced skill.

More examples and details can be found on Michael Dunlap's own web site at www.michaeldunlapstudio.com.

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Sherline is proud to confirm that Michael Dunlap uses Sherline tools in the production of some of his models.

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