Chuck Beck: Living Legend

Chuck Beck sitting on car with a cigaretteDirt roads give a landscape character. Some are rutted and bone-jarring to the unsuspecting traveler. Some are convenient shortcuts, while others are country lanes leading to family farms that have been there for generations. One of west Georgia’s dirt roads leads to a character who also happens to be a genius, named Chuck Beck.

Ask his most famous fan about the genius of Mr. Beck. Jay Leno, whose car collection numbers around 200 vehicles and is worth millions, owns a Chuck Beck creation, a 1989 Shogun. He has described Chuck as “one of those crazy engineers… who is a mad genius.” Beck, who celebrated his 80th birthday earlier this year, is a world renowned car builder, engineer, and entrepreneur who just happens to have a garage at the end of a gravel path, surrounded by trees, off a dirt road in Carroll County.

The only signs at the entrance to Chuck’s driveway are rusted, tilting, and say “Keep Out.” As I drove slowly down the drive, it felt more like I was headed to a saw mill, a farmer’s pole barn, or a deer hunting camp, until I rounded the bend and pulled up on the big metal building with a simple sign above the door that reads “Chuck’s Garage.”

Chuck Beck sitting in carThe first impression you get from Chuck Beck is that he is a “young 80 years old.” Sure, he has white hair and a white beard, and probably weighs a little less than he did ten years ago, but he is sharp, active, and energetic. The day I met Chuck, he had been out late the night before at a “garage party” for some of his Georgia Tech friends. Local and regional car clubs meet once a month at these parties to share their latest finds or experiences. As Chuck put it, “we get to telling tales and before you know it, it’s 2:00am and time to find your way out of Atlanta and back home.” His voice has the same kind of smoothed over gravelly sound as the road I just drove down. It’s the timbre of age and experience.

Beck has a world of those tales to tell. Chuck grew up in Pensacola, Florida. His father worked on planes and repaired cars on the side. Chuck learned his way around engines of all kinds from an early age. He actually raised bull calves that he got for free from farmers and bottle-fed them until they were grown and ready to be sold. Barely a teenager, he saved enough money to secretly buy his first vehicle which he kept hidden in the woods from his parents. Chuck was never really one for convention. In 1955, however, he enlisted in the Air Force with a dream of being a pilot. Color blindness kept him from flying and his independent spirit (what some might call stubbornness) meant a long military career wasn’t for him.

By his early twenties, he was building hot rods and dune buggies in California. His reputation for building fast machines landed him a position with Shelby American working with Carroll Shelby on the iconic Shelby Cobra. After a year or so he was back into making cars go faster, by building and racing them.

The early 80s saw Beck’s first long term commercial success with his version of the Porsche 550 Spyder. The Spyder, of course, is infamous for being the car that actor James Dean crashed and died in back in 1955 while speeding on a California highway. Beyond that rather dubious fame, Beck’s version of the Spyder is renowned for being well-engineered, respectful of the original design, fast, and immensely more affordable. “I want to make cars that people can enjoy driving, not that they have to put in a museum and protect,” remarked Chuck. Ironically, some of his cars are so revered, they are, indeed, in museums and collections around the world.

Later Beck set his sights on the Porsche 904. Produced briefly in the early 1960s by the German automaker, the 904 had an original fiberglass body and a streamlined design. It was a perfect fit for Chuck. “I always liked the 904 design, and I knew I could make it lighter and faster.” The 904 is still his favorite, with road and track versions still being produced. A Youtube video of his son, Randy Beck, starting 32nd (dead last) at the 2015 Pittsburgh Vintage Grand Prix
25 minute sprint race and climbing all the way to 2nd, illustrates the exceptional speed and handling of a Beck 904.

By the early 1990’s Chuck Beck was legendary in the sportscar world. In a “hold my beer, watch this” kind of moment, he and journalist Rick Titus decided to show what a light weight to horsepower ratio could do. They took a 1989 Ford Festiva and mounted a Taurus 3.0 L SHO V6 engine and transmission behind the front seats in a transverse configuration. They widened the body, added side breathers, redesigned the suspension, and put on beefier tires. In layman’s terms, they took a family econo-car and built a sports car that could exceed 100 mph in the quarter mile.

Chuck Beck's in his car garageThey built seven of this new creation that they named Shogun. Jay Leno saw the prototype and was intrigued. After one ride, he was sold. Beck is as complimentary of Leno’s knowledge of cars and amiable personality as Leno is of him. On his show, Leno’s Garage, he praises Beck and featured the Shogun in a popular episode. Leno points out that, for what he paid for the Shogun, he could have bought a Porsche 911, but it would have been SLOWER. He also adds that thirty years later, the car has needed nothing beyond normal maintenance and still runs perfectly.

Even though the Shogun was on the cover or featured in almost every automotive magazine, only seven were made. Due to circumstances beyond their control, Beck and Titus could only get a SHO engine if they bought an entire car. That meant they would have to buy a Taurus and add that to the cost of the Shogun just to get the engine, making the entire venture cost prohibitive.

Then there is the 12 cylinder Lamborghini motorcycle he built. “I had this engine lying around and just wondered what would happen if I made a motorcycle out of it.” It weighs in at about 950 pounds and cranks and runs smoothly. As Beck revs the impressive engine in his garage, I can’t help but think that it has a deep, gravelly rumble that competes with that distinctive Harley sound. “I’ve been stopped by cops when I was hauling this thing on a trailer. I said, ‘What’s wrong officer?’ They said my brake lights weren’t working. Well, I hadn’t braked until they stopped me. Turns out, they worked just fine, but the next thing I know there’s two more cop cars and they're all asking me about the motorcycle!” He laughs again, “I guess everyone is curious about that thing.”

Five minutes later, as we’re chatting, a hummingbird flies into the shop’s open garage doors and makes its way around, checking us and the machines out before it exits.

“I like it out here. My neighbors are deer, turkey, and now a hummingbird.” Beck came to Georgia to work with the Avanti Motor Company in the late 1990s. “They had big plans, but probably too many hands in the mixture.” After a little over a year, it was clear to him that he needed to part company. But, he stayed here. “California is over-regulated, and that’s not for me.” Beck suffered heart problems including an attack in 1995, and the pace of things in Georgia appealed to him. “In California, if four people come to a four way stop, they’ll kill each other trying to go first. In Georgia, everyone sits there trying to get the other guy to go first. ‘No you go, No you go,’” he laughs.

He may like the pace compared to California, but he really hasn’t slowed much. This is a guy who doesn’t use computers, makes working models of suspensions out of hand drawn and cut cardboard, and can think through an entire car project, down to the weight and impact of every component, before it ever starts (and recall it without having written it down). He is at his shop almost every day unless he is off to Road Atlanta to help someone with a car, or on some mission regarding a project. If you want to talk cars with Chuck Beck, buckle up and hold on!

Chuck also has five children, ages 60, 59, 58, 28, and 15. He and his wife, Gleide, who he met in Brazil, live nearby. Though he enjoys the quiet of Chuck’s Garage, it is often filled with the conversations of friends, laughter, and the smooth rumble of one of his cars. Beck couldn’t let me leave without taking me for a ride in his white and blue striped Beck Lister. We carefully idled out that gravel drive and cruised down the paved road. Chuck slowed to a stop, smiled, and then I think we set some sort of land speed record. Like most who have met him, it’s an experience I’ll never forget.

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