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Piedmont man’s handmade car culminates his life’s work

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Computer aided design

Greg Donaldson has invested hundreds of hours learning the software needed to design and create his dream car. Here, he moves deftly around on the computer in the software needed to build his own Magnum S6R autocycle.

PIEDMONT — Greg Donaldson of Piedmont is a lifelong auto body man whose childhood fascination with anything on wheels set him on a path to creating a car of his dreams. 

The car, an autocycle, has a name, the Magnum S6R. A work in progress, the Magnum S6R is a small, highly stylized vehicle identified by three wheels, a steering wheel and seating like that of a regular car.

To drive such a vehicle, autocycles must be certified to comply with federal safety requirements, but Donaldson’s background gives him the confidence that his future car will eventually be allowed to hit the road.

Donaldson’s love for vehicles began in earnest when he was just out of Piedmont High School and began working at local body shops. During those years, Donaldson married and raised three stepchildren. Throughout life’s joys and challenges, his love for cars has never waned.

Now retired, Donaldson is learning many new skills that involve using computer software to design and build his dream vehicle. Also, he spends much of his time on the internet searching for the small but useful parts he will need after he finishes creating the body.

“Already, I have spent more than 7,000 hours of research and development on this one,” Donaldson said as he reached over and patted the fiberglass side of the car. “I sold a similar one and another is disassembled in a garage.”

In his garage, Donaldson, who is surrounded by heaters to keep him warm, moves beneath a restoration project he undertook for a customer, rebuilding a wine-red 1955 Chevrolet Bel Air.

 For his car, though, Donaldson may be investing in a financial payoff, but money is not his motivation. If the car drives well and catches the eye of a buyer, it may be worth as much as $80,000, if he ever chooses to sell it. He believes there’s even the possibility that he could sell the prototype to a manufacturing company, if the car’s design, construction and performance are good enough.

“They usually only want to use their designs,” Donaldson said and shrugged.

As for Donaldson’s design, it starts with wood — much the same as any building project. He used a few one-by-four pieces of lumber and 42 sheets of plywood to create what he called a plug, or a general three-dimensional outline of the car’s body. In between the parallel pieces of plywood, he filled spaces with spray-in foam.

After hours of sanding and shaping the plug, Donaldson applied 400 pounds of plaster then 34 gallons of plastic body fill that’s similar to Bondo. The auto’s body then gets a layer of fiberglass coated with one type of resin, and then the body gets another layer of fiberglass covered with a second type of resin.

Essentially, he’s creating molds from positive shapes that are used to create negative shapes.

“It’s kind of like making ceramics,” Donaldson said.

After the body is completed, he will purchase or make from scratch the rubber seals, hinges, seats, windows, wiring, the engine and other vital parts.

“Actually, I’ve been working on this car since 2000,” Donaldson said, “but now I work on it as a hobby.” There is no deadline. 

One Piedmont resident who appreciates Donaldson’s skill and willingness to work is Ben Ingram, president of the Piedmont Healthcare Authority and the project director of the Piedmont Historical Society. Throughout the years, Ingram has enlisted Donaldson’s expertise when he has needed a metalwork project completed. For example, Ingram asked him to build one of the two sundials for the meditative park located at the Piedmont Rehabilitation Center. Also, Donaldson helped the society in its recent project to clean and refurbish historical signs throughout the city.

“Greg has always been a person you could go to for specialty work,” Ingram said. “He always says yes, steps up when his help is requested and does these things as a charitable gift to the community.”