Attention, Hollywood: the premier builder of movie cars is not in Burbank or El Segundo or Vancouver. He’s in West End, North Carolina, and he can create anything you want. The proof is in his garage. It’s 24 feet long, wide as a Kenworth, with six wheels. It’s called the Spirit of Nemo, and it’s a doppelganger for Captain Nemo’s car from the 2003 Sean Connery film “The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.”
In the annals of fan-built movie cars, nobody else has ever attempted a Nemo car. “And now,” says builder Ken Freeman, “I know why.”
On the scale of movie-car degree of difficulty, we have the General Lee at one end and Nemo’s car way, way out on the other side, bookending all the Batmobiles and Tumblers and Mad Max Interceptors that have rolled out of fans’ garages over the years. The Nemo machine poses both engineering challenges—it’s a 7,000-pound four-door convertible with two steering axles—and artistic ones. It’s covered in ornate sculptures and trim, and hardly anything is symmetrical left to right. If you need a part, you’ve got to make it.
While Freeman started with two Cadillac limousines, the finished product is a long way from anything that ever rolled out of Detroit. It’s got a Caddy 425 V-8 under that 10-foot hood, and Freeman figured out how to link both cars’ steering gear to create the quad-steer front end. But Freeman wasn’t out to build a prop car or a low-speed parade float. He wanted Nemo to become roadgoing reality, a real car. So the Caddy frames got junked, replaced by a custom frame that would provide the rigidity necessary for an eight-yard-long roadster. “Normally, convertibles are reinforced with X-bracing under the floor,” Freeman says. “This car is too low for that, so the frame itself had to be stronger. I used steel I-beams.” They came from a dismantled bridge. There is no cowl shake in the Nemo-mobile.
There’s no sloppiness anywhere, actually. Even that colossal hood, which you’d expect to quiver like a hacksaw blade, is reinforced with carbon fiber and remains serene and motionless on its gas struts when you pop it open to check out the engine bay (which is spacious enough to stand up in while working on the motor).
Other critical parts of the body, like the lower front corners of the doors, are reinforced with either carbon fiber or Kevlar. Freeman didn’t skimp on this project. He’s got a lot of money in it. And, he figures, about 6,500 hours of labor. Those elephants on the front? He carved those into a mold, cast them in resin and then plated them with pewter and aluminum. And then he repeated the process with more than 80 other trim pieces, some of which are cast in brass or gold.
All of this was on my mind when I climbed behind the wheel for a drive, the understandably nervous Freeman in the passenger seat. We pulled out onto a country two-lane and I gently rolled into the throttle and let the Cadillac torque gently carry us up to speed. I don’t know how Freeman managed to align those two front axles, but the car tracks normally, only revealing its peculiar steering setup when you pull over to turn around—you mind the lengthy prow, but the turning circle isn’t too bad. At one point I missed the driveway for Ken’s business—Ken’s Body Works, which can surely handle that fender-bender on your Camry—and he directed me to turn around in a neighbor’s circular driveway. She wasn’t home. Which is too bad, because I would’ve liked to see the reaction when an idyllic North Carolina country afternoon is interrupted by Captain Nemo’s steampunk fever vision materializing in the driveway.
Once I’d had my fill, Freeman pulled off the outside headlights (they’re on slick quick-disconnect fittings, of course) and squeezed the car into the workshop where he built it over the past five years, working from photos and a toy model to get the scale and detail correct. He spent a lot of time out here carving molds, welding, chasing this dream. But now it’s time for the next challenge.
Freeman figures he’ll sell Nemo—custom trailer included—but hasn’t figured out which venue is appropriate for a car like this. It’s probably not something you just throw on eBay Motors. I envision this thing cruising the streets of Dubai, perhaps, some latter-day Nemo at the wheel. The car that wealthy people covet the most is the one that nobody else can have, and that’s exactly what Freeman has parked in his garage. He’s not making another one. His wife, Lynda, is obviously a patient and compassionate woman, but two Nemos might be one too many.
Besides, he’s got his eye on something else entirely. No more cars for a while. “I want to build a Sherman tank,” Freeman says. “I already know which bulldozer I’d start with.”