By Karl Klooster • Staff Writer • 

Re-imagined ride

Artists begin with a blank canvas and come up with creations uniquely their own. The same principle applied to auto owners usually involves highly skilled mechanics and specialty body shops.

Not so with McMinnville car buff Charlie Lewis. He bought a stock 2003 Dodge Neon R/T right off the showroom floor, then proceeded to personally reshape it into a one-of-a-kind conveyance.

The fact that this stunning transformation took place entirely through his own efforts makes the accomplishment all the more admirable. You see, he is not trained in either auto mechanics or body work.

“It was mostly done by adding bolt-ons,” he said. “It was really about doing my homework — deciding exactly what I wanted, finding out where to get it and learning how to install it.”

But check out those bolt-ons. The professional-level results of his homework are proof that Lewis has more than a little talent for selection as well as skill when it comes to wielding tools.

There is no better place to start than with the heart of any automobile, its engine.

The stock Neon came equipped with a little four-banger putting out all of 150 horsepower.

Lewis stepped up to the turbo-powered 215 horsepower engine from Dodge’s hot rod option, the Neon SRT-4. Then he added a performance package.

It includes an intercooler as well as injection and exhaust enhancements. Lewis jokingly refers to it as a “Frankenstein motor” because it combines so many different elements.

With all the modifications, it delivers 300 horsepower — double the output of his original stock Neon. Tested on a quarter-mile track, the car hit 104 miles per hour with an elapsed time in the low 13-second range.

Lewis said he didn’t consider the nitro boost option, which temporarily turns even modest machines into screaming banshees, because it’s prone to frying the engine in the process.

But he did drop in an automatic transmission in place of the factory five-speed. To make it work, he had to modify a Chrysler PT Cruiser bell housing.

He did all of the work, even this major swap, in his own home garage.

He did have a friend help with the heavy lifting. But he said proudly, “This car has never seen the inside of a shop.”

A custom black and silver paint job with red accents is complemented by low profile bumpers, a scooped hood, louvered side vents and 18-inch alloy wheels. He also painted the wheels black and gave them matching red accents.

Nor has any lavishness been spared on the interior treatment.

It features black and red leather upholstery and side panels, a custom steering wheel and a CD system replete with audio upgrades. You could say passengers are cocooned in LL Cool J comfort.

Flashing lights and digital readouts play second fiddle on the dashboard. Analog gauge clusters monitor every engine and auxiliary power function, producing a feeling of cockpit-like control.

The crowning touch to this intensely individualistic automotive statement could not have been more visually dramatic. If you’ve ever seen a Lamborghini, you’ll know why.

What are called “Lambo” doors, because they made their debut on the distinctive, limited production Italian sports car, swing up and out. When both are fully open, it appears the Neon has sprouted wings.

In a bit of self-promotional inspiration, Lewis contacted the “Lambo” aftermarket manufacturer with a win-win proposition.

If the manufacturer would provide him with the doors at a drastically reduced price, he would let them use before and after photos in their advertising. And the company was happy to make the deal.

That spectacular addition, made back in 2006, has helped make the once mundane Detroit compact a consistent winner on the Pacific Northwest car show circuit ever since.

It took nine years for the truly all-new Neon to reach its current state of customization. It is, in fact, so much the product of Lewis’s input that he has dubbed it the Chasillac.

His then-girlfriend and now-wife, Elizabeth, was at first dismayed and disgruntled when he bought the Neon.

“I thought he was going to get a pickup,” she said. “I couldn’t figure out what he was up to.”

Fortunately, disagreement over the kind of car that best met their mutual needs and preferences created no more than an awkward moment for the high school sweethearts who were obviously totally attached to each other.

Charlie and Elizabeth married the following year. And it soon became apparent the Neon was going to be an integral part of their relationship for some time to come.

As continued improvements further redefined the family car over time, her initial objection melted. It was replaced by enthusiasm for a possession they both realized transcended the merely utilitarian.

By the time Jackson, the first little Lewis, arrived on the scene in 2008, they were picking up trophies for Best Neon at car shows in Portland, Seattle, Tacoma, Eugene, Salem, Yakima and Bend.

Little brother Carter followed in 2011. The entire family now travels to shows together. At last count, Chasillac’s number of top awards was approaching five dozen.

When Jackson started hanging out in the garage watching his dad work, an obvious thing occurred to Charlie. His son needed his own car.

Thus, the Jacksillac was born, mechanically speaking.

The all-black, hardtop roadster, propelled by foot power, is Jackson’s pride and joy. He challenges Dad to foot races as Carter watches, likely considering his own future participation.

Car show competitions are not the only recognition garnered by Lewis, though. Perhaps more significant is the attention he has gained from specialty car magazines, both across the nation and around the world.

Internationally, Chasillac has been featured in color spreads up to seven pages in length in magazines from the U.K. Italy, Finland, the Netherlands, Greece, Jamaica, Abu Dhabi, South Africa and Slovakia.

Did we mention a video game? The nifty Neon is one of 50 competitors in a 2011 race car game called Drag Race by Creative Mobile. To view or download and play, go to www.creative-mobile.com.

And that’s what I found out while OUT and ABOUT — being reminded of those days behind the wheel of my ’66 GTO, which I did not build, but thoroughly enjoyed driving fast, nonetheless.

Karl Klooster can be reached by e-mail at kklooster@newsregister.com or by phone at 503-687-1227.

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