Interview: Gordon Tronson on his extraordinary multi-engine custom cars and motorcycles
Does that motorcycle really have two engines? No, of course not, that would be ridiculous. It's got four. Gordon Tronson has built a legendary reputation for himself as a wildly excessive, multi-engine hot rod builder – and like his outrageous vehicles, this Kiwi character is one of a kind!
Born and raised in New Zealand, Tronson moved to Canada and then the United States to pursue his passion as a custom vehicle builder. He's worked on all manner of cars, trucks and motorcycles, from racing dragsters to choppers, ground-up replica Lamborghinis to vintage motorhomes – but what shot him to global fame was his stunning decision to throw two massive supercharged motors side by side in a 1927 Model T hot rod he called Double Trouble.
A blinding abundance of chromed-out excess at the front of this thing produces more than 1000 horsepower, and despite the outrageous look it's actually completely road legal – at least in Tronson's home state of Nevada.
Encouraged by Double Trouble's roaring success at national and international hot rod shows, Tronson got to work on a couple of sequels, including a four-engined Ford Econoline and the 400-horsepower, four-engined Harley in the lead photo. But these are far from his only projects; he's often working on a dozen or more vehicles at once.
We spoke to Tronson over the phone from his Nevada home, to discuss his most famous projects, his New Zealand origins, and what he's got coming over the horizon. It was a most entertaining conversation with a cheerful, friendly and refreshingly candid overachiever. What follows is an edited transcript.
Loz: How's it going Gordon? What are you up to?
I'm just trying to work out how many vehicles I've got. I've gotta come home every bloody night and count my bloody inventory. I've got 42 cars now, bloody 7 motorcycles, two motorhomes and a boat.
It's bloody ridiculous. Anyway, I was speaking to a bloke last night from England, he's a freelance photographer. He's been coming to the United States each year for a while, reporting on all the drag racing, hot rod shows and whatever.
I was very fortunate, I ran into him at a hot rod show. Nearly literally, too, I almost ran him over with my hot rod back in 2013, I think. He looked up and saw my frickin' hot rod coming towards him and just got all over it. Then straight away he's doing a big photoshoot, he goes back over to England, sticks it in a German magazine, one that goes all over Europe.
Next thing I know, he calls out and says "hey, if you wanna bring the hot rod and the motorcycle to Essen, Germany, there's an international expo." Most countries in Europe - France, Germany, Bulgaria, Romania, Norway … you can't modify your vehicle in any way other than fitting things like fenders, spoilers, seats. You can't do an engine swap. You can't take a V8 from a BMW and put a V12 in. Very, very restrictive.
So hot rods … forget it. They're non-existent. They have a big following in Germany, and the show we just went to had a shitload of hot rods, but none of them are allowed on the street. It's funny, they just trailer them from place to place.
I had a French film team ring up and make an appointment with me, to come and do a video on the hot rod, and I let the guy drive it. The guy that was the editor, the main guy, he said "Gordon, I've driven every car on the planet from Ferraris and Lamborghinis to Bugattis, but this takes the cake. It's incredible. But you could never, ever own anything like this in France, it's just impossible." Three months later, he sent me the video and said "now you're famous in France."
So I took my car and my motorcycle to Germany on an all expenses paid, pocket money, hotels, they fed us … it was wonderful. That was back in 2014, and in 2016 I went again. It's been an exciting ride!
Loz: Do you reckon the car's paid for itself then, in plane tickets?
Well, yeah I think so! I think the cost for shipping that thing to Germany, all the trucks inside Germany, they've gotta be spending ten, fifteen thousand dollars. It's been quite the ride, incredible write-ups … I get emails from all over the world, New Zealand, South Africa … I got one from a guy in South Africa the other day, he was just beside himself over the hot rod. I get fan mail from Europe, it's amazing.
Loz: So America's very permissive with what they let you put on the road. Is that why you left New Zealand?
Yeah exactly, pretty much. I actually emigrated from New Zealand to Canada. It's funny, when I was a kid, all I wanted was a Mustang. The only way I could get one was to go to America and buy one. Long story short, I emigrated to Canada, and within two or three weeks I got my Mk 1 Mustang. Ended up staying there for 14 years, then I started building these Lamborghini replicas, and next thing, everybody around the world wanted one.
A friend of mine said "well, not much point doing it in Canada," so we came to Vegas for this SEMA show, and thought 'heck that'd be a good place to live.'
So we went back to Canada, one thing led to another, and we got permits and everything, and moved down. And we started building these Lamborghini replicas, and then next thing you know I'm getting bloody sued for five million dollars to stop doing it!
So that was the end of that, and I went back to my trade, which was telecommunications. I got back in the telecom business, started my own company, and the rest is history!
Loz: What was the first of these crazy multi-engine customs? Was it Double Trouble?
Yeah, yeah it was. The nice thing about living here, especially in the state of Nevada, is that we're not restricted. Pretty much all the car has to have is what they had back in the 50s. Two headlights, a tail light, signals, a wiper, a horn and fenders.
You can pretty much build whatever you want here! I mean you build it in such a fashion that it looks a respectable, and it's got all the bells and whistles, and then you take it down to the DMV, and they'll come out an inspect it. You give them all the receipts for it and they'll give you a VIN number. It's pretty easy.
I really don't take it out all that often anyway. Mind you I took it out last Friday to a car show, but as a rule I don't take it out too often. I was cruising down the freeway one day and a bloody Highway Patrol guy came alongside me, and paced me for quite a while, probably checked the license plate and everything. And he kinda just gave me the thumbs up and took off …
Loz: Once you've seen something like that in motion … I don't think there's anyone out there who wouldn't love that thing. It's so over the top, so extreme, and so beautifully done as well. It's a pretty car as well as a crazy car.
It's like anything else. If you behave yourself, and don't ask for trouble … and that's what I have to do. I'm sure the police could pull me over and get me for something if they wanted to.
Before, when I had the two superchargers, it was difficult to see ahead, so I had to kinda cock my head to one side, or lean over and look between the blowers. But now I've got the four blowers and a new body on the car, a '32 roadster body. And when I did that, I also made a new seat that boosts me up just above the blowers. So if somebody pulled me over saying I can't see where I'm going, I can have them sit in the car and say "yeah you can see." And other than that, it's all street legal to the best of my knowledge, but you don't want to encourage the cops to pull you over!
Loz: So you've got two giant motors there, how do they hook up to provide one drive?
It's a funny thing, that, it's about the simplest thing in the world compared to the technologies of the times we live in. If you imagine at the back of each motor there's a great big cog, like a supercharger on a dragster, and it has a great big belt that drives. The belt is three and a half inches wide, 14 millimeter teeth on it, extremely huge teeth. A carbon fiber industrial belt, you could hang a frickin' tank from this thing and it wouldn't break.
And you think of a big triangle, with the two engines, and it drops down to a center shaft, which then attaches to the transmission. Very, very simple, actually. But at the moment I'm the only guy that's doing it.
It you look at my motorcycle, it's done exactly the same way. The two engines on the right are coupled together through a jack shaft under the seat. And the two engines on the left connect to a belt, which wraps around the same shaft. And that drops down to the clutch and the transmission.
The motorcycle took a lot more engineering, because as you can see, it's a big motorcycle, but not as big as you'd think with four engines. It's only 12 inches longer than a stock Harley dresser, an Electra-Glide. That's quite amazing. It weighs 1,050 pounds, and if I've got boots on, I can touch the ground. (laughs)
I've driven it three times, I don't know if I'll drive it again. I'm gonna get back into it. But it took first place in Sturgis a couple years ago, and of course you had to drive it to prove it worked. But it's more of a showpiece than anything at the moment until I get a bit more courage to drive it.
Loz: What does it feel like to ride? Why has it got you nervous?
Well it's just that it's so big. But the funny thing is, when I did drive it, as you got going, the faster you go, the better it got. So I've got a feeling if I get it really going, take it out on the freeway or whatever, that it'll be just fine. But it's a bit nerve-wracking the first time taking it around the neighborhood, kinda wobbled a bit. It was interesting, that's for sure.
And four Harley engines, bloody hell. I mean, as you know, one Harley engine bloody shakes, rattles and rolls. Put four of them together, and is just a frickin' bag of bloody jumping beans. I think the faster you go, the smoother it'll get, but when it's idling, my god. It feels like it just wants to tear the whole thing apart. It's pretty bad.
Loz: You'd want to have plenty of Loctite!
Exactly! And then there's the Ford, you've seen the Econoline? I had to up the ante and better myself, so I took a '62 Ford Econoline, and built a whole new chassis and put four blown race engines in that one. It's got the same driveline setup as the hot rod.
The two front engines right now are not coupled, they're just dummies at the moment. I can fire all four engines together, but it's really just driving on the two. It's one of those things, do we really need to hook them up? It makes a stupid amount of horsepower as it is, and people really just wanna see four engines and hear the noise. (laughs)
Loz: What made you choose the Econoline for that?
Ah, it's got the cab over. The cab sits on top of the wheels. I mean, if you took just a Chevy pickup, it wouldn't look right. It'd be too long, and out of proportion. With the Econoline, the wheels are up front and it drops off real sharp at the nose, so it makes sense to use that versus a regular pickup truck.
Loz: What did you say your fleet stands at right now?
Forty-two. I just bought a bunch of Corvettes. It's a long story, I've got seven Corvettes now. I recently bought four late model Corvettes from Houston, maybe you can remember a few years ago when Texas had their huge tornadoes or hurricanes and most of Houston got flooded out?
During that storm, they were talking about a million cars getting flooded. And a lot of them that had insurance, they ended up in the salvage auctions, that sold them cheap as flood damaged. For my next project, I needed a Corvette for parts, and I thought I could save a bit of money by getting one that was flood damaged.
As it turns out, the first one I got was such a nice car … I put a battery in it and fired it up and drove it round the block. And I thought jeez, I can't destroy this thing. So I thought I'd buy another one. And I found one that looked like it'd been dragged out of a river. Turns out that one too was as clean as a whistle, runs like a bloody bat out of hell, so I gave that one to the wife. It's metallic silver, so she's happier than a pig in shit.
Then I thought 'OK, I'd better buy another one for my project' and I buy this other one, and bugger me, it turns out to be such a nice car, it's frickin' gorgeous, and it runs like a sewing machine, and you know what I spent on all these cars to get them on the road? One air freshener for each. I'm not kidding you.
Wait, actually the first one, I spent 300 dollars to buy a new bit for the front radiator. But the other two, I took all the seats out, dried all the carpet out, dried all the motors out under the seat … and they run like sewing machines and I haven't had to spend another penny on either of them. Zero. And new, they were 40 - 50,000 dollar cars. And I'm picking them up for three or four thousand dollars.
Loz: And they've got like 4 or 500 horsepower motors, yeah?
These ones, no, they've got the LS1 so not that much. I think they're 3 … maybe 400, yeah. The blue one's got a C6, 2005, it goes like a bat outta hell, it's got a full exhaust on it and somebody's tweaked it.
What's ironic is the one I got for my wife, turned out it had the original owner's handbook in the glovebox, and he'd just put a brand new battery in it. So I fired it up, water literally came out of the exhaust, buckets of water, it was hilarious. But none of the water got up in the engine.
And the other one, the green one, not only did it have a brand new battery, it recently had an oil lube job and it came with a full tank of gas. (laughs)
And after all this, I still needed one to pull apart! So I go and bid on this red one, it had high mileage and it'd been crashed in the front a bit, the headlight and bumper was smashed and it was flooded. I paid $2500 for it, by the time I got it transported home, it owed me $3900, landed in my back yard. And guess what? It came with a key, and the guy with the trailer started it up and drove it off the truck and into my yard.
It's ridiculous, I actually rang the insurance company and said "there's nothing wrong with these cars! They smell a little bit, but if you dry them out, clean them up, they're fine! Why do you sell them like this?" And they told me "Gordon, think about it. There's too many. We've got to get rid of them."
So if you've been watching the news, you just saw there was a new big hurricane flood in Florida? Well there's going to be a gazillion more cars.
Loz: You're going to need a bigger back yard!
Yeah! It's unbelievable. So I finally got my red one, now I'd better quit buying Corvettes.
Loz: So what's the loose plan with that, or is that under wraps?
Right now, it's a bit under wraps. I'll keep you posted, but it's gonna be really interesting. This time I'm actually building a mid-engined sports car with two engines in the back. So I'll keep it completely away from hot rodding and move up toward the 21st century. I want a supercar that's got two engines in the back.
So I'm keeping the details a bit secret at the moment. But I think it's gonna be incredible, I think it'll be the ultimate build that I've ever done, actually. I'm excited about it, I just hope I can pull it off! But it'll be very, very interesting. Stay in touch and find out how I'm going with it!
Loz: What's your timeline for that one?
I wanna have it ready for SEMA next year. And I'm pretty good with timelines. If I start doing something, I don't stop. Once I've pulled a thing apart and got all my bits and pieces, it'll be full steam ahead and I'll be right on it.
I've actually got another little project right now that's kind of interesting. It's what they call a 1975 GMC motorhome. Punch it up on your computer. From 1973 to 78, GMC produced the only motorhome that any of the big three (GM, Ford and Chrysler) built. And they're absolutely stunning, really awesome!
They're an old aluminum body, kind of like an airplane, they've got dual wheels at the back with air ride suspension, they've got a front wheel drive Oldsmobile, so the whole thing sits low, it's got big windows all round it and air conditioning and everything … so I'm switching it to right hand drive, and I'm gonna ship it back to New Zealand.
Loz: Do you spend a bit of time there?
Not enough. Definitely not enough. I actually own some property just outside Napier at Taradale, I've got five acres there I've had for a number of years. And you know, I'm getting a bit old, I'll retire here in a few years, and I thought it'd be nice to spend a bit more time back in New Zealand. I've been away for so long, and it's a beautiful place, as you know, I'm sure you've been there.
Loz: yeah, we went there on our honeymoon. It is beautiful, but there's an attitude there I just love as well.
Yeah. I'm hoping this motorhome might entice me to go back a bit more. And it'll be nice to have this thing, because it's a real bloody classic. And maybe I can catch up on some sightseeing. Cruise around the South Island, North Island, I've got friends I can leave it with, in fact a good friend of mine's gonna paint it. But yeah, something to do. I'm always doing something, I used to build a lot of right hand drive Camaros and diesel trucks and ship those back to New Zealand back in the 90s.
I talked to my sister a couple times, thinking about shipping something to Australia. But the bloody regulations! You can't do a right hand drive conversion yourself, can you?
Loz: I've never tried. I'd have thought you could get engineering certificates and that sort of thing for something like that.
I just know they're very, very fussy. So yeah, I keep pretty busy building stuff, motorcycles and whatnot. I've got a couple of British bikes at the moment actually, a 1968 BSA Lightning in my living room along with a 1972 Norton Commando. And we're putting together a restored 1969 Triumph Trident three cylinder.
Loz: Jesus, how do you keep track of all this stuff?
It's funny, people come around and they're just amazed. They'll say "go visit Gordon, he's not working on one project, he walks from one to another to another." So I'm working on one thing, and then an hour or two hours later I'll go 'uh-oh' then go outside and work on the other thing, then I'll go and work on something else. That way I can't get bored.
I got enough stuff here to keep me going until I'm a hundred years old, at least, just the stuff I'm restoring.
Loz: It's something I've noticed, there's something about the national character of Kiwis, that seems to produce folks like yourself. What is it?
It does! I remember when I was a kid back in New Zealand, we used to got the hot rod and motorcycle magazines, and I think it was all a big fantasy. You'd look at that stuff and go "wow, that's super cool" and then one thing leads to another, and then you've gotta make it.
I mean, I think you mentioned Burt Munro in your emails … I think they'll lose a bit of it in the younger generations, they don't do this shit. But back in the 50s and 60s a lot of Kiwis were doing wonderful things. You had to make your own stuff, because you couldn't buy it. You couldn't go down the speed shop and get it.
That's how I built my first chopper in New Zealand. I went and saw the movie Easy Rider up in Napier, and got all fired up, so I went home and built a chopper. (laughs) Just like Easy Rider! In fact I'm in my office now and I've got a silk screen t-shirt of my bike, which was built in 1967/68, it's on the wall here. And right next to it is a picture of the real deal, and I tell you what, it's pretty close! My mum made the seat, with all the buttons in it and everything, I extended the forks, and it's a rigid frame, it's really cool!
And I even had New Zealand's first drag bike, way back when. And that's what you had to do. If you wanted it, you had to build it. There was no way around it.
Loz: I would've thought it'd be the same for Aussies, but I guess I don't see as much of the same kind of spirit.
Nah, I think the Aussies too! I've just met a new friend from Australia, he does these air ride suspension things, he's building all kinds of weird shit. We're like peas in a pod when we get together, in fact he's been texting me about building a bloody three-engine Holden. (laughs)
I've got another Aussie mate down the street, he brought a Torana over and he's hotting that up (laughs). And he's got a late model bloody ute, that Chevy ute with the LS motor in it, whatever they called it back there in Australia. It was right hand drive when he bought it, and he's converted it and brought it over!
But that's about the bloody shape of it.
Thanks to Gordon Tronson for an excellent chat and for digging through his photo archives for us. We look forward to seeing more of his work as things progress. You can see more shots of his amazing work and learn more at GordonTronson.com.