A classic experience

Ken Niemann of Ken’s Northwest Automotive behind the wheel of his 1956 Chevy two-door post, which was restored by fellow mechanics at competing businesses. Niemann, who is being treated for cancer, took the car to Hot August Nights in Reno.                            - Richard Walker / Herald
Ken Niemann of Ken’s Northwest Automotive behind the wheel of his 1956 Chevy two-door post, which was restored by fellow mechanics at competing businesses. Niemann, who is being treated for cancer, took the car to Hot August Nights in Reno.
— image credit: Richard Walker / Herald

POULSBO — It’s a Friday night and Ken Niemann and his son, Kenny, are living the dream, cruising Virginia Avenue in a cherry ’56 Chevy two-door post.

There is no cancer here, not on this day. This is Hot August Nights in Reno, baby. Just a warm evening breeze, Dion and the Belmonts on the radio, and cars that made America great. The clock’s turned back and, while Niemann’s future may be uncertain, right now he has all he needs — a driver’s license and a hot car.

“I don’t have words to describe it,” Niemann said in a call from Reno.

A lot of friends pitched in to make Niemann’s dream become real. Niemann, owner of Ken’s Automotive on Viking Avenue, could never quite find the time to bring life to that old Chevy he had stored in his garage. Then, one day, time was no longer an option. That’s when Del Mueller of Del’s Automotive Service in Suquamish stepped in.

Mueller and Niemann have known each other for years, have passed jobs to each other when their appointment books are full, even lent each other equipment and tools. And Mueller knew about that old Chevy that had been sitting in Niemann’s garage for five years, a symbol of a dream unfulfilled.

So, Mueller recruited a team of volunteers from his shop and others, and set to work restoring that ’56 Chevy to its former glory. These guys — many of them from competing shops — devoted their spare time to the project and donated all of their labor.

“It shows what happens when people work together,” Mueller said. “This was a friendship thing. If we could do it again, we’d do it again.”

The team included Mueller; John Ball of John’s Body Shop, Poulsbo; Tony Miller of Stitches Custom Auto Upholstery; Westbay NAPA Auto Parts, Poulsbo; Chris Petty of Firestone Tire, East Bremerton; Kitsap Towing; Cliff’s Classic Chevrolet; and RJ Ohnhaus of Mobile Radio.

“We got the car on Oct. 15 — the shell, the frame, and six truckloads of parts,” Mueller said. The car was ready Aug. 6. Niemann and his son left for America’s premier automotive event the next day, returning home Aug. 13 after six days of adventure.

“I was here six or seven years ago, but at the time I didn’t have a [classic] car,” Niemann said of Hot August Nights. “It’s grown into something huge. Every casino has a parking lot full of cars.”

The afternoon of Aug. 9, six hours before the cruise down Virginia Avenue, Niemann was standing in a parking lot with 750 of the 20,000 cars wowing onlookers in Reno.  His car — with its bright white finish, gleaming chrome and leather seats — was turning heads.

“Everyone comes up and asks, ‘Is that leather? I’d give my eye teeth to have seats like that.’ Then they look at the engine and say, ‘Oh, my god.’ They’re amazed,” Niemann said. He estimates the restoration’s value at $150,000.

Hot August Nights — this year it was Aug. 6-10 — is reportedly the largest classic car event in the U.S. It features a classic-car auction, car shows, cruises, drag races, a sock hop, and live entertainment. This year’s lineup included Lil’ Elmo & The Cosmos, Bill Medley of The Righteous Brothers, Paul Revere & The Raiders, and Tower of Power.

Niemann said of his car’s restoration: “It’s something I started on five years ago, then I got sick. Guys like Del, John and Tony took the car over and put it together for me. I would never have gotten the car together. I was in the hospital off and on for nine months. I still need chemo treatment, so at night I’m pretty tired. I still go to work — at least six or seven hours a day — but by the end of the day I’m well wore out.”

This story is about how a man’s dream was made real by the generosity of others. It’s also about Niemann’s determination to beat cancer — the sarcoidosis he was first diagnosed with in October 2009, and the brain tumor that was discovered in April 2012. Last year, doctors didn’t give him hope of seeing much of the year 2013. Today, he takes an experimental form of chemotherapy — in pill form — daily. He once stood 6 feet, weighed 285 and had long dark brown hair. He’s now 5-11, 208 pounds, and his hair is growing back wavy and curly. The tumor is dormant, he said.

Niemann has turned over management of his 25-year-old automotive business to his daughter, Jennifer, and plans to attend a drag race in Las Vegas in October, followed by a trip to Phoenix for a NASCAR race. Come 2014, he plans on showing his ’56 Chevy in regional car shows.

The car is therapeutic for Niemann. “It makes me forget I have cancer,” he said.


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