The Magnolia Special Visits Jay Leno's Garage

The Magnolia Special. Image: Amy Jett for Bienville Studios

The Magnolia Special. Image: Amy Jett for Bienville Studios

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If we asked you to name a car that runs on compressed natural gas (CNG), many of you could come up with the Honda Civic Natural Gas. If we asked you to name a sexy, beautifully designed car that runs on natural gas (and doubles as automotive art), almost all of you would be left scratching your heads.

The same thing occurred to New Orleans designer J.T. Nesbitt, only he did something about it: he built the CNG-powered Magnolia Special roadster, inspired by Grand Prix race cars of the 1930s. Then he drove it from New York to Los Angeles, in 89 hours, earning our utmost respect as the “Automotive Masochist Of The Year, 2011.”

Nesbitt, who holds a degree in fine art, fabricated many of the parts used on the Magnolia Special by hand. Fenders were turned on an English wheel, and items like hinges were cast in a foundry that Nesbitt set up in his shop, Bienville Studios.

As the impeccably-dressed-to-impress-his-mom Nesbitt reasoned, if the ancient Egyptians could cast metal, he could probably figure it out, too. He did, and the results are an incredible blend of art and function.

One thing the ancient Egyptians couldn’t figure out was how to convert a 4.2 liter straight-six Jaguar engine from gasoline to CNG, but Nesbitt worked this out on his own, too. The Magnolia Special has a total of five onboard CNG tanks, which gives it a range of some 600 miles between fills.

Since you can’t just pull off the highway to buy CNG at every town, Nesbitt’s cross-country odyssey required the services of a navigator, so Maxwell Materne stepped in to plot the best route from point A to point B, often on the fly.

Nesbitt says the pair had “no serious trouble” driving cross-country, although one 24-hour CNG fueling station in North Carolina turned out to have more conservative hours, forcing Nesbitt and Materne to spend a very cold night by a campfire.

While most of the car is based on vintage design and technology, Nesbitt (wisely) opted to use modern lighting and modern brakes. With 5,000 miles racked up on the Magnolia Special to date, he reports no mechanical issues of any kind.

After watching this episode of Jay Leno's Garage, we’d be hard pressed to name someone we’d rather sit down for a beer with than J.T. Nesbitt. His “I’ll figure it out” mentality is sorely lacking in the modern world, as is his obsession with the smallest detail.

Most would call Nesbitt crazy, and we’d be inclined to agree. The difference is, he’s our kind of crazy.

Image credit: Amy Jett for Bienville Studios

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