“Wait! You’ve never been?” Dave Chamberlain balked. No, I replied repeating that this was my first trip through North Carolina, having just dropped off Mopar Connection’s Project ZomBEE ’70 Super Bee at Dave’s garage a couple hours earlier. He quickly spun the steering wheel around and doubled back down a busy road. “Oh man, you’re gonna love this place,” he assured.
Creations by Gemza is tucked away in an industrial complex almost entirely indistinguishable as the others we had passed that morning. The facility that rested behind its cement walls though was anything but ordinary. For the Mopar enthusiast, the Gemza headquarters is equal parts museum as it is a functioning garage.
A family operation from the get-go, its patriarch Mike Gemza greeted us energetically at the door. He quickly clasped my hand, giving it a firm squeeze, and immediately laid into a volley questions about my career, my time with other magazines, and finally about Mopar Connection. “So you don’t print anything?” he asked. “Just the business card you’re holding,” I joked. “We’re entirely digital.”
“So where do I read your articles, then?” he pressed, nodding towards a wall of ornately-framed features on his facility, previous builds and interviews published in other magazines. I slipped my phone out of my pocket, “You read ’em here. It’s what most folks are staring at when they’re in the bathroom anyways.” Mike’s son, Steve, who was standing nearby, chuckled knowingly.
“Great! We’ve done work with digital magazines like yours before,” Mike roared. “Let me show you around.” And with that, I was assailed with such a violent stream of information pertaining to every inch of his building that no court stenographer could jot down – so I’m just going to do my best. For the most part, I’m going to let the pictures do most of the talking.
The walls of Creations by Gemza’s front office are lined with family photos, glass cases holding trophies, thank you cards from happy customers, the aforementioned framed magazine articles, meticulously-preserved advertisements for vintage Mopar iron, and portraits of brightly hued Dodges and Plymouths, many of which being prints of David Snyder art.
Short, broad shouldered and thrumming with the energy of a man a third his age, Mike Gemza’s passion for Mopar muscle cars is almost fanatical. “Here! Let me show you our ‘Man Cave!'” he boomed, leading our small tour into a ochre-red room lined with glass cases, neon signs, advertisements and other memorabilia.
Displays packed with bottles of cologne, figurines from movies, die cast replicas, and rare fliers and promotional material were all present. Mike and Steve darted to each wall socket, igniting the various marquees, illuminating the room in brilliant oranges, yellows and pinks. Near the life-sized cutout of Sheriff Joe Higgins, across from an air hockey table was something I had never seen in person.
“It works too! Wanna see?” Mike knew exactly what had caught my attention and hurried over, flipping the “On” switch to a Hot Wheels Don “The Snake” Prudhomme funny car playset. Instantly, the speaker began replaying a recording as the Plymouth began to shake, its tires spun, before finally mimicking a quarter mile pass down the long gone Lions Raceway in Long Beach, CA.
“I’ve never actually seen one of these that worked,” a whispered reverently. It’s the kind of toy that I would’ve worn out as a kid. “Yeah,” Mike agreed. “It’s pretty cool. Everybody flips when I turn it on.”
Seguing his natural mechanical ability into a 35-year career as a machinist and an application engineer programming CNC machines, Mike enjoyed building cars for himself, his wife Kathi, and their three sons, as well as the occasional customer. What Mike considered his “side gig” started to take more and more of his attention – and passion – until 2008, when the Gemza family decided to make the shop a reality.
Creations by Gemza truly is a family affair too; Kathi manages the books. All three of the boys work in the shop in either full-time or specialized positions. And nearly everything is done in-house, from building engines, custom fabrication, to bodywork and paint. Guided by their slogan of “Striving for Perfection,” the cars coming out of Creations by Gemza have a reputation for being restored “better than stock.”
“The goal of every restoration is to make each true to the original but just a touch better,” states an interview with Gemza for PPG Paint, continuing, “[while] their paint jobs use factory correct colors, […] the gloss is much more intense than the enamel topcoats of the past.” This level of detail is also poured into many other facets of each build. “These cars were often thrown together on the assembly line. We take our time and do it right,” Mike vowed.
Leaving the “Man Cave” Mike lead us into the shop, an immaculately-clean, environmentally-controlled room more akin to a hospital’s surgery center than an automotive garage. Several cars in varying degrees of completion filled the epoxied floor. A 1971 Dodge Charger R/T that was once the pace car at Charlotte Motor Speedway took center stage.
Less of a restoration and more of a survivor, the Charger wore much of its wear and tear from use on the tarmac. A few of the decals showed aging, a few cracks and a little discoloration. But it was impressively complete. Steve produced a few fliers and magazines where the car was featured. It was genuine and impressively optioned, including a power sunroof.
Nearby, an almost nondescript ’67 Coronet R/T sat. It’s dashboard removed for restoration. The rest of the car is slightly modified, but nothing that a purist would recoil at. Yet, what stood out was a small signature scribbled in permanent marker on the radiator support: Dick Landy –2005. I pointed silently and Mike saw what I was motioning at.
“Yep! This was his car for a while,” Mike beamed. Then he motioned toward the dashboard mounted to a wooden stand. “I had him sign the glovebox too. We’re almost done with it.” And there it was, in silver paint pen, a near identical signature by “Dandy Dick” himself.
The waiting list to get a car into Creations by Gemza is nearly a year deep. Since many of their customers live nearby, they often stop by to visit – having become an extended part of the Gemza family, as it were. Again, building a car right means being patient, and most customers get that. Creations by Gemza has completed over 40 vehicles this way and has seen great success.
While I wasn’t allowed to photograph two particularly special projects, Mike did want to show me his own car. His own spin on a ’65 A990 Super Stock Dodge Coronet, the black-on-red machine was unequivocally flawless. Certain key features of the A990 were present; the bus seats, the spartan interior, the massive bus battery in the trunk, and of course, the big cross-ram Hemi backed by a 4-speed A-833 gearbox.
It’s hard to deny Mike’s passion for these cars; the almost permanent broad, toothy smile beneath his trimmed mustache is infectious. Meeting Mike and his family made me feel a tinge of guilt that I hadn’t recognized his shop’s name when Dave first mentioned them. But that’s also part of Mike’s style; the cars are the stars. It’s Creations by Gemza that helps make them shine.