Saturday, January 11, 2014

Remembering Bob Nikel

Bob beginning initial tear-down/inspection of the engine of his Porsche 914-6 race car in 1971.

Bob Nikel died on January 7, before his time.  (He was in his early 70's.)

I met Bob in June of 1963.  He was already the go-to mechanic at Stoddard Imported Cars, at a very young age.  Some of the other mechanics had resumes that Bob didn't, like fabrication or aircraft certification, but nobody was better at diagnostics and trouble-shooting.  This required a good knowledge of six marques and even more power trains.  And it was in the days before you plugged a diagnostic unit into a USB port.  You read the sounds, smells, and tea leaves.   Then you got it fixed fast and right.  Bob's work didn't come back.

His daily driver was a baby blue Austin Healey Sprite with a big single side-draft Weber carb, a cam, and Michelin radials on alloy wheels.  It was the fastest street Sprite around, and of course Bob built it himself.

In summertime, we all ate lunch sitting on our butts on a concrete apron outside the shop, leaning against a cinder block wall, where it was cooler and sometimes breezy.  Conversation was lively and sometimes funny.  If we got onto  technical or operational issues, our eyes would eventually settle on Bob.  He was usually last to speak, slow to speak, thoughtful and measured.  He had a sly sense of humor and didn't anger easily.  He was a natural leader.

When I returned briefly as a salesman in 1971, Bob was Service Manager.  He'd bought a salvage Porsche 914-6 that he was prepping for C Production racing.  He was saving his money and learning dealership operations from bottom to top.  In 1976 he and a partner started a new store, Sewickley Porsche/Audi in Sewickley, PA.

In 1971 Bob taught me a lesson that saved me some money over the decades.  It was this: I had no future in road racing.  The dealership sponsored a Porsche Club track day at Nelsons Ledges.  We took a couple of demonstrators down, including the 914-4 that I regularly drove, and in which I thought I was fairly quick.  I did a few laps with Bob riding shotgun.  As I was understeering through the Carousel for the second time, Bob moved his left foot over on top of my throttle foot and pushed it to the floor. The car didn't have enough oomph to transition to power oversteer--it just took a wider line.  But I wasn't driving the car close to its potential.  I didn't know where its limit was.  Even as a journeyman racer, Bob was effortlessly faster.  As we pulled into the pits, he gave me that wry smile of his.  Yeah, I could have gone to driving school.  But I was far from "a natural."  Lesson learned: used clapped-out race car not bought.

I went on to a career outside the industry and Bob went on to a successful one in it.  We were out of touch until a few years ago, after we'd both retired: me fully and him semi.  He was enjoying the sporty car scene in Pittsburgh and his own car collection.  He and his wife were snowbirds.  He was proud of his family.  Life was good.

Bob hauling the mail in his 1998 993 GT2 at Porsche Club track day.


Anonymous said...

Never met the man, but seems his was a life well-lived. Godspeed Bob.

Kevin Lehmann said...

Sorry to hear of Bob's passing. Amazing how the Porsche community seems to have a considerable number of these geniunely helpful and knowledgeable people who learned all about the cars from the very beginning.

Nice tribute and nice picture of Bob "haulin' the mail" (a term our racing crowd loves to use as well)

RIP Bob. You will certainly be missed and never be forgotten.

Anonymous said...

Before his time; I worked for Bob from 1977-1989 and learned a great deal. Bob was a good teacher,leader, driver, and all around car guy. I'm pleased to have known him and call him a mentor and family friend. RIP Bob. Many fond memories have flooded back to me since hearing the sad news.. Scott George

Post a Comment