Is Norm Sappenfield, 84, the highest-caliber machinist, mechanic, engine builder in the area?
Some people seem to think so and who could fault them when Sappenfield has been working at it all his life and has a wall full of memorabilia to prove it, including a testimonial that says: “With the expertise of the finest mechanic and car maker, Norm Sappenfield. 1952 Chevy pickup for Modie Katz who appreciates Norm’s skill, talent, and creativity and thanks him heartedly.”
Katz is a local entrepreneur who has founded eight different companies.
Sappenfield says as a kid he grew up around racing guys, serving as their gofer.
“All the people I grew up with were in the racing business,” he grinned. “People like Ed Iskenderian, Don and Jim Nairn, and many others. Racing rubbed off on me.”
After serving in World War II, Sappenfield returned home and decided he wanted to be his own boss. So at the age of 23, he started a business and by 25 had built his own shop.
Calling the business NCP Motors, his company specialized in hot rod equipment and fabrication and occupied half a city block on Venice Boulevard in West Los Angeles.
Over the years, Sappenfield went on to build motors and cars that were featured in Hot Rod Magazine or established world speed records.
One was an Ardon Flat Head on a 59 A block. With horsepower rated at 400, the motor held a vintage racing record at Bonneville of 202.97 mph. His personal car was a ’70 Maserati Ghibli with an aluminum headed L-88 crate engine and a TH400 transmission that he had swapped into it.
As his reputation grew, Sappenfield became known as the mechanic to the stars.
“I got dragged into that crowd,” he said. “My guys worked like mad. We had a good reputation and were the only ones who would take on expensive cars like Ferraris and Rolls Royces.
He also built cars for stars like Phyllis Diller and Steve McQueen. “But when they came into the shop, they were just people,” he said.
The master mechanic said he moved to El Dorado County in 1986 after the Watt’s riots changed Los Angeles. He said rioters burned an area within a quarter-mile radius of his shop. He was in Canada at the time and when he got home, members of the National Guard were sitting on his property.
He said the area became increasingly dangerous as his shop was repeatedly broken into, he was stabbed by someone trying to steal a car, and his wife and children were threatened because he was a white man in a black neighborhood.
So in 1986 he bought 5 acres in El Dorado and moved his family here, taking with him 20 of his customer’s cars.
He then rented a place on China Hill until he could build his shop in Diamond Springs, which he named NCP Motors.
Until three years ago he said he employed three people, but had to let them go after he suffered some serious medical problems. Now he runs the place by himself, working six days a week from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m.
“I enjoy what I do and lucky enough to be able to still do this at my age,” he said. “Most of my friends are gone. I’m a workaholic. I’m dedicated and I do it.”
Since being in the county, he has continued to build award-winning engines. Seven or eight years ago he built an engine for a Bonneville car owned by Don Ferguson that established a land speed record for its class.
He also built engines for Dennis Armstrong, who is a super stock racer. Sappenfield said he held the record in super stock at the El Dorado County Fairgrounds for almost three years.
Still at it after more than 40 years, the master mechanic said he doesn’t do much work for those who walk in off the streets. “Everything I work on is done by referral,” he said.
“I have people who won’t go anywhere but here,” he said, noting that he has an engine balancer and believes he’s the only one in the county with one.
Having recently completed the machine work on a beautifully restored 1931 Ford Roadster, Sappenfield has three other racing engines he’s now working on: one for a Chevy, a Corvette, and 1948 Ford.
“I get up every morning and want to come here. It’s not work. I like it that much that I didn’t want to give it up. I’ll do it until I drop.”
Contact Dawn Hodson at 530-344-5071 or [email protected] Follow @DHodsonMtDemo on Twitter.