Even after a fire destroyed his Michigan workshop, this renowned woody wagon restorer isn’t quitting

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Woodie Wagon Shop flames
Facebook/Grand Traverse Metro Emergency Services Authority

When fire swept through Mike Nickels’ automotive woodworking shop over the Labor Day weekend, he wasn’t the only one who suffered a devastating loss. The classic car community did, too.

Nickels is a nationally renowned craftsmen of car bodies for late 1920s to early ’50s woody wagons, having restored and remade more than 100 of them since 1972. Early on the morning of September 5, fire broke out in the main workshop of Nickels’ Automotive Wood Restoration in Traverse City, Michigan, and quickly spread to a breezeway and large pole barn that contained parts and supplies. Grand Traverse Metro fire chief Pat Parker told local media that 25 firefighters worked to extinguish the blaze, which required 40,000 gallons of water. The buildings and their contents were destroyed. There were no injuries.

Nickels did not return a request for comment, but he tells WWTV/WWUP-TV 9&10 News that he and his wife, Lana, were camping on the other side of town and received a security alert that a fire alarm at the shop had been triggered. Nickels says they could see a plume of smoke rising from the property as they drove to the scene.

The exact number of classic cars that were destroyed in the fire is unknown. Among the vehicles “saved” from the rubble, Nickels said, were a customer’s 1953 Buick, a 1983 Chrysler Town & Country, and Nickels’ one-of-a-kind 1942 military ambulance, which was featured on Hagerty’s Barn Find Hunter video series in March 2020.

Barn Find Hunter host Tom Cotter, who has owned a 1939 Ford woody wagon since he was 15, says he was thrilled to meet a craftsman like Nickels and tour his workshop when he and the production crew visited in 2019.

“The world is not exactly thick with people who rebody woody cars,” Cotter says. “There are only a handful of them out there, and now there’s one less. It’s so sad to see. Mike has earned a reputation for being one of the best. He’s had his hands on some of the best woody wagons in the world, and he’s clearly proud of his work, as he should be. He’s such a nice person and a true craftsman … I was so impressed. This is just heartbreaking.”

The cause of the fire is unknown, but Parker tells local media that it appears to have started in the office area. An investigation is underway.

“It’s the worst combination of circumstances,” Cotter says. “Wood, sawdust, paint thinner, lacquer thinner … It wouldn’t take much for that to go up.”

The 75-year-old Nickels, who is in semi-retirement, says the shop is insured. Friends have also set up a GoFundMe account on Nickels’ behalf.

Nickels hopes to build a smaller facility or buy an existing building so that he can continue to do what he loves, but it will take time to recover from the emotional trauma, especially because he lost several one-of-a-kind family items, including his father’s WWII uniform and his mother’s 1928 nursing uniform.

“You just can’t replace that stuff,” he tells TV 9&10, fighting tears. “… Everybody has a loss some time, and you never know when it’s going to happen … We’re strong. We’ll come back.”

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