Carrie Rengers

Mechanic to the stars is back with new company

UPDATED – You might remember Johnathan Goodwin as the mechanic who converted Neil Young’s 1959 Lincoln into a hybrid and made Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Jeep Wagoneer run on biofuel.

Or you might know him from when Fast Company magazine dubbed him the “Motorhead Messiah” who “can quadruple your car’s mileage, double its horsepower, and push emissions close to zero.”

Starting in 2007, Goodwin received quite a bit of attention nationally and around Wichita as he worked out of Marquee Motorcars space near Douglas and Hillside.

In the past few years, though, he’s kept a lower profile as he worked out of a garage in El Dorado.

“Now I’m bringing this back into Wichita,” he said.

Goodwin is leasing 50,000 square feet of pavilion space at the former Kansas Coliseum – with dibs on about 150,000 square feet more – for the new Mil-Spec Automotive.

His partner – Adam Mitchell, a 21-year-old Detroit-area native, college student and entrepreneur with a pocketbook – contacted Goodwin last year about helping him convert a few older Humvees, which he then planned to flip in order to buy a new one.

“I had read some articles about what he had done in the past – his famous Duramax conversion, and it really sparked my interest,” Mitchell said.

Goodwin is known for taking Duramax drivetrains from GM trucks and installing them in other vehicles, which then can run on vegetable oil.

Mitchell told Goodwin that the government is selling its surplus Humvees on the cheap.

“I jumped all over that,” Goodwin said. “These are $56,000 vehicles that the government’s over here selling for $10,000.”

Mitchell approached the Humvees like a hobby, but that’s not how Goodwin saw them.

The two began discussing how they could start a company to use the shells of Humvees to build new, efficient vehicles – Mil-Spec Humvees – instead of the 7-miles-to-the-gallon guzzlers that Humvees are.

“Next thing I know, we’ve got seven Humvees show up,” Goodwin said.

He stored them at his new house near Valley Center.

“Then all of a sudden, we’ve got a dozen and then a dozen more. So we have the Humvee garden. I mean, it was ridiculous.”

Now, Goodwin has moved about 70 Humvees into his first pavilion, which will serve as a Humvee warehouse for Mil-Spec, which is an abbreviation for Military Specification.

There’s another 24,000 square feet of pavilion space where they plan to manufacture parts for the vehicles and another 125,000 square feet where they want to assemble them.

J.P. Weigand & Sons brokers Marty Moody, Grant Tidemann and Bradley Tidemann handled the deal.

Goodwin said Mitchell is “making a mad dash back and forth quite often to help as much as he can, plus go to school and stuff.”

“I mean, this kid is relentless.”

‘Ingenious guy’

Goodwin’s work with Humvees began around 2000 on his own Hummer H1, the civilian version of the military vehicle.

“I was one of those people that bought one of them. Thought they were cool for the first 5,000 miles.”

He said it had terrible fuel economy and was “constantly problematic.”

That’s when Goodwin installed a Duramax drivetrain. He then did it for others through a company he started, H-Line Conversions, and over the years refined the process to get about 25 miles to the gallon and a much longer life out of the vehicles.

“There’s other people doing it, but I think Johnathan was the first, and I think a lot of other people learned from him,” said El Dorado businessman Steve Waite, a friend of Goodwin’s who has worked with him, too.

“He’s a very ingenious guy. I mean very inventive.”

Waite said installing a Duramax not only increases the Humvee’s fuel efficiency and longevity but also its power.

“He’s got a Hummer there that outran a Porsche in a quarter mile,” Waite said of Goodwin.

But in 2008, Marquee Motorcars owner Jim Collins – who’d been becoming increasingly involved in Goodwin’s company – was murdered by some people who kidnapped him from the business.

It “really knocked the wind out of my sails,” Goodwin said.

He phased out his H-Line operations and then spent the next few years traveling to California to finish work on Young’s car before moving to El Dorado to do more conversion work.

With Mil-Spec, Goodwin is switching his focus from strictly converting vehicles to building and manufacturing them.

He calls the Humvees “donor vehicles.”

“They’re no good for anybody unless you do something with them,” Goodwin said. “Basically, we just disassemble and throw everything away except for the body and then the frame.”

He doesn’t even keep the seats, which he says are “flatter than day-old beer.”

Goodwin then incorporates the Duramax drivetrains.

“If the military had put the Duramax in these … to begin with … they would still be on the road today,” he said.

Goodwin, who is working on several Mil-Spec Humvee prototypes, said the new cars will be as smart as a cellphone with an instrument panel that has a touch-screen interface, LED lights and other features, including ones customers specifically request.

Mil-Spec won’t start selling the vehicles until the beginning of the year, but there are already orders for 50, which is all the company will produce in a year.

The top model will sell for $83,500. Mitchell said an entry-level one will sell for $58,500 for people who want “the insane capability” with “fewer creature comforts.”

Goodwin said orders have come without any advertising.

“By the end of the year, we’ll probably be at 100. So we’re already two years behind.”

The adventure of building things, often from the ground up, is what entices Goodwin and Mitchell.

“I really think it’s more about creating a brand associated with what our core values are, and I think we can take that to a lot of different areas,” Mitchell said.

Goodwin puts it more simply.

“We’re doing it because it’s going to be cool and fun.”

Carrie Rengers: 316-268-6340, @CarrieRengers