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Fabricating

Masters of metal

By Lynn Stanley

Restoration shop mixes high tech with old world craftsmanship

July 2014 - For much of his 25-year career in the U.S. Army, Dan Short wanted to start his own business, but the shape it would take was unclear. For almost as long as Short served his country, he also worked to perfect skills on another front—restoring classic cars. 

In 2005, the retired Army major found a way to combine his military experience and knowledge with his love of cars. Pooling his resources, Short established DRS Automotive FantomWorks in a burned out warehouse in Norfolk, Virginia, then worked his way into a 60,000 sq. ft. brick, wood and steel prewar era linen cleaning facility. 

The fabrication shop has evolved into an all-inclusive operation with its own reality show on Discovery’s Velocity cable television channel. FantomWorks is a mix of high tech know-how and old world craftsmanship. 

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Where it all begins

“We can handle just about anything a customer might come up with,” says Short regarding his shop and its team of 30 highly skilled specialists. In addition to cars, FantomWorks practices its fabrication and metalforming skills on motorcycles, classic watercraft and Americana. 

It boasts its own foundry, R&D for new concepts and cradle-to-grave capabilities that include casting, machining, milling and powder coating. The facility houses departments for trim work, interior, electrical, engine work and more. About the only thing FantomWorks can’t do is make its own glass.

During the winter when most shops slow down, FantomWorks is humming with activity. Short says the shop’s work roster remains full 365 days a year, with about 85 projects underway at any time. “I try to schedule our heavy restoration and custom work during the fall and winter,” he says, “and reserve maintenance jobs and shorter projects for spring and summer. Our business is pretty much morning to night, seven days a week.”

When FantomWorks takes on a vehicle, it’s disassembled in three different locations within the facility. Mechanical components are removed while clean, re-usable parts are separated out. Metal is removed and cleaned in the blast booth before further restoration. “We build the body shell back to a factory-new state,” says Short. “We purchase and, when needed, manufacture and assemble any components required, from transmission, engines and brake systems to finishing such as wiring and interiors. Painting is one of the last steps. For prewar cars which have a lot of wood, we can form, steam and manufacture any wood component.”

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Make mine rare

Short, whose first restoration job was a 1967 RS SS Camaro he purchased while stationed at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, says the older he gets, the older the cars become that peak his interest. “My new love is pre-World War I cars,” he notes. “Prior to 1912, cars used carbide generators for lights and had natural white tires on wheels with wood spokes. They basically were motorized horse carriages without the horse. But the workmanship is fascinating.”

Currently, Short and his crew are working to restore a 1939 Hudson 112 Coupe Convertible. “Only three of these cars were manufactured,” he says. “One still exists and it’s in our shop.” The shop also has the first car in the world built with hydraulic brakes and is working to renovate a one-of-a-kind Hein-Velox with rolled euro fenders. These projects are a perfect fit for Short who thrives on jobs with a high degree of difficulty.

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“The harder a project is to complete, the more motivated I am to tackle it,” says Short. That’s why FantomWorks invested its own money (about $100,000) to create the first wheelchair-accessible muscle car. The crew partnered with the Wounded Wheels Project to convert a 1970 Chevrolet Chevelle SS (above) into an accessible ride that paraplegic veterans can drive. Ongoing development work is underway to accommodate quadriplegic veterans. Deemed by some as America’s most popular mid-size car, modifying the car’s structure took the team into uncharted territory.

A power reverse-opening third door had to be designed, fabricated and installed to fit both the ramp and width of a power chair. This meant FantomWorks had to cut a larger opening while maintaining the car’s structural integrity. A cable-based control system powered a custom articulating ramp and hand controls. The floor of the car was lowered to fit a motorized sliding table. The innovative component positions a driver’s power chair in the vehicle behind the wheel of the car. The project, which took six years to complete, was the subject of one of the episodes that aired last year on Velocity’s “FantomWorks.” Season 3, beginning this month, features a vehicle that can be entered and driven with one hand. 

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Short credits his diverse military career with innovating with new concepts and solving difficult restoration puzzles. He served in Special Forces, HALO, Strategic Recon and SCUBA-teams, completed flight school and entered the Army test pilot program. His extensive training expanded his knowledge of complex vehicle systems, engines, design and body work. “Because we have total R&D capabilities, we can design and develop systems that 90 percent of the car shops in the U.S. couldn’t dream up,” he says.

Short has a master’s degree in program management from the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California, and says his military assignments in program management and contract negotiation equipped him with the skills to run a business. “There are two sides to every business,” he says. “What happens in the shop and what happens in the office. Understanding those dynamics is critical.”  Drawing on more than 35 years of time spent in garages, on mission fronts and lessons learned on the shop floor have helped Short build his business into one of the country’s largest. Keeping it running on all cylinders is challenging Short says, but his team—one of his most valuable assets—is the secret weapon for peak performance.

Slider image 1959 Chevrolet Corvette:
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All photos courtesy of Fantomworks

Sources

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