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Special Report: Automotive

Tricks of the trade

By Lynn Stanley

Above: The FantomWorks metal fabrication team includes (front row, from left) David Gill and Rich Smith and (back row, from left) Jeff Merrill, Willoughby Snowdon, owner Dan Short and James Bowler.

Like magic, a fabrication shop’s restoration feats sometimes defy explanation

May 2015 - British novelist Christopher Priest wrote that every exceptional magic trick is composed of three acts. The Pledge introduces an ordinary object, the Turn misdirects attention while the object is made to do something extraordinary, and the Prestige [the reveal] restores the object in a manner that leaves audiences wondering how it was done. 

The same could be said of Dan Short, owner of Norfolk, Virginia-based DRS Automotive FantomWorks, who practices his own brand of restoration magic with classic cars, aircraft and boats. Tricks of the trade include a mastery of metal, high-tech know-how and old world craftsmanship. His “stage” is a pre-war linen-cleaning facility—60,000 sq. ft. of brick, wood and steel. 

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Short recently added a second floor and another 2,500 sq. ft. to this operation, which includes a foundry, R&D lab, casting, machining, milling, wood, plastics and composite work along with powder coating and painting. Trim work, interior, electrical, engine, carburetor, transmission and differential rebuilds and other restoration disciplines are organized by department. Short’s team is also investigating what it would take to form and cut glass in-house.

A veteran who served as an A Team member of the Army’s 5th Special Forces Group (Airborne), flew with the 18th Aviation Brigade, and built aircraft for the Task Force 160th, Short says FantomWorks’ real magicians are its 30-plus crew of professionals, handpicked for their highly developed skill sets.

The company is the subject of a reality show on Discovery’s Velocity channel, now in its third season of production. But it is FantomWorks’ dedication to quality, candor and old-fashioned customer service that keeps its roster full and the crew busy year-round.

First things first

Whether the job is simple or approaching the impossible, there’s one all-important step Short insists on before he models a drawing, touches a tool or bends a piece of metal.

“I don’t subscribe to the mindset [that] the customer is always right,” he says. “Customers walk through our doors every day with a shopping list, but rarely do they understand what it is that they really want as a final product. It’s my job to help them figure that out.” Short says he asks lots of questions and listens to what clients say and what they don’t.

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“I try to find out who they are, where they want to go with the vehicle, how fast they want to drive it, what they want to do with it,” he explains. A Chevrolet Nova SS 396 offers one example. “The engine had a knock that the owner wanted fixed,” says Short. “He also wanted the car to go faster.” 

The vehicle seemed to feel otherwise. “The car was a hodgepodge of mismatched parts,” Short says. “He didn’t need just a bigger engine. Instead we installed an integrated drivetrain system that could safely handle more power, deliver highway efficiency and perform well within the owner’s specified driving envelope. Braking and suspension were also redesigned for improved handling. We didn’t do what he told us to do. Instead we designed and built him a higher performing car that was also safer.”

Short admits his principles can cost him business. “About two-thirds of the people that walk through our doors end up telling me to pound sand,” he says. “The other one-third like the end product and tell their friends. [This approach] has been a major contributor to our success.”

With more than 80 open projects under way on any given day, Short is selective about the jobs he takes. He passes on cars from the mid-70s and later. “Changes in manufacturing methods and the liberal use of plastics and injection molded dashboards make the type of restoration we do impractical,” he says. Short prefers a challenge, thriving on solving puzzles like the 1961 International Harvester Metro van his team is converting into a custom RV.

“A construction and remodeling business owner is passing the company to his son,” says Short. “The business has done well and the father has talked a lot about traveling. The Metro van they bought years earlier was used for making deliveries. Their son called me to see if I could convert the van into an RV his parents could take on the road.”

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The pledge

When the 54-year-old Metro van arrived at the shop, a quick inspection confirmed the vehicle’s poor condition. Rust plagued the structure. The van was outfitted with 3-in. recessed pocket sliding doors and an engine that couldn’t muster more than 35 mph.

 In addition to making the vehicle travel comfortably at freeway speeds, the shopping list included modern braking authority, recessed doors flush with the body and hung with suicide hinges, power windows, and a ramp that could automatically load and unload a 600-lb. 1967 Triumph Bonneville motorcycle without any physical effort on the part of the owners. 

“These vans were not designed for comfort, speed or convenience,” says Short. “It was a huge challenge to undertake and required a major redesign of every system.”

Projects that FantomWorks undertakes also have to meet Short’s three-point rule. “My first objective is safety, then reliability,” he explains. “Finally, the vehicle has to be maintainable. This means that when I hand it off to its owner, they can take it to any reasonably good shop and have repairs made with parts that are readily available.”

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Short maps out each project in his head before drafting it on paper. “That’s where I find my first layer of problems such as space concerns and interference issues, so I try to resolve those by modeling the job in 2-D or 3-D,” he says.

What goes under the chassis is equally important. For the Metro van, Short chose an LS3 575 hp electronically fuel-injected engine and a 4L85E GM transmission based on a TH-400 configuration.

“It’s the heavy-duty big block three-speed transmission from 1970s GM products redesigned with overdrive and electronic shifting controls. It’s been strengthened and with an overdrive added [and] in use on GM’s larger passenger trucks,” he says. The crew is also using a Nodular Ford 9-in. positraction differential with rear disc brakes and a four-link suspension with an airbag-operated lift.

“It’s a very strong setup,” notes Short. “And they won’t have to step up inside the vehicle if they don’t want to. The airbag will do the lifting for them by raising or lowering the van with the push of a button on their key fob. It will have the capability to reach speeds of up to 100 mph with a noise decibel level comparable to that of a modern-day minivan.”

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The turn

Overhauling the design of the van’s chassis, using a combination of 18-gauge sheet and 1⁄8-in.-thick plate, is where the real work began. “We had to do a tremendous amount of cutting,” says Short. 

When Short reached out to several large engineering and fabrication shops for the van’s front end components, “They admitted they had never run into a job like this and basically told us we were on our own,” he says. 

One of the biggest challenges was engineering modifications for the new doors. Rotted door frames required Short’s team to re-architect them to accept a rubber seal. Carbon steel sheet in 14-, 16- and 18-gauge were used to craft 6-ft.-tall, 2.5-ft.- wide and 1.5-in.-thick doors that fit flush with the body of the van. Doublers, stringers and gussets, which were then welded into place to strengthen the doors, are made from 12-gauge steel.

When Short went shopping for suicide hinges, the size he needed didn’t exist. A throwback to the horse-drawn carriage era, the hardware hinged at the rear of the door instead of the front. A blogger for National Geographic suggested that one reason behind suicide doors’ popularity in the gangster era was because, “It’s a lot easier to shove somebody out with the wind holding the door open.” 

Short wanted smaller hinges for fit and cosmetic appearance, but he also needed them to be safe. 

“We had to design, prototype, and fabricate our own suicide hinges,” he explains. Made with waterjet cut T6 aluminum, bronze bushings, hardened steel pins and a steel cage, these pieces of hardware are “like tiny works of art and the only sets like them in the world.”

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The toughest question was how to get a tight seal when the doors close. Most cars today use a slam close system. “Even if you were to hard slam these doors you couldn’t compress that much rubber seal at one time,” Short says. “My fabrication specialist was frustrated and I was beginning to think I had a better shot at getting pregnant than engineering a system that could effectively close those doors.” FantomWorks’ solution was a slow-close system with a triple bearing twist. 

While slow closing the door, the handle is rotated. Inside the frame, rotating cams close and lock the doors down tight. Design and dimensions for the power windows are under way along with fabrication of what Short calls “the world’s first fully automatic, collapsible motorcycle ramp.”

Building a legacy

Like the suicide hinges, research confirmed there was nothing on the market close to what FantomWorks needed. “We knew the ramp had to extend 20 ft. outside the van, then automatically retract into the vehicle and collapse on itself,” he says. It also had to be weatherproof. 

Borrowing engineering ideas from some of the most advanced appliances and medical equipment, Short is fabricating an extruded telescoping aluminum track system with roller bearings. Bushing guided, the system will perform without failure for the next 50 years, Short adds.

The work done on the motorcycle ramp is a metaphor for the way he approaches each and every facet of a build, he says. “It isn’t just about getting it done with a quick solution, it’s about getting it designed, architected and fabricated in such a way that it will withstand years of use and be a legacy for each family to hand off to their descendants.” 

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About 80 percent of the design and about 50 percent of the welding and finishing for the Metro van are complete. Short hopes to finish the job in December. 

When asked what part of the process he likes best, Short is quick to say his first love is design engineering and metal fabrication. “I just hired a machinist whose sole purpose is to make dies and tooling that will be used to make parts that don’t yet exist.”

It is just as important to restore the vehicle’s history as it is to give vehicles like the Metro van function and performance. “I always want to pay homage to the artwork of men and women from the 30s, 40s, 50s and 60s,” he says. “Often production or utilitarian requirements limited what these artists were able to do. We try to figure that out and finish the dream they had by bringing back the vehicle’s hidden lines and elegant artistry.” 

Like the third act of a remarkable magic trick, Short’s “Prestige” is his ability to uncover vehicles’ secrets and give them new life, a feat worthy of applause. FFJ

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