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Special Report: Automotive

Lustrous lines

By Lynn Stanley

Above: 1933 Duesenberg Model SJ // Photo: The Petersen Automotive Museum

Unravelling the obsession behind restoring, collecting and driving Art Deco automobiles

May 2016 - Learning algorithms and context-aware software will soon transform cars into avatars with a semi-sentience that will allow the vehicle to understand and anticipate a driver’s behavior and preferences. In March, Chevrolet debuted its’ 2017 Camaro ZL1 at the New York International Auto Show. Featuring a 640 hp supercharged 6.2-liter V8, the automaker says it’s the most powerful Camaro convertible ever made. 

Fifty-seven new products were introduced at the North American International Auto Show (NAIAS) held in Detroit in January where carmakers told visitors that the most exciting developments yet are just ahead. 

But not everyone succumbs to the hype and lure of 21st century technology, convenience and horsepower. A large group of people remain devoted to the golden years of the past; their imaginations and hearts captured by the workmanship, symmetry and function of Art Deco-styled classic cars. And the fan base is growing. The Hagerty Group, a classic car insurance company, estimates there are approximately 5 million collectors in the U.S., 58 percent of whom are baby boomers. The obsession has also brought about a resurgent demand for crafts people and metalformers who know how to hand form and fabricate parts and tools for the restoration, repair and maintenance of these beauties.

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Mark Lambert, owner of Packard restoration specialist Lambert Auto in Nashville, forms a bead on a fender skirt for a 1935 Packard Twelve. In the background is a 1934 Dietrich-bodied Packard Super Eight Victoria.

Armchair enthusiasts are joining the ranks of classic car lovers through venues like Velocity, a cable channel that is dedicated to the automotive world. Programming takes viewers behind the scenes to watch the myriad steps it takes to restore vintage vehicles to their former factory-ready glory. The format has made Velocity the top-ranking network among key male demographic groups. 

The “it” factor

“Audiences came to the network because we have an unmatched formula of real, expert characters combined with entertaining stories that bring autos to life,” says Robert Scanlon, general manager of Velocity, owned by Discovery Communications. Looking to build its community of viewers its current programming is designed to “invite more people to share their deep-rooted, timeless passion for cars,” he says. Velocity’s 2015-2016 lineup lists 12 returning franchises including FantomWorks—the largest automotive restoration shop in the U.S.—and seven new series.

The Knight Frank Luxury Investment Index reported that, in the last decade, individuals have turned to buying classic cars as an alternative to conventional investments (stocks and bonds, art and precious metals), raising the value of these sought after vehicles by nearly 500 percent. While that may speak volumes about the expanding interest in Art Deco cars, these statistics don’t shed much light on the intangibles—like that elusive “it factor” that keeps people riveted. 

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Lambert drives a 1929 Packard 645 Dietrich Phaeton.

Apart from the Internet, museums are also contributing to the exposure of these cars to the general public. Ellen Jones Pryor, director of communications for the Nashville, Tennessee Frist Center for the Visual Arts, recalls visitors’ reactions to a Frist exhibit in 2013: Sensuous Steel: Art Deco Automobiles.

“The vision of the Frist Center is to help people look at the world around them in new and different ways,” she says. “The Sensuous Steel show, for many people, reframed these beautiful automobiles in a way that emphasized the importance of great design and style as well as function. Cars are such familiar objects to us that we’ve become desensitized. The exhibit re-introduced people to an artful approach that helped build this country economically,” she continues. “I can’t tell you how many visitors came up to me afterward and said, ‘Why are cars so plain now? Why do they all seem to look alike?’ People are still talking about this show three years later.”

Tumultuous times

Tucked between world wars Art Deco two-door coupes and roadsters—with their sweeping curves, elongated hoods, round headlights, subtle details and miles of gleaming chrome—represented hope and optimism to people looking for diversion from the dark curtain of the Great Depression and a decade of drought in the Plains states that displaced 2.5 million people by 1940. 

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A Hudson 112 Coupe Convertible is the lone survivor of three ever produced.

“The 1920s, 1930s and 1940s were dynamic years in terms of fashion, architecture and economics,” says Mark Lambert, owner of Lambert Auto, a restoration and repair shop in Nashville, Tennessee. “These factors influenced automotive manufacturing and helped to produce what I consider some of the most visually exciting and refined designs of the 20th century.” 

Lambert is an expert in Packard motorcars and has owned several. His customers want cars that will give them an authentic experience but at the same time “they recognize what a rolling piece of sculpture—a work of art—each of these cars is. 

“You could buy a painting and enjoy it but few art objects are as fun to use,” he adds.

When it comes to restoration Lambert says he takes a different approach. “My goal is to save as much of the original forming and fabricating work as I can in a way that is honest because it deserves to be saved,” he says. “We tend to forget these cars were service vehicles intended for transportation. Many of the people who helped produce these cars had a coach building background. They were experts at shaping steel around ash and oak frames. What was for them common workaday forming and fabricating is considered art today because the skill sets they used are so special.” 

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1932 Ford Roadster—the original hot rod.

Lambert, who grew up in Indianapolis— renowned for auto racing—says that more than a century of automotive developments have narrowed the scope of experience for the average person. “For example, the push to develop safety features really ramped up in the 1970s, placing restrictions on the choices designers could make,” he says, “and it’s one reason people feel cars look alike.” 

The trend to shift greater driving responsibility to the vehicle via technology has bred an element of contempt toward safety among a large population of car owners, he suggests. “I believe drivers today are less capable and courteous than they were 30 or 40 years ago.” 

Logging 20,000 to 30,000 miles a year in 1930s cars, the firsthand experience keeps Lambert in tune with how these vehicles should feel, sound and handle. “Restoration is my hobby but it’s also my job.”

Aside from their visual impact and intrinsic value, these cars can be made to function the way they did when they rolled off the assembly line. “My Lexus let me down a few weeks ago so when my wife and I had to take a little road trip I drove the Packard instead because it’s dependable. For us it isn’t just a collector’s piece. It’s a second car.”

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FantomWorks built this English Wheel to fabricate hoods and fenders for classic cars.

Symphony of skills

Another a stickler for authenticity, Dan Short (profile below) spends 350 days a year, orchestrating restoration jobs that achieve the impossible balance between honoring the car’s original workmanship and serving the need for functionality. The owner of Norfolk, Virginia-based DRS Automotive FantomWorks, Short’s key function is bringing together people who are passionate about the craft. “It’s much like being a symphony conductor: I get to build and engineer but I’m not the brass section, the woodwind section or first chair violinist. It’s the men and women in my shop that help execute my vision and use their unique skill sets to build incredible things.”

FantomWorks’ converted brick, wood and steel pre-war linen cleaning facility has more than 60,000 sq. ft. of manufacturing space and houses a foundry, R&D lab, casting, machining and milling of wood, aluminum, steel, plastics and composites all working along with powder coating and painting. Departments organized by discipline include trim work, interior, electrical, engine, carburetor, transmission, differential rebuilds and other restoration disciplines. 

With a full project roster and another season on Velocity channel, achieving the metal miracles these restoration projects require also takes Short’s ‘can-do’ attitude and a repertoire of tools that aren’t in production anymore. Sometimes project completion also means swimming against the tide of popular opinion. 

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Hand-crafted details and luxurious finishes like the rich interior of this 1939 Bugatti Atalante were characteristic of Art Deco automobiles.

With a restoration project underway on a Shelby GT350/500, Short wanted to follow original factory specifications. That meant using leading instead of body filler (modern polyester fillers). The laborious process requires heat shrinking the metal, hammering out any damage and then melting lead into the dents and seams. “It’s very painstaking,” says Short. “Lead doesn’t like to bond to steel. Our lead fabricator said it couldn’t be done. My approach is to try it before you say it can’t be done.”

Although fewer than 50 people in the United States possess the skill, Short—a novice—grabbed a propane torch and went to work. “I’ve never leaded a vehicle before,” Short says. “It took me four hours but when the panel was done it looked like it did in the factory 50 years ago. [It] worked magnificently. Sometimes in life there really are ‘nos’ but I like to show people the possibilities.”

FantomWorks has yet to come across a part it can’t find, restore or fabricate. Short has a special affinity for pre-World War I cars but has handled his share of Art Deco vehicles, including a job to restore a 1939 Hudson 112 Coupe Convertible. Only three of these cars were manufactured. Each vehicle in its own way, tells a story about the artisans who worked on them.

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FantomWorks restores a 1939 Hudson 112 Coupe Convertible.

 “It’s like taking a trip back in time when you disassemble a pre-World War I or post-World War I car,” he says. “You can literally see the hammer strikes a craftsman applied to shape the metal. It’s important to use the same techniques to restore a classic properly. That requires tools that are no longer in production. “Just to maintain these tools we have to create parts like bushings, bearings and sleeves to keep everything running like it should,” Short continues. “We’re constantly asking ourselves, ‘How do I create the things I need to keep these old tools alive? We recently finished fabrication of a huge English wheel with a 40-in. throat. To get an English wheel this large we had to build it. We’ll use this to manufacture hoods and fenders for classics.”

FantomWorks has also fabricated more than a linear mile of hand-crafted wooden shelving to hold its’ collection of 100-year-old tools, spare parts and other items. “We don’t just build cars and car parts,” explains Short. “We’re recreating a world that existed in America 100 years ago. A customer recently remarked, ‘This doesn’t look like a garage, it feels like a museum.’ That’s the ambiance I’ve always envisioned for FantomWorks.”

Whether enthusiastic observer, collector or restoration expert, explaining the “it factor” that continues to draw people to these stunning pieces of history on wheels remains a mystery. And perhaps that is the magic of it. FFJ

//

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Indefatigable

[ profile ] - The word “can’t” is an expletive in Dan Short’s vocabulary. “Set unattainable goals and kill yourself to obtain them,” he says. “That’s the way I’ve lived my life.”

He thrives on tackling the seemingly impossible restoration challenges that roll through FantomWorks’ doors on a daily basis, but credits his tenacity to his 25 years of service in the Army as a member of the 5th Special Forces Group (Airborne), HALO, Strategic Recon and SCUBA teams. The former Green Beret also flew in the 18th Aviation Brigade, then as maintenance test pilot in AH-64 Apaches and went on to build aircraft for the Task Force 160th.

Short’s ability to dream up and develop both tools and parts for antique cars, planes, boats and miscellaneous Americana goes back even further to his love of mathematics. The combination of attitude, math skills and imagination has proved a formidable force that has helped propel his restoration shop into the largest of its kind in the United States.

Short studied trigonometry, geometry, physics, calculus and statistics at the high school, college and graduate education levels. “An understanding of engineering has to stem from a fundamental grasp of math and physics,” he says. Equally compelling to him were chemistry, biochemistry and biology.

He drew “strong correlations between the human body and the inner workings of a car. Both have a circulatory system. In a human body it’s blood. A car’s cooling system is the radiator and engine galleries. The body cools itself by evaporation of moisture through sweat glands. Newer vehicles have an integrated nervous system not incredibly different from that of a human being.”

Military service allowed Short to put knowledge into practice. “Building weapon systems, test flying, SCUBA diving and using closed circuit rebreathers to exit from aircraft and submarines exposed me to learning opportunities that stretched the boundaries of what I thought I could do,” he recalls. “My last assignment as an aviation program manager helped me apply science and technology to the design, build and use of engines, machines and structures.”

Responsible for new aircraft builds, Short learned to be a “seat of the pants” design engineer, a skill that allowed him to make changes to the aircraft to improve the end product. “If we needed to make a modification I embraced the opportunity to sketch ideas and work with other engineers and architects. That was the best part of the job.”

Today his multifaceted approach to research and development, fabrication and restoration plays out on the shop floor and on cable TV in the company’s reality show FantomWorks. But without his crew of craftsmen, metalworkers and artisans, FantomWorks wouldn’t exist. “I’m not the builder of all the cars,” he says. “I use my imagination to bring everyone together. It’s their skill sets that bring those ideas to life. Without them I’d just be another guy with a lot of dreams.”

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