Brian Tanti's hand-built Porsche 550 Spyder recreations

By: Steve Nally - Words & Photos

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Brian Tanti's Porsche 550 Spyder reproductions will be better than the originals

When we last caught up with Brian Tanti he had begun an ambitious new project to hand-build exact reproductions of the rare Porsche 550 Spyder sports car, constructing them the way Porsche would have done in the 1950s.

A lot has happened for the master coach builder and restorer since then. After 30 years at the Fox Museum in Melbourne, where he won worldwide acclaim for his ground-up restorations of Mercedes-Benz 300SLs (and a 550 Spyder, incidentally), he relocated to Sydney and set up Brian Tanti’s workshop, a place to work full-time on his own projects like the 550 and hold functions for enthusiasts and car clubs. But first a quick recap.

R:\Web\WebTeam\Mary\Motoring\UC 436\tanti\tanti-porsche-500-spyder-recreation-3.jpgThe steel exoskeleton wraps tightly over the 3D wooden buck

Porsche made only 90 of the lightweight 550 Spyders from 1953-56 and surviving cars command millions at auction today. Owners, particularly those who want to race their cars, are increasingly mothballing their precious originals and racing faithful reproductions instead. And that’s where Tanti comes in. Six years ago he got hold of scale drawings of a 1955 550 Spyder from legendary US restorer Joe Cavaglieri (he does Jerry Seinfeld’s cars) and a replica chassis with a fibreglass body, also from the US, and that got the ball rolling.

"Joe’s the four-cam guru in the US and has done many Spyders, including restoring 550-001, and he was very complimentary of the 550 I built for the Fox Museum years ago," Tanti says. "He scanned a 550 and from that maths data he gave me 300 drawings and we’ve been deciphering the build from them, which was an exercise in itself."

| Reader Resto: Porsche RSK 718

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Tanti ditched the ‘glass body, instead planning to hand-form aluminium body panels just like Porsche coach builder Karosserie Wendler would have. To do that properly, though, he needed an exact wooden buck of the body on which to form the parts.

He called in a trusted craftsman, Mark O’Brien, a modeller and pattern maker who has sculpted models for Holden show cars and even the interior on the Bugatti Veyron. After working part-time on it for five years, O’Brien finally finished the completed the 1:1 scale buck this year. It’s a masterpiece of precision in itself, made from kiln-dried hardwood, Melamine and Jelutong, a soft wood from Indonesia that’s very easy to shape.

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"The buck is a three-dimensional point of reference for shaping the metal," Tanti explains. "Mark is used to working at very tight tolerances and the buck is very accurate to the [two-tonne steel] Demmeler welding table. Mark and I have gone to a lot of trouble to produce a really good quality product. There’s still probably the best part of 1500 hours work to go to shape panels to the point where they are ready for paint and assembly."

When Unique Cars visited, Tanti had yet to start making panels but he had almost completed fabrication of the unusual steel exoskeleton that wraps around the wooden buck. He says the complex jigsaw will help streamline production of future 550s with millimetre-perfect precision.

R:\Web\WebTeam\Mary\Motoring\UC 436\tanti\brian-tanti-workshop-2.jpgIt's not all about Porsche at Brian's place

"The Spyder has a very simple ladder frame but a lot of the sheet metal attaches to the chassis creating part of the primary structure of the car. It’s almost like a hybrid monocoque – half chassis and half monocoque, and you have an unusual situation where the inner wheel arches, firewalls, and A-pillars are all fully seam-welded in place.

"When I built the Fox 550, there was a lot of downtime in fitting the inner wheel arches on the outer skin and every time I took guards off after I’d rolled or moved an edge, it changed somewhere else, so I’d have to refit the guards and make sure it was square. The exoskeleton will help with all these primary structure parts. It’s made from milled,10-mm square, solid bar that shapes very easily on my old-fashioned blacksmith’s swaging block.

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"The data of the buck to the Demmeler table is accurate to within 0.5mm and utilising that data and the matrix of the table allows me to create this exoskeleton and lock that into a pre-determined length on the chassis, zeroed at the centre of the front wheel. I can take the buck out, suspend the wire frame on a series of gantries at the current height on the table, slip the chassis in, and build everything from the chassis out to that skin – building from the inside out. I can lock the firewall to the table, for example, and know that once it’s in line with the frame it’s where it needs to be."

Precision engineering is a hallmark of Tanti’s restorations and his attention to detail on this project has had an almost religious zeal. The chassis he bought from the US wasn’t quite up to scratch and apart from the relatively easy job of converting it to left-hand drive, work was needed to meet Tanti’s criteria.

R:\Web\WebTeam\Mary\Motoring\UC 436\tanti\tanti porsche 500 spyder recreation.jpgMillimetre perfect in every way

"I’ve had to make a few other modifications to some parts and to the suspension to make it factory. I also bought some [extra] chassis tubes from America but when I put them on the Demmeler, they were incorrect. The table tells you where it’s right or wrong so I had to re-bend them. Factory chassis were fabricated from mild steel but to modernise it a little I’ve used the same 80mm diameter tube in chrome-moly. It looks and measures the same but it’s stronger and a little lighter. It’s also stiffer so the centre of mass doesn’t change and you’re not going to get body roll.

"I’ve also recreated things from factory drawings like the butterfly brackets that bolt to the firewall, with the original rivet holes in exactly the same locations; that’s the level of detail I’ve gone to. The pedals were supplied but they were slightly incorrect so I laser cut new ones which will be cad-plated. All the finishes will be as they were in 1955. We’re also using 3D printing to prototype parts, so we’re using modern technology as well as traditional methods to build the car."

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Whoever buys the first Tanti 550 Spyder will only have to add an engine and transmission, but not just any old air-cooled VW four, Tanti smiles.

"The person who buys this car may already have a genuine 550 that they’ve decided to put in a museum but still wants to enjoy one on the track. They will want the same level of authenticity [as the body] and they can buy a genuine four-cam motor for around $500,000 and Crosthwaite and Gardiner in England build four-cam copies for about 130,000 Euros."

R:\Web\WebTeam\Mary\Motoring\UC 436\tanti\brian-tanti-workshop-5.jpgNo CAD here – hand tools rule, OK?

This project has consumed Tanti’s life on and off for six years, at times a burden but always a passion, and the next time we check in with him it will be finally be complete.

"It’s like restoring a genuine car," he shrugs. "The only way you can know all of this is by having built one. It’s one thing to make a polished aluminium body, most coach builders can do that, but it’s another thing to understand the way the manufacturer made it and build into it the digital data and form originally created by the manufacturer; we call that building in the ‘cultural information’ of the car.

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"The real test for a so-called replica is when you park it next to a genuine car and someone that knows both cars, and not just from photos, can’t pick the difference. That’s the perspective I’m taking with this build."

IT'S HAMMER TIME

When Brian Tanti bought an incomplete pre-WWII Parx 49/00 power hammer from a local munitions factory almost 30 years ago, he never imagined one like it could have been used to fabricate original Spyder bodies. Now, thanks to some great detective work he knows that his hammer is not just the only 49/00 in Australia but the exact model used to make Spyder bodies.

"Someone saw it in the background of a photo on social media and contacted me," Tanti said, smiling. "He had just bought one and had been in contact with Olaf Deitz, the grandson of the original owner of the German company that made them. He offered me the drawings to make the (missing) lower arms and I jumped at that. I made the arm and Leussink Engineering made me the upright and we recommissioned the machine.

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"I contacted Olaf and he told me some of these hammers, they didn’t make many, were sold in the Reutlingen area of Germany where Karosserie Wendler, which made the Spyder bodies, was based. I now have a copy of a German receipt showing my 49/00 was delivered to a company called Ferrocast Pty Ltd in Little Bourke Street, Melbourne, in 1953 and the same machines were delivered to Wendler in early 1954.

"The hammer is slightly faster to work with than the English wheel which I’m more used to, but it’s more of a cultural difference. The wheel machine was developed in the UK but on the Continent, they used power hammers. So using the power hammer gives the Spyder project another layer of authenticity, which is fantastic. I was almost ready to get rid of it."

A WEB OF INTRIGUE

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Since we first visited Tanti he has painstakingly completed the exoskeleton (or frame, seen here in red) and bolted it to the finished and now yellow gantry (also fabricated by Brian) using 50 hand-made brackets, called ‘stringers’ most of which are different lengths.

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With the gantry bolted to the Demmeler table, the assembly guarantees the Spyder’s body will be accurate to within millimetres when completed. International experts following the build on Tanti’s social media pages and coach building forums have described this complex old-school method – used by design giants like Pininfarina to make one-off cars – as 'next level'.

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From now on the process speeds up as Tanti begins shaping aluminium into the complex curves of the body panels on the wooden buck then ‘fits them up’ under the frame in their exact positions. The scalloped panel in the bottom right image is the rear (engine) firewall – the scallops are for the seats – which Brian formed from one piece of aluminium. It’s called art.

R:\Web\WebTeam\Mary\Motoring\UC 436\tanti\brian-tanti-workshop-7.jpgExoskeleton and gantry combination

Unique Cars will cover the next phase of the Tanti’s 550 Spyder project, but in the meantime you can follow the build at www.briantantisworkshop.com

 

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