Stretching, shrinking, smoothing – renowned coachbuilder Brian Tanti moulds metal for exquisite classic car restorations.
By Tony Davis
It’s called an English wheel and, back when most car bodies were shaped by hand, it was at the very heart of the art. How a coachbuilder ‘played’ this large, entirely manual instrument was the difference between a clumsy form and the elegant and almost perfectly smooth curves found on, say, a pre-war Delahaye or Bugatti Atlantic.
For those still building bespoke bodies, the English wheel remains the ultimate coachbuilder’s tool. Brian Tanti proves it almost every day as he works sheets of aluminium back and forth through its opposed wheels, sometimes focused on one sheet for hours at a time.
“There are only two things you can do to metal, shrink it or stretch it, and there are only two shapes: convex and concave,” the acclaimed Australian coachbuilder says. “Once you understand the dynamics of the material you are working with, there is nothing you can’t make. It is understanding where you need to stretch and where you need to shrink.”
The top wheel is flat and acts like a hammer, the interchangeable lower wheel or ‘anvil’ acts like a dolly – the curved metal tool that panel beaters hit against to shape metal. If you overwork something, you can only throw it away. If you get it right, a panel comes up with a mirror finish and all manner of complex curves. But it’s a black art and, even after decades “at the wheel”, Tanti believes he still has plenty of room for improvement. Those who have seen his work are usually inclined to disagree.
Tanti does agree that all his experience – he’s now 56 – brings its advantages. “The beauty of getting old is the better relationship between the picture you have in your mind’s eye and producing that picture. It becomes a little easier.” He finds the exacting process of “adding sweep to a panel” with an English wheel to be therapeutic. “You get into a rhythm, you don’t like to be disturbed. In the back of your mind is always what you are trying to achieve.”
Tanti was born in Malta and came to Australia as a child. He went to school in Melbourne, never quite fitting in with the scholarly life, losing himself in the workshop at night. He built bikes, billy carts, anything with wheels, anything that was extravagant in form, beautiful. He left school at the first opportunity for a panel-beating apprenticeship and was soon restoring classic Rolls-Royces in the UK. He worked on Ferraris back in Australia – then spent almost 30 years with trucking magnate and keen car collector Lindsay Fox.
“When I joined Lindsay, he had about 130 cars with the net value of almost $9 million,” Tanti says. “Now that’s tied up in almost one car.”
That car is Fox’s mid-1950s Porsche 550 Spyder, which Tanti meticulously restored over three years in the early ’90s. Fox also has a Mercedes 540K and other exceptionally sought-after machines. Tanti eventually became head of the Fox Collection Classic Car Museum, managing the cars and workshop, hosting events. “That was a lot of fun, working with school groups, developing education programs, doing corporate functions.”
Now Tanti is trying to pull together everything he enjoyed about that job with a new life (and a new love) in Sydney.
He walks us around Brian Tanti’s Workshop (briantantisworkshop.com), the new car-building and events centre he has created over three floors in Artarmon, north of the Sydney CBD. With his large soft hands, blackened with oil and grit, he points out the different projects he is working on. There’s the restoration of a 1966 Alfa Romeo Spider Duetto and, to the right, a very rusty Harley Earl dream car. It’s a befinned 1954 Buick Skylark and it will take up to 4000 hours to bring it to the condition Tanti desires. There’s also a “beach cruiser” e-bike he is creating with a renowned Australian car designer. Judging by the sketches and work so far, the final product will be exquisite.
Most ambitiously of all, Tanti is creating from scratch four Porsche 550 Spyders, just like the original he restored. “Americans call them ‘tribute’ cars. I just tell people they’re nut-and-bolt faithful copies of the genuine car. It’s a completely transparent process – I post online so people know what I’m doing.”
The attention to detail is extraordinary – as is the fidelity to the original. Tanti’s copy picks up the curvaceous convertible’s small flaws as well as its ample virtues.
“You have to curb your instinct to make it better,” he says.
Taking a sheet of metal and turning it into something ready for the paint shop can take four weeks, and there are many, many panels even on a small Porsche Spyder, plus complicated chassis and mechanical work. “I’m hoping that I can get a car finished in about a year and a half. It might be a little bit longer.”
Tanti takes a craftsman’s pride in every tiny detail. Parts of his e-bike are milled from aviation-standard, 6000 series aluminium alloy billet, and are as much sculpture as working components.
“When you look at something that’s been handmade, there is a difference in the overall fit and finish of it. You can’t necessarily pick what it is [or] track how much time has been spent in it, but there’s an element that speaks to you. That’s something I’ve always been passionate about.”