Hot rod enthusiast restores vintage cars, finds balance between past and present
November 7, 2011
Joshua Shaw describes himself as half archaeologist and half fabricator. Those qualities come in handy when he's restoring vintage Sprint race cars, which can provide a number of historical and fabrication and welding challenges. To do it right requires patience and flexible welding equipment.
When restoring a vintage Sprint car, Joshua Shaw describes himself as half archaeologist and half fabricator. Highly driven by maintaining authenticity, Shaw would rather search for an original part or make one from scratch rather than buy new.
At just 34 years old, Shaw already has amassed serious credentials as a gearhead, metalworker, welder, artist, and pinstriper. As a driver, he won three dirt track championships before retiring. He’s also an avid artist who regularly creates concept drawings of hot rods for shops around the nation; he lends his services to Zakira’s Garage, a Cincinnati shop renowned for restoring or re-creating multimillion-dollar vintage cars; and he is the owner of his own shop in Cincinnati, Shaw Hot Rods, a business that he opened when he was 24.
Welding and motorsports run in the Shaw family. His grandfather was a welder and fabricator for General Electric. One of his earliest memories is of his grandfather teaching him how to weld. His father Dan is known for his pinstriping and painting abilities.
“We’ve always been involved with Sprint cars and open-wheel racing cars. We race and we were just always around them growing up,” Shaw explained.
Born from events held on county fair horse tracks following World War I, 20-lap Sprint car races were developed as an alternative to the longer IndyCar races. Even non-racing fans recognize drivers who used Sprint car racing as a stepping-stone to fame, such as A.J. Foyt, Mario Andretti, Johnny Rutherford, Parnelli Jones, and Al Unser Jr.
To this day racing has a loyal following of all ages. The drivers are hoisted upon pedestals for their fearlessness, while the cars themselves are seen by many as time capsules, offering a visual reminder of racing’s evolution from past to present.
Shaw is well-respected for his encyclopedic knowledge of Sprint car history. That knowledge is put to use daily in his shop, where he specializes in restoring vintage Sprint cars.
One of Shaw’s noteworthy projects is his restoration of the No. 23 Hart/Jones Sprint car, which features a 327-cubic-inch, alcohol-injected, 650-HP Chevrolet engine (see Figure 1). The car was originally hand-built and welded by Ron Hart in the winter of 1965. Hart followed an existing blueprint for an A.J. Watson Sprint car, which raced successfully until 1970, at which time the United States Auto Club (USAC) mandated roll cages. Hart was a holdout, Shaw explained. He refused to weld an ugly cage on his beautiful blue Sprinter.
“[After his death] I made sure all of his cars found good homes with owners that would treat them right and preserve them the way they should be,” Shaw said.
Shaw’s knack for restoring vintage cars took off roughly three years ago when he built a street-legal Sprint car for his father’s Christmas present. The buzz generated from that project brought in two more similar requests. Shortly thereafter more requests came pouring in.
“Since that date three years ago, I have done nothing but vintage race cars. It worked out perfect. I had just finished up two big hot rod projects and I was getting ready to build a hot rod for myself to sell. The Sprint cars took off and, long story short, I still have not built myself a hot rod,” Shaw said with a laugh.
The demand for restored Sprint cars is relatively small, but the number of shops that specialize in the practice is even smaller. Shaw estimated that roughly five to 10 shops in the country specialize in vintage Sprint car restoration. For many race fans, these cars are the sport’s Holy Grail and a collector’s dream.
“A lot of fans of Sprint car racing and open-wheel racing, it seems like when they get older it’s their goal to own an old vintage race car. These guys are just into race cars and they want prestigious race cars that did something in history, and they like to have them,” Shaw explained.
Shaw gives them that and more. For those who don’t already have a car that needs restoring, Shaw offers the Shaw Special, a 1940s replica Sprinter available for those who want their own street-legal Sprint car. Back in the day, he explained, Sprint car owners put their initial on the front bumper. The Shaw Special continues this tradition, making the bumper a work of art. Shaw uses ½-in.-dia. solid round stock for the letter. Where two pieces of stock come together for the mounting plate, he uses gas metal arc welding (GMAW) to build up the pieces to form it into a teardrop-shaped tab.
Welding plays a critical role in repairing or fabricating chassis. Classic Sprint car enthusiasts like Shaw research the welding history of older chassis to find out if joints were welded in a specific order,whether the welder jumped around to try and disperse the heat, and whether the welds were made with the oxyacetylene process or by gas tungsten arc welding (GTAW).
Shaw noted that a lot of Sprint cars are built in two halves on a flat table. They are then stood upright to have the crossbars welded in. He’s always wondering if this is the best way to do it, or if another method would work better.
“That kind of research fascinates me. We’re chasing heat around [the chassis] and it teaches us things. A good fabricator pays attention to things like that.”
Restoring vintage cars that are 20, 30, and sometimes 40 years old can present a plethora of challenges from a fabricating and welding standpoint. But even before the restoration process begins, a great deal of research is necessary to ensure that any and all work preserves the integrity of the car.
“It’s got to be right. The value of the car changes whether it’s done correctly or not. There’s a lot of old-timers that are still around, and when they take a look at it, they don’t hold back on what they think you did wrong. They’ll call it out right in front of everyone.”
Also, when dealing with cars that at one time had been raced—and sometimes crashed—he must redo the repair and maintenance work that had been performed on the car over its lifetime. Sometimes the craftsmanship and weld quality are good. Other times they are not.
“We have to study the welds and figure out which ones were factory and which ones were laid down later. The other side of that is sometimes you’ll run into repairs that look great. You have to question if we should just leave it alone or if we should go back and do it again the way the original guy did it.”
On some of the older cars, Shaw will find the original weld was made with oxyacetylene, or gas welding.
“The purists in us want to match that, but from a safety standpoint we don’t. So we’ll TIG weld it and do it the right way, but we can make the welds look like a gas weld and look old.”
As a result, the restoration process demands multiple welding processes. For example, Shaw chooses GMAW for joining solid barstock used for the bumpers and nerf bars, mild steel C-channels, floor pans, firewalls, and spot welding applications. He uses GTAW to join the chrome-moly chassis tubing (see Figure 2).
“[GTAW] provides the heat control required to preserve chrome-moly’s mechanical properties, and many sanctioning bodies dictate using the GTAW process.”
To perform all of these processes can require the fab shop to make a significant financial investment to obtain multiple welding units or an industrial multiprocess welding power source. However, Shaw recently acquired a new welding tool: the industry’s first integrated multiprocess machine designed for motorsports fabrication.
Thermadyne’s Thermal Arc® Fabricator 181i, a 3-in-1 power source, provides 10 to 180 amps of GMAW power and 10 to 175 amps for DC GTAW and stick welding. The unit weighs 32.2 lbs. and incorporates advanced inverter technology.
“I’ve used a lot of welding machines—all the big names in the industry. The 3-in-1 machine was excellent. It was very smooth. One of the things I did was play with the arc starts. Basically, I mimicked a spot weld. In the past I’ve had welders where the arc fumbles around, almost like the metal’s not clean. With the 3-in-1 machine, as soon as the wire would hit the workpiece, the arc would start cleanly. I’ve chopped the tops of cars that are solid rust. When I go to weld on something I can see light through, I need a machine with crisp and clean arc starts.”
Shaw said that the Lift TIG arc starts are equally crisp, and that the arc gives him the stability required for critical welds.
“I weld the frame from end-to-end. While the guy next to me can be a great welder, he welds differently than I do. With race cars, we’re back to handling. I want uniformity on all the welds, and I want peace of mind. If I welded it, I know it’s good. My body is in it, and at 100 MPH, I know it’s going to be safe.”