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Fabricating Speed

March 2013

From beauty salon owner to custom car crafter has been an interesting journey

Fran Hall, owner of Race Car Replicas, cringes when he hears someone call his vehicles kit cars. “They are not kit cars,” he says. “They’re custom-built sports cars.”

One thing is for sure, they’re fast. With the right engine set up, they can easily do well over 200 mph and a standing quarter mile at 140 mph.

Growing up in the U.K. on the Isle of Man where racing is synonymous with the location, Fran learned about cars and motorcycles as a child growing up in the pits working on his uncle’s Grand Prix motorcycles. “I ended up learning more about motorcycles and cars by osmosis than reading books,” he says.

“I’m 44 years old and have basically ridden, driven and raced something since I’ve been five years old. This replica-car business has been a dream come true for me. But as with any business dreams, they also have nightmares.

“I put myself through school, and by the time I was 21 I had three hair salons. I left my beautician business with three shops in the U.K. to come to the U.S. because of a girlfriend.

I’ve been here for 18 years. But design is design. It doesn’t matter whether you’re painting buildings or landscapes or doing hair design. You have to see the finished product before you start. Hairdressing was just a means to an end. It was a fun job and very lucrative too.”

In the U.S., Hall opened a motorcycle store in Ferndale, Mich. called the Acceleration Station with three other partners. He was the wrench, mechanic and ran the dynamometer. He then got a job at GM doing engine development. His end goal was to be on a GM racing team.

“I always wanted to work on a factory racing team and there’s no better company then GM to try this with,” he states.

After four years of doing production-based engine development, he got the opportunity to join the GM Indy racing engine development team. During this time he raced his own cars at various tracks sanctioned by the Sports Car Club of America.

Building a better car

“I’ve always loved the Ford GT 40 and I bought a kit car from the U.K. When I got it, I was so disappointed in its construction that I couldn’t bring myself to build it. This was back in the day when kit cars looked like production cars, but didn’t perform like them. But I needed a car that both looked good and drove properly. I ended up designing an aluminum monocoque chassis for it. Then, while I was at GM, I was able to ask questions of people much smarter than me to tweak the design and construction.

“Then a person saw the vehicle after it was done and wanted one. I ended up building two of them, then four of them, and it just snowballed from there. I’ve ended up building 400 cars in the last eight years,” he remarks.

Hall has two companies. Along with Race Car Replicas, he also owns Superlite Cars that builds original cars in kit form. Both companies offer a hand-built custom sports car that is produced to a turnkey minus, which means it’s wired, plumbed and painted, but without a drivetrain, because of DOT and EPA rules and regulations that prevents Hall from building complete cars. “Plus there’s the liability of building complete cars you also have to deal with,” he mentions.

Depending on the model, Hall’s cars use a monocoque aluminum body along with a tubular steel frame. They use 5052 aluminum for the frames. For machined CNC parts they use 6061 aluminum. The 5000 series of aluminum that’s used is a very weldable aluminum, mentions Hall.

“The nice thing about aluminum, because it’s malleable, is that it will give and flex without fatiguing. Everything that we weld has three weld passes on it, we have a root pass, a filler pass and a cosmetic pass. All the material we use is made in the U.S. with all the joints of our cars being TIG welded.

“All of our welders are AWS certified for aviation and mil spec welding. We use Miller’s Dynasty Series TIG welding equipment,” he remarks

Because aluminum is an excellent heat sink, Hall only puts as much heat into the chassis as necessary to prevent metal deformation or distortion, and TIG welding helps his welders control heat.

In a car’s build, there are plenty of cut sheet and tubular pieces that form the monocoque chassis. Some parts Hall builds in-house, while others he has cut using a waterjet or laser by vendors.

“We use a waterjet to cut aluminum. We feel a waterjet is quicker and more cost-effective and there is no heat distortion around the edges of the part. Our thicker aluminum parts, from 3/16 in. on up, won’t have the edge finish we need when cut with a laser. However, anything ferrous we cut with a laser using nitrogen,” he says.

Building challenges

One challenge that Hall faced at the time, was that no other company made a welded aluminum-monocoque chassis in his industry.

“When I built this type of structure, I was mocked and criticized by a lot of people who said the aluminum chassis would fail. They felt the chassis would crack and fatigue, and they wouldn’t be strong enough. I would ask the person to come out to see the car. When they did, I asked them what the airplane was made out of that they flew out on. When they found out it was aluminum, it put things in perspective,” he notes.

Every car that Hall makes has its own custom chassis. He wants to make sure that the chassis beneath the car is a reasonable representation for form and function of the original car. So a Lola chassis looks like a Lola chassis.

“It’s important from a visceral and romantic perspective that our customers get to touch and feel every part of their car when they build them as a kit to a finished vehicle. They would have a personal attachment to every part on that car. Very few people can own the original cars, but they still want to live the dream,” he says.

“We want to make sure that we have structural integrity and space, and all the things that the original cars didn’t have, because if they lived long enough to survive racing, they served their purpose and were thrown away when the next generation car came along. We have to build cars that last 50,000 miles or more on the street. Our monocoque, GT-40 chassis weighs 300 pounds with 20,000 foot-pounds per degree of torsional beam strength. We’ve had our chassis’s crash, barrel roll, hit head on and we’ve yet to see one fail,” he adds.

To build a chassis as close to the original as possible, Hall relies on friends who have original race cars that he uses to copy from.

“I would say that I’m building homage cars to these original ones. And the people who own the original cars are okay with this,” he remarks.

To build his cars, they do it the old-school way, using full-scale clay models that fiberglass molds are built from.

“It’s a long, drawn-out process, and we do it by hand. Doing it with computer-aided design is great, but there’s nothing better than running your hand down the side of a car, giving you a sensual experience and telling you if the car is going to be right,” he says.

Movie cars

Hall’s cars have even made it into the movies. He’s supplied very accurate looking Ford GT 40 cars for the “Fast Five” movie, a very unique car for “Iron Man 3” and 15 cars for another upcoming movie that will use them for stunts.

Hall builds his cars for both the novice builder and people who have a lot of mechanical skills. For their Superlite Cars, a person’s mechanical ability was been taken into account right from the very beginning, he notes.

“Our customer base could be people who might’ve just hung Christmas tree lights to aircraft mechanics. Our cars are not Lego like, but all the engineering and fabrication has been done, so to put together a car there’s primarily nuts and bolts to attach along with drilling holes and adding the engine and transmission.

We’ve built a product that is strong and safe and forms out as well, if not better, than the cars that we’re replicating underneath the body. They offer a very accurate period-correct shape on top. I do this because I can only build cars the way that I would want to buy them,” he concludes.

Race Car Replicas