For years, classic car restoration shows have been one of the most-watched on television, one of which that stood out was “FantomWorks”, featuring Dan Short and his Virginia-based auto shop. His company took pride in providing superior quality craftsmanship with their slogan, ‘We make cars better than the day they rolled out.’ The American reality series produced by New Dominion Pictures developed a cult following its premier on 30 June 2013 on Discovery’s Velocity Channel. It was canceled by the network after nine seasons when Dan decided to quit.

Meet the owner of FantomWorks garage

Daniel R. Short was born in 1962 to Alexander and Louise Short. Reportedly, his birthplace was at Cold Lake Air Force base in Alberta, Canada, where his father had served as a WWII Lancaster Bomber crew. It was said that he lived there through the ‘60s although his father had often been on assignment in the US due to his knowledge in computer programming.

He fell in love with a 1967 Camaro when he first saw it – he was only five at that time, and began tinkering with cars when he was 15 or 16. He served in the US Army for 24 years, enlisting in 1979 and was deployed a lot like a Green Beret. After eight years, he became a test pilot on the Apache helicopter, and his remaining eight years were spent as the assistant project manager for the MH-60 Program said to be the special ops variant of the Black Hawk helicopter.

He was 19 when he bought his first car, a’67 Camaro, and with a budget of less than $500, he began to restore it. His interest in classic cars continued through his career in the military, and he worked on them whenever possible. He showed up on duty with grease under his fingernails, and it became somewhat of an issue particularly during the time when he worked with medicine. Dan hung out in auto shops and assisted in the work there for free, just so he could observe and learn about all things automotive.

He read every book he could get his hands on about building engines, and took night lessons to learn about paint and bodywork.

After he was honorably discharged from the army, he pursued his passion for constructing and restoring antique cars, establishing DRS FantomWorks in 2006, starting with just himself in a burned-down garage. Later on, when he needed a bigger space, he acquired an industrial building along Hampton Boulevard in Norfolk, Virginia, that was almost a century-old, and had housed the National Linen Co; he believed that the steel girders and brick with a wood ceiling provided the perfect atmosphere for old cars. His goal had been to build a shop that runs with military precision, but he didn’t get that as his team had way too much fun restoring cars, but they were all professionals.

DRS FantomWorks has become a one-stop-shop for automotive restoration, modification, and maintenance, also restoring classic aircraft and watercraft. With their RestoWorks Division, they restored Americana such as antique appliances, neon signs, antique electronics, and coin-operated pieces of machinery.

They were into manufacturing parts and assembling them too. Dan had sunk everything he owned into this business, and never lost sight of that as he said, ‘If this company fails, I fail.’ It has since become the biggest restoration shop in the US.

He and his wife, Melissa, whom he met in military grad school, set down roots in Norfolk, as this was the place they could be together, with him in the army and her in the Navy. Dan’s last assignment was here, and Melissa was a Navy Commander at Little Creek. She eventually worked in the business as the shop’s HR Manager.

“FantomWorks” TV series

In 2011, Nicolas Valcour, the owner and CEO of New Dominion Pictures in Suffolk, came into his shop as he wanted to have his 1957 Heinkel bubble car restored. Whether it was a set-up or not, Dan wasn’t sure, but after nearly two hours of talking about the project, Nicolas said, ‘That’s it. We got to do a show here,’ and tried to persuade him. Dan turned him down many times before he was able to be convinced that it was the right thing to do.

A camera crew came to film his team for three days for a 90-second sizzle reel. Peter Rees, the company’s vice president for development, and “Mythbusters” creator, knew he had a winner in Dan and DRS FantomWorks. As the central character in the reality TV show, the production couldn’t have found a guy more natural and comfortable in front of the camera, as Dan didn’t self-edit. They were hoping that his personality, his work intensity, and the restoration projects would make a winning combination that they could sell to a TV network, and they were right.

Pilot episode

A 1963 Chevrolet Corvette was brought in for restoration. James, the owner, didn’t intend for it to become a showpiece, but he wanted it to have a split-window convertible top, which was a first in the world, and he needed it to be ready in two months for his wedding as the drive-away car. Dan said that he didn’t normally work with deadlines but he didn’t want to turn down working on the most beautiful car ever made.

It cost over $10,000 more than the initial estimate of $50,000 but James was satisfied with the restoration done to his car. Dan had said that the bride was beautiful but he believed that the Corvette stole the show.

A client named Bill came in with a 1931 Ford Model A Hot Rod. His father had it for about 40 years, and had done a lot of work in it before he passed away. Bill took over as an internet mechanic, but realized some stuff that needed doing was way over his head. He never got to know his father, and the car was the only thing he had of him. Dan was ready to turn down the project, because he knew that the job was going to be more difficult as a result of the initial work done by the father and then the son, but he didn’t have the heart to say no as he was made aware of what this car meant. With a limited budget of $20,000 to work with, Dan’s priority was to make the car safe, and it also needed an engine, a transmission, and a custom-built radiator.

When he saw the restored car, Bill was quite emotional as he couldn’t have imagined it any better and said, ‘My dad would be so happy with this.’ He could picture his dad sitting on the driver’s seat asking him to go for a drive.

Best restoration projects

1965 Chevy C10 Pickup

Warren wanted Dan to restore a 1965 Chevy C10 black pick-up for his teenage daughter, Nikita. When she watched the movie “Twilight,” she fell in love with the red beat-up 1963 Chevrolet C-10 that Bella, the main character, received from her father. After doing research, she found her dream truck in a 1965 Chevrolet short-bed pick-up truck, and worked hard to get it. Dan said that it was a big responsibility for a 16-year-old, but Warren assured him that his daughter was sensible. The FantomWorks team did a frame-off restoration of every major and minor system on the vehicle; Warren said that the look on Nikita’s face as soon as she saw the restored pickup in a fresh coat of metallic teal blue paint with ghost flames was priceless, and was glad that he was there to share this moment with her.

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Seeing the emotional impact on his client made Dan feel good, that they had done all the right things.

1957 Heinkel Kabine

Lisa Renee brought in a 1957 Heinkel Kabine pink car for a full restoration. It was originally designed to mimic an aircraft, but intended for affordable personal transportation, and was taxed, licensed, and insured as a motorcycle. Around 6,000 were constructed, but only a few dozen remained. The three-wheeled car was in bad shape as it had been ‘frankensteined’ together with parts from a scooter. Dan had to go to Europe to get the original parts, and found them at a restoration show in Birmingham. He didn’t quite know how to classify the bubble car, but said that it was the most beautiful little thing they had ever worked on at the shop. They spent a year reconstructing what was available, while researching for parts that were missing. It cost $12,000 in parts and $32,000 in labor, but it was well worth it to Lisa when she saw it restored, and given a two-tone blue and white paint job that looked just perfect; she said that riding inside it was very special, and couldn’t believe how much fun it was.

1968 Ford Mustang Fastback

Niccos was the owner of a 1968 Ford Mustang Fastback – the restoration project was put on hold for five years. He was back at the shop wanting one that was made famous by Steve McQueen in the iconic car chase from the neo-noir film “Bullitt,” and the “Eleanor” that was featured in the movie “Gone in 60 Seconds.” He ultimately left the design to Dan with the idea of combining the best Mustangs in the world to create a ‘Super Mustang.’ However, Niccos had some medical issues, and had no choice but to suspend the project again. Dan showed it to Donnie, a customer who came in to check on his ’65 Riviera restoration, as he knew that the guy had been looking for something like this for quite some time – Donnie then bought it from Niccos. When it was finished, Dan said that it was the finest thing they had ever built, as the Mustang Fastback had morphed into an all-steel masterpiece complete with high-performance chassis components, a coyote engine, and of course an excellent paint job; it also had a hint of a ’63 Corvette built into it in the form of a spine that runs down the center.

Donnie was thrilled when he saw that ‘it was one spectacular gorgeous car’, and made him feel like a teenager again.

1926 Velie

Father and son Lowell and Joe, were the co-owners of a 1926 Velie, which they brought in for restoration. The old man said that he had not fired it up for over four decades, but wanted it to be a legacy that he could leave to his son. Joe said that the restoration project was for his father, and he wanted to give him one last chance to drive the car. Dan looked forward to restoring a pre-war car, as he knew that it was going to be quite a challenge since it had no manual. Seeing the classic car brought to life made Lowell emotional, as he fell in love with it again, and said that it had never looked this good. Joe said it was worth every penny they spent on this.

What happened to “FantomWorks”

Wounded Wheels controversy

Wounded Wheels was founded by Dan in 2012, for the American heroes who had lost the use of their limbs while serving their country.

The non-profit program aimed to construct paraplegic-capable classic cars so that they could operate without assistance, giving them back a sense of freedom, as they were all about restoring heroes and hot rods; the 1970 Chevelle was the prototype for this project. His team put a ramp and a floor drop system to get the wheelchair into the car, as well as a hand control system for the brakes and accelerator. The unveiling of the prototype at a car show when it was finished was well-received by the veterans, as they felt hope and excitement that they had a chance to drive a muscle car despite their disabilities.

In 2015, it was reported in an article that Wounded Wheels had raised $90,000, but had yet to give any modified muscle car to a disabled veteran, although they were accepting applications so they could give away the 1970 Chevelle. It was also said that over $30,000 was taken from the donations to reimburse the shop for the purchase of the car and the parts. After the article was published, Senator Mark Warner called for an IRS investigation.

According to the official website of Wounded Wheels, they still lacked funds to construct one unit, but decided to put the prototype to good use and gave it to a qualified veteran chosen by the Active Duty Service Member Board in 2015. They had since given away a 1970 Volkswagen Beetle, and 2000 Chevrolet Camaro Z28. It was explained that the funds collected were used to pay for the materials used while the labor and overhead expenses were shouldered by the founder. They also claimed that the story that put them in a negative light was written after they stopped advertising in the publication.

Lawsuit against DRS FantomWorks

In 2012, the Owens couple from Virginia Beach bought a 1960 Thunderbird, but it needed a lot of work so they brought it to FantomWorks for extensive repairs and restoration; the estimated cost of the project was $40,000.

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Dan bought a crashed police interceptor from US Navy Lieutenant Alexander Thiess to use the parts that were still intact, and paid $6,000 for it, then charged the Owens $7,500 based on the 25% markup for parts. All was well until the couple demanded an accounting of the funds that were spent on the car, and then later sued DRS FantomWorks and Dan for fraud under the Consumer Protection Act. They alleged that Dan overcharged them as the seller put the interceptor for sale on Craigslist for $2,000. The seller admitted that it was the original price before he sold it to DRS for $6,000.  At the end of the trial, the jury ruled in favor of the defendants.

Dan quit the show

After the network officially announced the cancelation of “FantomWorks,” Dan wrote an explanation on his website in December 2018. He shared the difficulties of filming for the show five days a week, 51 weeks a year, such as the crew dealing with the camera and sound equipment, while working as well as doing retakes and make-overs.

Restoring cars took months and sometimes years as they waited for parts to arrive, and tackled several projects at once; his team also worked on cars that were not featured on the show, as it was a real auto shop. They have had 11 directors, and most of them said it was the most difficult series to shoot as the camera crew filmed the whole process, although they could only show the highlights. For some, it became a stressful environment, and resulted in an increased turnover of employees. They also had to deal with ‘attacks’ on the business, and with the customers who were upset for not being reimbursed for the expenses they incurred.

Dan shared that he was unable to be with his father during his final weeks, due to the filming schedule. He and his wife had acquired a debt of close to a million dollars to keep the production going, although he didn’t elaborate on that. After he had a talk with the network executives, they concluded that ‘it’s time to call it done.’

DRS FantomWorks is still open for business.

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