Discovery Velocity Channel launched the reality television show “FantomWorks,” on 30 June 2013, featuring the biggest classic car restoration workshop in the US called DRS FantomWorks based in Norfolk, Virginia. It chronicled the construction, modification, and restoration projects of owner and founder Dan Short and his team. Its popularity was not limited to the US as it became the widest-delivering telecast in its world premiere in the history of the network. Despite its success through the years, with millions of viewers each season, the series wasn’t renewed for season 10.

Dan Short, the man behind FantomWorks

Daniel R. Short was born in 1962 to Louise and Alexander Short. He fell in love with cars at age five the first time he saw a 1967 Camaro, and bought his first one when he was 19. He enlisted in the US Army at 17, and for 24 years served as a member of the Special Forces Group, a test pilot, and a program manager for a design-and-build aircraft program.

Dan spent most of his free time in his garage, learning what he could about cars from books, by attending night classes, and by hanging out at auto shops. Sometime after he was discharged, he opened a restoration shop called DRS FantomWorks and began working on cars by himself in a burned-out garage. After five years, he moved his business from an obscure spot to a prime location in Hampton Boulevard in Norfolk, Virginia. It provided him with the much-needed room for the different stages of car restoration, with the goal of having a one-stop-shop, and he succeeded.

About the TV series

How did it start?

His personality and passion for cars were basically what opened the doors of television to him. Nicolas Valcour, the CEO of New Dominion Pictures, came into his shop to inquire about having his 1957 Heinkel Bubble car restored. The two talked for an hour and a half, and Dan must have captivated him as the CEO told him that they should do a TV show. For three days in 2011, a camera crew shot what they did in the shop, to create a short promotional video.

The production company vice-president for development, Peter Rees, said that they found Dan to be a natural on camera, and believed that having him as the show’s central character would make for a compelling reality TV show, and he was right. The show “FantomWorks” was picked up by Discovery, premiered in 2013, revolving around their restoration projects.

For the pilot episode, Dan’s team restored a 1963 Chevrolet Corvette, constructing the first removable split-window convertible top in the world, for a guy who wanted it as a getaway car for his wedding. They also worked on a 1931 Ford Model A Hot Rod for a customer who only had this car as his connection to a father whom he never got to know before the latter died. The first customer was filled with excitement, as he got his dream car for his special event, and the second one was emotional as it was all he had left of his dad.

The producers were not expecting them to be an overnight success, but it soon became the highest-rated show in the network, with each season having around eight million viewers. The restoration process and the stories behind the cars that they modified or brought back to life were what made people tune in every week.

The series’ popularity has been good for Dan’s shop, as it was said that their gross revenues climbed at a huge rate as most people wanted their classic cars to have the DRS FantomWorks’ touch.

As the money was coming in fast, Dan said he was investing it just as fast, so that he could do more things. His shop could design and construct cars from scratch, as they could not only assemble parts but manufacture them as well. He has a team of experts to ensure high quality in al their work. There were times his customers found the total cost of restoration to be too expensive, or more than the initial estimates, but once they saw the finished product, they all drove out of the shop saying that their money was well spent.

DRS FantomWorks’ projects

Oldest restoration project

A customer named Dave wanted to have his grandfather’s 1917 Overland Model 90 restored. Working on something that Dan described as more of a horseless carriage than a car was something he couldn’t say no to, as he owed the guy a free car restoration. Dave had owned the warehouse that housed DRS FantomWorks and Dan struck a deal with him, as he couldn’t afford to buy it at that time.

Other than the frame itself, the structure of the pre-World War I car was mostly made of wood, and had rotted away. The metal parts weren’t any better as they were rusted. What made this a nightmare to restore, according to Dan, was that it had no blueprint, and that there were no replacement parts available. They had to document every single piece when they took it apart, to serve as a template. It was like a big jigsaw puzzle with missing parts. They saved as much of the original parts as possible, replaced all the wood, and repaired the metal.

His team reconstructed or replaced all the systems in the car to get the engine running, and then installed a new interior, gave it a new coat of paint that fitted the right era, and rebuilt the top.

When Dave saw the restored Overland, he considered the debt paid, as he was amazed at the transformation, and found it unbelievably gorgeous. The two went for a ride, with Dave driving the car.

From a toy hydroplane to a full-sized one

When Dan bought the building for his shop, the equipment and tools from a boat builder’s workshop that was housed there came with it. With that in mind, a guy named Joe was hoping Dan could build him a replica of a 1953 Ferrari-powered Timossi hydroplane, that set the speed record at over 240km/h, about 150mph. He brought with him a small model, but wanted a life-sized one. Dan was excited to build what he described as the sexiest water vehicle ever built. He and the lead woodworker tested the toy hydroplane on the water to see how it ran, and from that alone, they could see that it was dangerous, as it bounced off the water and could easily flip upside down.

Image source

He had to find the plans and schematics to get it done correctly as the slightest miscalculation could cost someone’s life. Dan consulted a boat-building expert to check out the plans and the test rib that they built, to ensure they were on the right track. His team constructed the entire wooden hull and upper fiberglass structure, installed a complete drivetrain, used authentic vintage parts, and gave it a bright red paint job. The wood they used was expensive and exotic, such as Sitka spruce from Alaska, mahogany from the Philippines, and Okoume plywood from the US. They couldn’t use a Ferrari F1 motor, which cost millions of dollars, so they put in a Chevy 350 instead.

They also had to build a trailer to transport the hydroplane. Dan was the one who took it for test drive when it was finished. It took on t water the first time and it ran like a boat, instead of a hydroplane the second time, but his team fixed these issues on time. When Joe came to check it out, it ran perfectly; he said that it was the best day ever, as he rode in the jump seat with Dan the pilot. It took more than a year to construct the 1953 FantomWorks-Timossi hydroplane, and cost over $130,000.

Sole survivor of three

The president of the Hudson Club named Mike came to the shop with his 1939 Hudson 112 Coupe-Convertible, which he got from his father. Only three were built and his’ was the last one left. After an amateur restoration job 20 to 30 years previously, the owner wanted an original factory restoration that would also fit right in, if not win, at car shows.

With only a sales brochure of the car and the owner’s research work to go on, Dan and his team had to figure out what the original looked like. They documented each part of the Hudson as they disassembled it. The dashboard was welded in place, so they had to be creative in giving it a wood grain finish. The restoration process included metal fabrication, reconstruction of the engine and every system, as well as the installation of a new interior and top along with the fully restored grille. The original color of the car was called shadow green, which was actually a blue hue, and they did well in finding the exact color for the paint job.

The restored Hudson Coupe-Convertible was finished in time for the Concours d’Elegance, one of the most prestigious car shows in the US, held in Pinehurst, North Carolina. Mike found the car spectacular, and became quite emotional, wishing that his parents could have seen it.

On cancelation of “FantomWorks”

Lloyal viewers of the hit reality TV series “FantomWorks,” were understandably upset when the network announced that the ninth season that was about to premiere in December 2018 was going to be the last. Speculations arose as to why it happened, and many wondered if it had something to do with the lawsuit filed by an irate customer, or the controversy involving his non-profit program, as these issues were damaging to his reputation and that of his shop.

2012 Lawsuit

Richard and Cynthia Owens came to the shop, and brought in a 1960 Ford Thunderbird that needed extensive repairs and restoration, with the total cost of the project $40,000, assuming no other problems would crop up during a detailed inspection.

Dan suggested getting what he referred to as a donor car for the required parts, as it would be much cheaper, amounting only to ‘a few thousand dollars’ and the Owens agreed to it as, they believed it meant $2,000 to $3,000.

He then bought a 2001 Ford Crown Victoria Police Interceptor from USN Lieutenant Alexander Theiss. Although the vehicle was damaged from an accident, its engine and drivetrain, which were compatible with the Thunderbird, were intact. The Owens discovered that it was advertised on Craigslist at $2,000 but they were charged $6,000 for it, as Dan allegedly bought it at that price. He claimed that he didn’t see the ad, but was given the lieutenant’s phone number as someone had seen a ‘for sale’ sign on the interceptor’s window with the number but without an asking price.

In 2012, the couple filed a lawsuit against Dan’s company for fraud and violation of the Virginia Consumer Protection Act. Dan took possession of the car after he issued a $2,000-check to the seller, and the remaining amount was paid in cash.

Image source

The bill of sale and certificate of title proved that what he said was true and the seller testified on that as well. After two years, Dan won the case and his name was cleared.

Dubious Charity Work

‘Restoring Heroes and Hot Rods’ has been the goal of the non-profit organization Wounded Wheels, since it was founded in 2012 by Dan Short. He has empathy for the veterans who lost the use of their limbs in the service of their country, and wanted to give them the freedom and joy of driving a muscle car without assistance. As such, he and his team worked hard to design and construct paraplegic-capable cars, and were successful in creating a prototype with the 1970 Chevelle SS. In August 2012, they presented it at the Khedive Auto Shriners’ Car Show, to raise awareness and funds for the project, as well as to give hope to disabled veterans.

The Virginian-Pilot published an article in 2015 about the project, and reported that in four years, $90,000 was raised, but they still hadn’t given any car to a veteran.

Moreover, as per public tax documents, it showed that $30,000 from the money raised was paid to Dan’s shop as reimbursement for the purchase of the car and the parts used for the modifications. The president of the watchdog group CharityWatch, Daniel Borochoff, was concerned about this as well. After the article was published, Senator Mark Warner wanted the IRS to conduct an investigation regarding the matter.

It was posted on the Wounded Wheels official site that the prototype car was given to a qualified veteran in 2015, after careful selection by the Active Duty Service Member Board. In 2016, a retired US Army and Purple Heart veteran was the recipient of a 1970 Volkswagen Beetle, and a service member received a 2000 Chevrolet Camaro Z28. However, more funds were needed for the project to continue.

The real reason why the show was canceled

Dan quit the show – everything was made clear on the DRS FantomWorks official website as Dan wrote a lengthy explanation of what happened.

Back in 2017, he’d already informed his team about leaving the show, and was relieved to hear that they were onboard with that. He shared that ‘the crew’s morale has skyrocketed and the love of building cars is effervescent again’ as they were filming the last segments of the show from late December 2018 to January 2019.

Filming for a television series was stressful, as the crew had to focus on their work but be mindful that they were on camera, and so had to show and explain what they were doing. He said that their restoration projects took several months to as much as two years to finish, but they had to film each step of the process, as that was what the reality show was all about. They filmed five to six days a week, 51 weeks a year for over six years. There was increased employee turnover as some couldn’t handle all that the filming entailed, including the time commitment.

They had a demanding schedule, as the crew also worked on cars not shown on television, as they had other customers.

Dan’s business was attacked, as he said that there were ‘bloodsucking leeches trying to suck “riches” that never even existed.’ In fact, he and his wife incurred a million dollars in debt. Dan had a meeting with a senior executive of the network, and they came to the conclusion that if doing the show wasn’t working for Dan any longer, then it was time to quit. Dan said that if there was one thing he regretted about his decision, it was saying goodbye to the fans of the show. He met a lot of them as he attended Specialty Equipment Market Association (SEMA) and various car shows, and was grateful for their support.

With the camera crew gone, it was business as usual at DRS FantomWorks, as his team continued to construct, repair, restore and modify cars. All is well with his personal life. Based on his wife Melissa’s Instagram posts, they celebrated their 22nd anniversary in December 2021. Their youngest son, Zman, was accepted at the Virginia Military Institute, and joined the VMI Class of 2025.

Leave a Reply

Pin It