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SKILLS – Building your own car, by hand

Canadian Percy Adler has been building and racing cars since the late 1970s, but always dreamed of having a car of his own design. One that combined the fantastic engineering of one of his open-wheel race cars, but evoked the style of 1930s Grand Prix cars. Luckily, he is the man behind Adler Metal Works, and specialises in such high-end fabrication!

Percy knew that no major manufacturer would (or could) build what he wanted, so he set about creating his dream sports car, using his amazing metalworking skills. The finished product is called the Nuvolari and The Creators Online asked him to tell us how it came to be, in his own words.

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“In the early 1970s I bought a Triumph TR3 that needed a lot of metal work, so I bought a set of torches and started welding and fabricating – I totally loved the work to the point of obsession. I then bought a Formula Ford-class Lola and went racing, which prompted more metal work. That car then led to me building my first car, which was also a Formula Ford.

locust

Percy called his first creation a “Locust”, seen here racing in 1981.

“I became completely addicted to building cars and studying the various design aspects of frames, suspension design, and the like. I was hired by a shop called Ferret who built race cars and also fixed crash damage, did repairs to frames, and so on.

“I worked there for an engineer named Alec Purdy who taught me more about car building and design than I ever fully realised. Without Alec, I would have had some major gaps in my education. Another car builder named Bob McCallum was also a big influence at the time.

“In 1985 I started my own business, Adler Metal Works, doing repairs to race car parts and building headers, tanks, wings, suspension, and all the metal bits that make a race car. I also built several more formula cars for myself to race through the 1980s, and gained a tonne of design experience from doing that.

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Percy built “Henry” the aluminium-bodied  Shelby Cobra 427SC in 1996

“We started doing full restorations and recreations of various vintage cars, from the 1980s until 1996, when we decided to go into making aluminium trussing for the lighting industry. Finishing the Nuvolari was me reconnecting with the passion for car building.

wheeling

“The car is named after Tazio Nuvolari, who drove both Alfa Romeos and Auto Union Grand Prix cars in the 1930s pre-war era, and was one of the big drivers, so I thought it was a fitting name for my car. The mid-engine 1930s Auto Union Grand Prix cars were certainly a major inspiration. I love the shape and the mid-engine mechanical layout of the Auto Union cars, which were unique at the time.

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“I wanted a two seat mid-engine car that had the visual features of an older car, but the mechanical features of what I loved from the more modern single-seat race cars from my era. The design also had to be something simple I could make myself with my skillset and tools. The Nuvolrai is really a mechanical fantasy that reflects my love of vintage Grand Prix cars, open-cockpit aircraft, land speed record cars, and some really cool minimalist hot rods.

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“The design started as a spaceframe concept in the early 1990s, with a 111-inch wheelbase (2.82m). Torsional frame stiffness is a feature I consider essential as it not only improves handling, but also road manners and makes for a more solid feeling car. To solve the problem of triangulating the frame top bays, this design uses a very wide top triangle into which the driver, passenger, and engine are located, and a torsion test proved it to be a substantially stiff frame design. The shape of the Nuvolari’s frame, with the wide centre section, really defines the body shape.

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“Underneath the car, the suspension design uses tubular wishbones which are light and easy to make. One can design in whatever characteristics you want, from roll centre placement and behaviour, to camber curves, caster, and elimination of bump-steer or the like. The inboard spring/damper units also allow for better control over wheel rates and for a clean layout.

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“Powering the Nuvolari is an Alfa Romeo twin cam four-cylinder motor, which is a 1950s design and so fits the aesthetic. I like the fact it is all-aluminium and looks like a vintage race engine to my eye. I also didn’t want too much power because everything gets heavier with more power, including the speeding tickets! Behind the Alfa motor is a Volkswagen Type 1 manual transmission [a popular option for many open-wheel racing and sports cars – Ed].

engine bay

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“The body is hand-formed aluminium over a tubular aluminium space frame, like an advanced open-wheel race car. This helps keep the weight down to just 1450lb (657kg), which is vital in a sports car. Similarly, the fully independent suspension under the Nuvolari is just like a racing car, with unequal-length wishbones, rack-and-pinion steering, and pushrod-actuated in-board coilover spring/damper units.

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“Having started the chassis design in the early 1990s, the Nuvolari finally hit the road on July 20, 2016, and it is most definitely a conversation starter. I find a lot of women seem to like the car which has been a pleasant surprise. Most of the time it is a lot of fun, especially as you see people try to wrap their head around what it is as they climb out of their SUVs.

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“The Nuvolari has surpassed my expectations. Firstly, it has been wonderfully reliable to date over the 7000km it has done, with minimum issues to resolve. The stiff frame gives the car a very solid and well planted feel, the ride quality is taut, but not jarring, everything is direct and instant with a certain feeling of calm competence. It will idle on the hottest days in traffic and not overheat or misbehave – it is basically a good, solid performer.

“The whole visceral experience is the best part of driving my car. At times a pure mechanical harmony occurs where it feels like the wheels have left the ground and I’m flying low in an open-cockpit aircraft. I look up to give thanks, but I’m sure no higher power could hear me over the enthusiastic Alfa engine.

“You need to be obsessed to finish something like this. Building a car from scratch is a big project to take on for an experienced guy who has the skills and tools. It would be an even bigger task if you were trying to start from scratch with everything, or really, really expensive if you hired out a lot of the work.

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“I really don’t know how much it cost, but I don’t think it is all that much as most of the expensive bits I built myself. You need to be obsessed to finish something like this. Building a car from scratch is a big project to take on for an experienced guy who has the skills and tools. It would be an even bigger task if you were trying to start from scratch with everything, or really, really expensive if you hired out a lot of the work.

“I am constantly doing little improvements, which are mostly cosmetic. We got the seats upholstered but we might make some alterations down the road. I have been chasing body panel rattles, but that isn’t an issue with earplugs in and when you’re driving. Playing with the carburettors has been entertaining but the Weber DCOE carbs are so easy to work on it is a pleasure. And I need to keep polishing the bodywork so it gets shinier and shinier as time goes by.”

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“I don’t have any plans to make any more, although we considered the idea. It would take a big commitment to get that rolling efficiently and my current business is up to maximum capacity right now. I have thought about a front engine car with a similar set of features … but only thoughts so far.”

Our thanks must go to Percy Adler for the use of his images and his time answering our questions. If you’d like to know more about Percy, you can head to his website HERE or check out his Facebook page HERE

 

 

The Creators Online View All

G'day guys, my name is Iain but most people know me as "Marv", mainly because it is easier than explaining why my parents spelled "Ian" with two i's. I'm a journalist from Sydney, Australia who loves cars, dogs, making "things" and spinning yarns. The real thrill for me, however, is the story behind the object or person. I have a background in automotive journalism across vehicles new and old, stock, modified, and hand-built, and I love the whole process of making magazines. I am also a fan of diving into history and discovering the amazing things humans have done in the past. This blog will tell the tales of rad people who make cool stuff.

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