It’s the Achilles’ heel of every car restoration, whether you are a casual enthusiast restoring a 70’s Mustang or a professional readying a Mercedes 300SL Gullwing to show at Concours: that hard-to-find part that you have been searching for—for years—with no success.
While using new, old-stock parts is the gold standard for restoration, that is often not possible when only 30 parts were ever made… in the 1920’s. Genuine second-hand parts may be of varying quality. A master craftsman may be able to produce a part that looks like the original, but this can be an expensive and time-consuming endeavor. 3D printing can be a compelling solution.
The idea of 3D printing spare parts for classic car restorations is not new – Porsche Classic made a splash several years ago when it announced it was using 3D printing to recreate parts for classic car collectors. However, advancing technology means it’s being done more effectively than ever before. As we announced this week, comedian Jay Leno is actively using Stratasys 3D printing to create a digital inventory for his own car collection, and now there are even 3D printing startups replacing traditional fabricators for creating aftermarket parts for the high-end car restoration market.
So, what’s changing? First, materials development has come a long way in the last decade, and there are options available that perform far beyond what ASA and ABS plastic can provide. If you need rigidity, look to carbon fiber-filled nylon. If you need heat and chemical tolerance, there’s Antero 800NA, which is a PEKK-based thermoplastic. Small manufacturers are using aluminum and steel to print carburetor parts. High-performance wishbones are even being printed in titanium.
Second, the tools to create CAD, 3D scanning tools, have advanced massively. Meticulously measuring every dimension will never produce an adequate CAD drawing of a hand-crafted part. But when you can 3D scan at 50,000 points per second at a resolution of 160,000 dots per inch, you can create 3D models of parts that capture every discernable detail. Along with an understanding of “Design for Additive Manufacturing,” engineers today not only create parts that are almost indistinguishable from the originals, but redesign them for higher performance.
Jay Leno, well-known as a lover of classic cars, owns 200 cars and 150 motorcycles valued at more than $50 million. He describes 3D printing as integral to his operation and a viable option for sourcing parts that are either extremely rare or simply no longer exist. He’s used 3D printing to create a timing belt cover for his 1960’s Pontiac Firebird. For his 1934 Rolls-Royce Merlin 12, his team created a set of valve cover breather tubes and carburetor spacers using 3D printing that would have been extremely difficult for all but the most masterful craftsmen to make. When he added a 7-liter Roush V8 engine to his 1966 Ford Galaxie 500, his engineering team used the design freedoms of 3D printing to create a new air intake plenum that provided a better fit and more air flow while not having to change the stock hood appearance.
Low volume manufacturing was identified by Stratasys’ consulting group, Blueprint, as one of the six business drivers of 3D printing. In particular, low-volume spare parts is a use case that is being discovered across industries. It’s exciting that the technology is finally in a place where it can deliver for car enthusiasts and provide a path to get that “unobtanium” part they have been searching for.
And as any car enthusiast will tell you, finding that last piece of the puzzle is invaluable; it’s where the satisfaction, pride, and, yes, money is. Whether that last part is the difference between an incomplete restoration and showing the car at Concours, or simply a father passing his first car onto the next generation, 3D printing provides an avenue to realize the dream of getting your classics out of the garage and onto the road.