It’s not very often that you meet someone who used to work in insurance but is now pushing the boundaries of advanced design and manufacturing technology.
It was during a career break that Stuart Brown, founder of 3D Engineers, decided that he no longer wanted to earn his living in risk management and decided to pursue his passion for all things automotive.
Founded in 2007, Brown’s 3D Engineers has very quickly established itself as one of the world’s leading authorities in using advanced design and manufacturing technology for the restoration of vintage and historically significant automobiles.
In doing this it has also become one of the most prolific car design firms in the industry (which we’ll explore a little later on).
“I got out of insurance and spent some of my down time buying and selling auto-memorabilia,” explains Brown. “A friend of mine phoned up who was buying an Aston Martin DB4 and happened to have a copy of the full workshop manual for every part of the car. I thought, ‘a lot of these shapes look really simple, you could do something with that in CAD’. I had never done anything with CAD before and had never done anything in engineering,” he admits.
“By that time, I’d had about eight months of living without having to get a job. As much as I was interested in CAD, I was equally as interested in business process. And the more I looked at it, the more I thought ‘this is an industry that needs a big shake up.’
“Over the next five years, I needed a halo project, so ended up working on the Bugatti Type 35 with the Bugatti Trust. That gave me a chance to learn all of the software I needed.
At the same time I went back to university in Derby and got a degree in engineering.
“Once I’d built up my skill set, I emailed out to everyone I could find in a car magazine and offered them my services.”
The first email to come back was from local car restoration expert, Andrew Mitchell of Mitchell Motors. As Brown explains, “Andy got in touch because he wanted a design revising.” But what started as a revision project ended up as a complete redesign. The end result was the Mitchell Special MKII (see below). Brown worked with Mitchell over the next few months and redesigned the car to his requirements.
Once the design was frozen, Brown then designed the buck to assist with the fabrication of the metal work. Consisting of an intricate framework of CNC-cut plywood sheets, the buck is the basis for sheet metal work.
It needs to not only describe the form of the exterior shape of the vehicle, but also to ensure that it fits with the sub-frame, powertrain and platform beneath.
It was this project that became the basis for 3DEngineers’ work in the years since. The company now engages in all manner of automotive projects.
At one end of the spectrum, its expertise in laser scanning has generated a great deal of demand. From owners of vintage and highly rare vehicles wanting to capture their cars and store the data in case of crashes or damage (they can use the scan to reconstruct the replacement components or body work to exact and holistic measurements) to museums looking to fully document their most precious of exhibits.
At the other end, the company is engaged in full design to production support, where those with sufficient funds and passion look to have their own dreams realised with a vehicle that’s as much about their own personality as it is about performance. A recent project, the Steady Special, is the perfect example.
The steady special
To celebrate the 92nd birthday of automotive writing legend, Ronald “Steady” Barker, his friends and colleagues decided to realise his dream of a special car built on a 1934 Lancia Astura chassis that had been in, then out, then back in his possession over the course of many decades.
Taking inspiration from Barker’s own design sketches from the 1950s, 3D Engineers set to work. The first task was to laser scan the rolling chassis. Next, Brown set about generating the first set of design concepts in 3D CAD.
It was here that a minor hiccup was encountered, as the original scan had not included the power plant for the final vehicle (as it wasn’t available) and it was discovered that the concepts and the pesky air intake didn’t match up.
After a further scan of the chassis with the engine in place Brown was able to develop the final concepts. Once approved, the real work began.
Brown developed the exterior surfaces for the vehicle in close collaboration with the fabrication team at Thornley Kelham to ensure that the buck was in line with their expectations and supported their craftsmen’s requirements.
The Steady Special, as it became known, was delivered in time for Barker’s 94th birthday and has been featured heavily in the automotive press since, as well as, of course, enjoyed by its owner.
While 3D Engineers’ work centres on an innate understanding of vehicle design and fabrication, particularly when it comes to vintage or bespoke design, it’s clear that Brown isn’t standing still when it comes to integrating new technology and processes into a traditional industry.
“It’s the most beautiful time ever, in terms of all the things we can do and achieve with technology — we just need to look at what’s out there and learn how to use them to our advantage,” he enthuses.
3D Engineers currently has eleven unique designs for vehicles put into production or being driven by their owners. “How many car stylists can say that they’ve designed eleven cars, with an additional 30 cars that we’ve had design input and provided production support for?” says Brown.
When asked if he sees himself as a car designer, Brown is as self-effacing as ever, “I never consider myself a car designer. I feel like I’ve turned up at this party and somehow I’m now creating designs that people like. We went to the London Classic Car Show and there were three cars there we worked on.”
That said, with the team’s mastery of reality capture, taking that wealth of data and creating new, exciting vehicles that haven’t been seen before, 3D Engineers has forged itself a reputation that few can match.
The go-to team for capturing, preserving and rebuilding automotive rarities