Winston Cup bodymen have achieved a status as practicers of some type of black magic. Part of that mystique comes from one of the bodyman's most valuable tools-the English wheel. Because it is used almost nowhere other than racing and other small-scale fabrication shops, the wheel-and how to use it properly-isn't familiar to most people. Granted, fabricating body panels by hand does require skill as a craftsman and a good amount of practice to perfect, but it is not impossible to learn. The key is finding a good teacher who can make the learning process as painless as possible.
Cal Davis is often credited with reintroducing the English wheel to Winston Cup shops in the late '80s. He was helping his son Mark build stock car bodies and built himself a wheel to aid the process. (Mark is helping us with the two-part story on hanging Late Model bodies. Part Two can also be found in this issue.) The wheel turned out to be so useful, he began building more and selling them to race teams. Robert Yates, in fact, was his first customer. Since that time, Davis estimates he has sold over 400 English wheels and now teaches classes on using one properly.
"It's not rocket science," Davis explains of the craft of metal shaping. "There's just two things you can do to sheetmetal: You can stretch it and you can shrink it. Now all you have to do is know how to stretch it in the right place and shrink it in the right place to get what you want. The English wheel is helpful because it is an easy way to stretch metal in a curve, and it's a fantastic planishing tool (a planishing tool smooths metal). You just have to be patient and keep working a piece of metal until you get what you want. If you are the kind of guy that stands in front of a microwave yelling 'Hurry up!' then this isn't for you. Move on to something else."
Davis' classes are normally three-day affairs (from Friday to Sunday to minimize time out of work) aimed at providing students a general knowledge of the entire metal-shaping process. Emphasis is put on learning by doing. Davis limits the amount of time he spends talking and tries to maximize the amount of time each student gets to spend experimenting with various tools. Students come from all walks of life and with every level of skill, and the agenda is flexible to allow each student to concentrate on his area of interest. A recent class I attended included three stock car racers, four custom motorcycle builders, and three men attempting to restore a dozen old railroad trolleys.
The English wheel is useful to stock car fabricators because it is one of the best tools available to shape compound curves. Think about the front fender: On the really nice pieces there are no simple curves; everything curves away in multiple directions to take advantage of aerodynamics and make the most of the car's shape. This isn't just a skill for high-end Winston Cup teams; anyone running steel-bodied cars can take advantage of a wheel and fabricate-or repair-their own bodies. Even a Late Model Stock racer may want to experiment with his own fenders.
An English wheel works by stretching metal between two steel wheels set up on a frame. The pressure can be varied by moving the lower wheel (known as the anvil) closer or farther away from the upper wheel. The concept is much the same as spreading dough with a rolling pin. As the pin compresses the dough, it pushes excess out in front of it. The same thing happens with a piece of sheetmetal. The wheels actually push the metal out in compression, stretching the metal. If you roll a piece of sheetmetal through an English wheel consistently in one direction, it will make it slightly longer in that direction and cause it to curve into a crescent shape. Rotate the piece of sheetmetal as you move it through the wheel, though, and you can achieve gentle arcing curves that are nearly impossible to create with any other tool.