Ken Imhoff, home DIYer, hand fabricates a replica of '82 Lamborghini Countach in his basement using a Miller Syncrowave® 250 TIG welder. Taking inspiration from his skillful father and the movie Cannonball Run, Imhoff built his dream over the course of 17-years and shares some welding advice he learned along the way.
When it comes to the DIY spirit, some people just can't be held back by anything. Take Ken Imhoff of Eagle, Wis., a 52-year old manufacturing engineer turned shop fabricator currently welding for United Tool in Milwaukee. It's not his day job however, that has earned him online recognition from Ebay as a super member; it's the fact that over the course of 17-years, he scoured the internet for parts, welded late into the night and built a replica '82 Lamborghini Countach in his basement.
Taking on a project of this scale isn't anything drastically new for Imhoff, who grew up helping his father fabricate performance cars from scratch. Living in England, where his father served in the air force, they worked together building his first car from scratch: a '50s Model D Jaguar. The inspiration took root in Ken who, only a child at the time, knew that someday he would build a car of his own.
The inspiration finally came while watching the movie Cannonball Run, where Imhoff saw his first Lamborghini Countach. Before even knowing what the car was, he fell in love with its shape and design, deciding it was the car he was going to build from scratch.
What Goes in Must Come Out
From the very beginning, Imhoff, being an engineer, planned to build his dream car in the basement of his house and then release it to the world through the basement wall.
"I liked the fact that I could come downstairs, work for 15 minutes at a time and not have to wait for a heater to get going," comments Imhoff. "My wife liked that she could flick the lights, signaling to me it was time for dinner."
Imhoff learned a lesson from his father, who struggled on his own projects, battling with the bitter cold winters common to southeast Wisconsin. Winter was naturally a better time for planning because heating a garage every winter over the course of the 10-year project would have been too expensive, and they didn't want to park their daily drivers outside. The options were to save fabrication for more comfortable temperatures, or find a more convenient location. With the approval of a contractor and support of his family, the basement served as that alternative. Every part and material that went into the car was brought in through the house and assembled downstairs.
So How Does a Lamborghini Get Built in A Basement?
Start with the right tools. Surprisingly, one doesn't need every tool found on a manufacturing assembly line to build your own car from scratch. Most of the time, the fabrication techniques required are well within the reach of imaginations and limited budgets. Simply be resourceful and start with a good base of power and hand tools. Imhoff recommends a good TIG welder for bead appearance, an English wheel to form complex curves in sheet metal, a 24-in. hand brake or 4' pan brake press, 5-in. wheel belt sander for de-burring and shaping, saber saw, shot bag and body hammers, shrinking and expanding tools, dollies, T-handles, straight edges and profile gauges. But Imhoff says the most important tool might be found in your recycling bin.
"If you're going to build a car from scratch, you'll need a lot of cardboard and a lot of clear packing tape," says Imhoff who found that the cardboard was critical to achieving accurate measurements prior to cutting out the actual parts. "I was very critical of how my seams were so that I didn't have big open gaps. I found out early on working with aluminum that your gaps and how you tack weld are important. I believe that there are some things that simply must be TIG welded, such as stainless exhaust tubing, MIG is fine for production and it's faster, but there's nothing you can't TIG if you have the time."
|The body of Imhoff's Countach is built out of aluminum-a lot of aluminum-all welded with his Miller Syncrowave® 250 TIG welder, purchased back in 1991.
Fabricating and shaping the body took the most time. He shaped the 5052, .060-in.-thick aluminum on a "buck", or full-scale 3-dimensional wooden frame of the car. It resembled an airframe with sectional pieces of plywood spaced 12 inches apart.
His measurements for this form came from two resources. A high-end, 1:12 scale model that was mounted to a plate and probed with a CMM machine provided accurate measurements every 12 inches. He also briefly gained access to a real car. Over the course of an hour lunch break at a dealership, a friend helped Imhoff take the measurements needed to put together the relationships of various parts and spaces. All this data was translated to the measurements used for the buck. Ironically, Lamborghini also fabricated its first car using a wooden frame.
Pride in Welding Begins with Quality Equipment
"When it comes to TIG welding, I want it to look nice. It's my signature," says Imhoff. "To me, when I lay a weld on a part that I am being paid to produce, I find joy and reward in laying down that pretty stack of dimes."
The Syncrowave 250 has traditionally been recognized for its arc quality and welding characteristics, and is favored by many, including Imhoff. It features a 5- to 310-amp output range with a 40-percent duty cycle rating at 250 amps. Like all Syncrowave machines, its squarewave balance control permits tailoring the arc for more cleaning action to remove heavy oxide layers or more penetration on thicker material. The increase in control was important for fabricating the thin aluminum body of the Lamborghini.
Because of his power limitations, Imhoff prefers to use an arc balance setting of 1.5. This setting lowers the power draw to keep the breakers from popping and he claims that this is his sweet spot for almost everything he's welded, no matter what material he's worked on. "Simply set it and forget it."
Note that the design of Miller's newer TIG models, such as the DiversionTM 165 and Dynasty® 200, are built with inverter-based technology, which provides DIYers with a more consistent welding arc while using less energy. The Diversion 165 is specifically designed for personal users and offers a simplified operator interface.
During arc starts Imhoff buries the pedal if the material is cold. Once the puddle is established, he'll feather the pedal back to maintain the heat without blowing through, especially near edges and corners. While doing a fillet weld in a deep corner, he'll extend his tungsten out and bury the pedal to quickly get the puddle going.
The Trouble with Aluminum
From the seat of his comfortable yet functional dentist's chair, Imhoff swiveled around to fondly recall welding some of the most fun and challenging parts. The car's iconic doors, which open vertically, are 100-percent aluminum to minimize weight. Controlling warpage was an early issue for Imhoff, who struggled with welding the skin to the many severe angles of the doorframe. The 3/16-in. aluminum that formed the windshield post was troublesome during welding because the alignment had to match the roofline. The exterior fillet welds came easily as they washed into the joint, but the welds on the inside proved more difficult.
"Weld distortion just played havoc with me," recalls Imhoff. "I would just get it to where I could mount and close the door, then I had to start all over to get the right fit... it can make you sick."
For long welds that lead to warpage, Imhoff recommends not welding too much at one time, moving around and allowing enough time for cooling.
Imhoff found that his TIG welding sweet spot was in fabricating the stainless steel exhaust tubes referred to as the bundle of snakes leading into the Ford GT40 exhaust used on his car.
"The tubing-to-tubing fit up was simple. I love stainless; it's really the premier metal to work with for me," says Imhoff. "I like the rainbow colors that you get out of it and the fact that you are not rushed when working with it. Go at your own pace as long as you have enough heat in it."
Countless hours went into perfecting the form and alignment of the skin and numerous gaps before going for paint. These pictures show the Lamborghini before and after paint.
With the body panels complete, it was time to turn his attention to the wheels. Imhoff relied on the help of a machinist friend. Together they built the custom wheels, starting with a 2-in. thick piece of aluminum T6 billet to form the center sections. BBS rim shells and ARP fasteners bolted the two pieces together for a custom yet authentic look.
The only "original" Lamborghini parts not fabricated by Imhoff consisted of the emblems, directional turn signals, front windshield and rear taillights. Great pride and satisfaction came from knowing that he perfected his replica.
Unleashing the Bull
When the time came in 2008 to punch out of the basement, Imhoff was filled with both anticipation and anxiety. He welded together a skid with wheels that allowed for easy maneuverability of the Countach in the tight proximities within his basement. It also provided a place for the excavator to hook a strap up to for removal. Borrowing blankets from all his neighbors to protect the car, the entire removal only took 1½-hours. The bull was set free.
To celebrate, Imhoff, at his daughter's request, took her to the first day of school in the Lamborghini Countach, quite a sight to see among the sea of SUVs and minivans, plus it sure beats taking the bus.
Engine: 351 Ford Cleveland, bored and stroked with 48IDA down draft Webbers
Power: 515 HP
Transmission: ZF transaxle 5-speed taken from a Pantera
Aluminum radiators with 2400cfm puller fans
Headers: Ford GT40, 180 deg., custom designed
Suspension: custom, adjustable steel tube and rod ends with coil over shocks
Wheels: custom billet w/BBS rims, ARP fasteners
Brakes: 4 piston Wilwood calipers on 12 in. rotors.
Sidebar: Ken Imhoff's Aluminum Fabrication Tips
Having built a Lamborghini Countach 100 percent by hand in his basement, Imhoff learned a few tips that are good to know for any metal fabricator or DIYer working with aluminum.
- Do a few practice tacks on scrap aluminum before working on your project
- Do a through job at removing the oxidation with dedicated stainless steel brushes before welding; don't take shortcuts to save time.
- Get in the most co mfortable position you can, moving the piece if possible.
- Keep your gaps minimal - use a saber saw to cut close to a precision mark, but tighten the edge up on a belt sander.
- To get perfectly a-symmetrical parts, work in pairs. Cut out and shape two of everything at the same time then check the shape and alignment on the wooden frame or buck.
- Move around while welding thin material, allowing time for the part to cool will minimize weld distortion. Lots of small tack welds will also help.
- Keep your tungsten out of the puddle!