- Created: 2017-09-04
Retired Canadian military officer uses his personal shop for highly technical replica car projects
by Jimmy Myers, senior editor
Whether it’s a worker in a high-volume fab shop or a hobbyist toiling with metal in their tricked-out garage – many find they are similar in that they were brought up as tinkerers, fascinated with designing, engineering and building things.
Such is the case with David Saulnier, a retired Canadian military officer who spent his 22 years of service as an aerospace engineer before taking on serious projects in his garage.
Saulnier, a resident of Nova Scotia who was brought up in Montreal, got the fix-it bug early after receiving a childhood gift of a Tinkertoy Construction Set.
“Those are the things that get a young kid’s brain going and working and trying to figure out how to build something,” he says.
The curiosity stayed with him, and by the end of high school, he was ready for the next step, which turned out to be a fairly significant one. Saulnier enrolled in the aerospace engineering program at the Royal Military College of Canada, the Canadian equivalent of West Point, where admission standards are strict.
Graduating as a second lieutenant, he bounced around Canada to a different location every three years or so (the Canadian military likes to have well-rounded officers, says Saulnier), but his focus was always on airplanes.
From responsibilities for the care and maintenance of aircraft engine test facilities to being the weapons systems manager and aircraft engineer for four aircraft, Saulnier had several roles.
Building transmission parts required the assistance of a CNC lathe. Going off of drawings from Saulnier, the machinist programmed the path the lathe would take to build a custom flywheel.
While aircraft were his bread and butter, automobiles have been Saulnier’s passion since he was a teenager. He recalls being awestruck by the beauty of a red Lamborghini Countach after seeing it in a glossy poster, and it just “snowballed from there,” he says.
In the early 1990s, Saulnier began working on his own cars, not so much as a hobby, but because he was “tired of being ‘hosed’ by auto mechanics, being told I needed a $600 brake job,” he explains. “So I started learning how to do my own auto maintenance.”
The Northstar engine for the Ferrari F355 was an automatic, but Saulnier wanted to drop in a six speed manual instead. To do so, he had to engineer the parts, including this flywheel.
Now, 13 years retired from the military after reaching the rank of major, the list of tools Saulnier has acquired has grown steadily since he took up working on cars in his large garage/warehouse where he also stores automobiles for clients during the brutal Nova Scotia winter months.
A 12-ton hydraulic press, MIG welder, shrinker/stretcher machine and English wheel get regular use. As a volunteer at the Greenwood Military Aviation Museum, he also has access to a 48-in. shear and 48-in. box brake.
One of Saulnier’s first large projects was fueled by fuel injection – he knew nothing about it. So, he bought a Chevy small block 305 TPI fuel-injected engine from a scrap yard, took it apart and rebuilt it.
From 1992 to 1996, still active in the military, Saulnier built his first car kit over nights and weekends – a Ferrari 308, the car made famous, if not for its own design, because it was featured on television’s “Magnum P.I.”
The pressure plate on this custom-built transmission weighs in at 11.62 lbs.
A complex project
All these tools, including his air compressor and air tools, have been important given the number of hours he’s spent on his most ambitious project – a Ferrari F355 replica, which began in 2009 and has since grown into a labor of love in which he’s invested more than 3,600 hours.
Saulnier’s documented a great deal of the project on his blog at bloozeown.weebly.com. He refers to it as his “build diary,” which essentially got its start on a car forum where he was an avid poster. As the project grew in size, he felt it deserved its own blog.
Ferrari produced the F355 from the mid to late 1990s with various models of the F355 featured in music videos and a number of motion pictures.
“The Ferrari F355 replica has definitely been the most challenging project I have ever done,” says Saulnier, who has completed five ground-up car restorations. “It’s definitely the one I’m most proud of.”
Part of the reason this project is so complex is that he’s dropping a Cadillac Northstar engine into it. The Northstar engine is considered Cadillac’s most technically complex 90-degree V engine, and Saulnier estimates that only a handful of people in North America have installed a Northstar 32 valve, four cam engine into a mid-engine car, such as the Ferrari. Those who have done it have had to use a hacked version of Corvette’s computer to make it work.
It’s made even more difficult by the fact that the Northstar is an automatic, but Saulnier is installing a six-speed manual transmission, which means he has to farm out some mill and lathe work to local shops. For instance, a lathe was used to build a custom flywheel, which Saulnier designed.
“That’s high precision work,” says Saulnier of various parts, including custom axles, “so I had to outsource it.”
As one might imagine, when you tally up the hours and all the parts that go into a project like this, a Ferrari enthusiast could pick up a used F355 perhaps at less cost.
“People often tell me, ‘you could just buy a 355 with the amount of money and time you’re sinking into this?’,” Saulnier says. “My response is, ‘it’s not about the destination, it’s about the journey getting there.’ I enjoy the challenge of trying to come up with something unique and learning something new. When I mention the cost factor, people usually don’t realize how much it costs to own and operate a Ferrari.”
Saulnier’s aerospace engineering background didn’t directly impact his current project, which he says is about three-quarters finished. However, the discipline, planning, dedication, patience and attention to detail he acquired while in the military did.
“The hands-on stuff is mostly learned by watching others and learning through osmosis, I guess you could say,” Saulnier claims. “There isn’t a whole lot of technology that transfers over from aircraft maintenance to building cars.”
Tackling a turret
It’s not all car restorations with Saulnier – he also took on a unique WWII-era airplane project that got plenty of press from newspapers in his area.
With so many years of experience with aircraft, it’s only natural that Saulnier would volunteer at the local military aviation museum in nearby Greenwood. In the 1970s, the museum was gifted an Avro Lancaster, a WWII-era bomber that was used in the European theater.
It was retrofitted after the war and used as an artic patrol and reconnaissance aircraft, which means all the features that made it useful for fighting a war were taken out, including the gun turret on the nose. Museum volunteers decided they wanted to restore it to its wartime glory, and one of the biggest projects was putting the turret back into it.
“We did a number of searches for nose turrets for Lancasters and they weren’t available,” Saulnier says. “Rather than put some type of fake dome on it, I offered to try my hand at replicating it.”
Saulnier dedicated six hours a week over a two-year period, nailing every detail of the turret. The work was almost exclusively done at the museum using the large shear, the box break and the shrinker/stretcher machine. While almost everything was riveted on airplanes during the Lancaster’s era, Saulnier said he had to invest some time in welding complex shapes together to make a reasonable facsimile of the original.
To follow Saulnier as he finishes the final 25 percent of his Ferrari project, go to his blog at bloozeown.weebly.com.