Do-it-yourself car building needs to make a comeback

The Detroit bailout: it ain't over, don't be surprised
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As a car guy, I am not looking forward to the new year. I know we can expect plenty of CARnage (horrible pun) stemming from the economic slowdown that will kill off plenty of high-horsepower, low-volume fun cars. I also know the worst is not over yet. Gas prices will rise, emissions regulations will tighten, and car companies will look to sell the same car internationally. All this adds up to smaller cars with smaller engines, but there is hope.

We are on a crash course with mundane sedans, and car enthusiasts will not take this lying down. We can’t fight this in the conventional way of dropping a big engine into whatever car we feel like because soon the big engines won’t be so easy to get. It’s time for a new solution. In my never-wrong crystal ball (no guarantees), I see the return of great kit cars.

Before going any further, I want to define the kit cars I’m thinking about. Unfortunately kit cars in the United States are usually synonymous with turning Fieros into Ferraris (remember the Audi R8 made from a Ford Probe?) These are not the ones I’m thinking about. My thoughts are about the great European tradition of using everyday car parts to create a small and light racer.

“To add speed, add lightness” was to motto of one of the most successful kit makers, Colin Chapman, founder of Lotus. There’s plenty of fat to be cut because today’s cars are heavy. The masses want creature comforts and safety features; two standards real drivers are willing to relax for a great car.

There will always be the simpler route of just modifying existing components on current cars, but that’s no fun. A real kit means weekends and late nights spent in a garage building a custom machine for one purpose, driving pleasure.

The timing is right because there is a new generation of enthusiasts out there who got their first taste of automotive passion watching the Fast and the Furious. The next generation of fanboys grew up with tuned cars and won’t be satisfied with doing the same level of customization that was done by their older siblings or possibly parents. For them a do-it-yourself job goes beyond just turbocharging and reprogramming a Japanese engine. They are going to take it one step further. Gone will be the useless massive rear spoiler, in its place will be a whole new car body.

Instead of adding parts to a Volkswagen Golf/Rabbit or Honda Civic, the next generation could buy cheap but good car and strip out the unnecessary bulk. Instead of adding wide fenders and ground effects, the whole body gets the axe and replaced with a sleek two-seat open top roadster. New companies will form to build fiberglass bodies to replace the old sedans, and because its fiberglass, it can easily be modified by the end user. It’s the ultimate form of customization.

Kit cars are far from perfect. If a donor car is used, metalwork will be needed to reinforce the frame because the body is an integral part of modern car’s structure, and disassembling sensitive technology such as air bag sensors will be tough. Even when it’s all done, the cars still have to pass safety tests that usually consist of checking for adequate brakes and seat belts. Finally once the car is deemed roadworthy, there are always problems with fit and finish not being up to production standards. But all this can be forgiven for one reason: you are a driver, and you escaped the status quo.

What do you think?
Show Comments


Myles_Kornblatt  (169) posted on 12.29.2008

Damn right.

Myles_Kornblatt  (45) posted on 12.29.2008

what you should be able to do is buy certain parts of a car from different companies, imagine all the dream cars you could make...

Myles_Kornblatt  (169) posted on 12.29.2008

I’m hoping the kit car idea goes beyond just the hot rodders. My point is that hopefully some of these upcoming import tuners who grew up swinging wrenches already know more that the previous generation. They’ll want to make their own mark on the world; and in a world of smaller engines, hopefully they’ll realize that it doesn’t just take turbochargers, but also lightweight to be the fastest. So rather than just add a few carbon fiber parts, they’ll realize that replacing the whole body with a fiberglass (with possibly some carbon fiber mixed in because they love that stuff) will make their rides a lot quicker.

If a group like the import tuners start demanding whole new bodies for their cars, then the industry could make a full comeback. A few brave companies may even build complete cars on their own. Lotus was born in a similar way.

I know it’s a longshot, but it’s what keeps me hopeful when fun/quick cars are beginning to look endangered.

P.S. You’re right about the difficulty about registering a kit car. The manufacturing of vehicles is a much tougher regulation in California. Personal kit car registration isn’t easy, but the high school kids tinkering in their garages can still figure it out. If full safety testing becomes mandatory, that’s another story.

Myles_Kornblatt  (10) posted on 12.29.2008

I would have to respectfully disagree with the notion that kit cars will make a resergance. It might happen for a short time but as they say "As California goes, so goes the nation." Always increasing restrictions on kit car registration in Cali will spread to the rest of the states. Plus with all the young guys already jumping on the small car tuner bandwagon and the hotradders getting old, it won’t be long before there isn’t anybody who can build a car in their garage.

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