Maybe Building a Car

So I’ve rediscovered the homebuilt Lotus 7 style car called the Locost. I think the first time I read about this car was in the August 2006 issue of Car and Driver. I thought it was really neat back then, and I still think it is. I think this kind of car is the perfect thing for someone like me who enjoys driving and modifying cars because of its infinite customizability. Builder usually start with a basic steel space frame, plans for which can be found in several books, and then add adapt it to use just about any components they want.

The three major books on building a Locost from start to finish are:

  • The original: Ron Champion’s How to Build a Sports Car for as Little as £250.
  • How to Build a Cheap Sports Car by Keith Tanner.
  • How to Build Your Own Sports Car: On a Budget by Chris Gibbs.

They all cover similar the same basic information with very similar frame designs, but they each bring something different to the table.

I’d really like to build one of these. I’m currently employed as a car mechanic, and have been for several years, so I have the knowledge and experience to put together the mechanical pieces of the project. I don’t have much practice in metal fabrication or welding, but neither is terribly difficult to learn.

I’ve got a basic plan in my head for the drivetrain and other components that generally aren’t buildable in a garage. The engine will be from a 2003-2011 Saab 9-3 2.0T for a few reasons. First, and most importantly, being a Saab mechanic, I know a lot about the engine already. Almost as importantly, the engine has great power density; it puts out 210 horsepower and 220 ft-lbs of torque (lots more with a tune) in a fairly compact and lightweight package. Saabs are also not worth that much money anymore, so finding a cheap car to extract the engine from shouldn’t be too difficult. Conveniently, this engine should bolt right up to the AR5 5-speed manual transmission found the the Chevrolet Colorado/GMC Canyon and the Pontiac Solstice/Saturn Sky. It’s a pretty inexpensive transmission. I’m still undecided about the rear differential, other than I know I want independent rear suspension. The easiest choice would probably be the Ford 8.8″, which is found in the Explorer and should be pretty cheap and have some options for limited slip capability.

The front and rear spindles and brake calipers will probably come from a Mazda Miata because they’re really simple. The front ones just need top and bottom ball joints and tie rod ends and the rears only need top and bottom control arms. I’m thinking a Triumph TR6 steering rack should work reasonably well. Axles to join the Ford differential to the Miata hubs might be a tad tricky, but people stuff V8s into Miatas without too much trouble, so I’ll have to check out their solutions.

On the face of it, this project seems pretty doable. I’m capable of doing each thing that needs to be done. I think it’s probably similar to removing the engine from a car though. To remove an engine, in principle, all you have to do is disconnect everything from the engine that’s connected to the body of the car and the lift it out. This project has many stages which sound easy on the surface, but probably require lots of attention to small details. This kind of car would be perfect for me though. The endless customizability would mean I could have this car for going fast and tinkering with, and I could get a boring car for the daily grind and stop having to compromise.

I’ll have to get the homemade vehicle registration packet from the DMV and see what the legal requirements are for this sort of thing, but I don’t expect them to be onerous. I’ll also have to buy a few new tools and fix up my garage a bit, but new tools and an improved garage would be a good idea anyways. This has to potential to be a very rewarding project.

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