Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Radiator, ho!

So now that I've even Stevens on my donor, I've taken the liberty of purchasing a few required components for the build.

I've been putting together a list of important components I think I'll need to properly design the frame. This is based on common sense (like needing suspension uprights and the engine), as well as some things I've learned from reading endlessly about locost construction.

The radiator is a perfect example of the latter. I've seen several builders struggle to fit the radiator in the nose after the frame has been built. I want to get this part into CAD to make sure I'm not wrestling with modifying the radiator after the fact.

This particular unit is rather ubiquitous in the locost world. It's an aftermarket unit for a 5th gen Honda Civic. For some reason, the geniuses at Honda decided to equip their cars with a teensy little radiator.

The good news is that it fits handily in a locost nose cone, is rather inexpensive, and is available all over the internet. I guess there's some factory in China cranking out oversized units, because nearly every one on eBay is a "racing" radiator. That's eBay for cheap, but with aluminum end tanks and a 2" thick core instead of the bone stock 5/8" thick core. The welds look beautiful until you look closer and realize that they spray painted the radiator to make it look like a master fabricated it.

I intend to use the factory mounting studs for installation. Even if it ends up being a lemon, I'll still be able to use a high quality OEM unit or an aftermarket race-quality (no quotation marks) unit as a drop-in replacement.

The inlets are just over 1.25" in diameter and the outlets on my 1.8L engine are just under 1.25". I'm hoping that that means I'll be able to use regular radiator hoses for the connection. It's not a big deal, just a nice coincidence.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Santa came early this year

I bought myself an early Christmas present in the form of a brand spankin' new 2 ton engine hoist. This is by far the manliest tool I own. It weighs about 200 pounds and goes together with bolts larger than anything I've got tools for. Thank goodness for adjustable wrenches, or else I'd have had to run to Sears to get something to assemble it with!

I got a screaming deal on it. Northern Tool had it on sale the day after Thanksgiving for $160 or so, which is what they're going for on CraigsList used. I've reached the point in the teardown where the engine is about to come out so the timing is perfect.

I also ponied up for the folding version to save garage space, and I got the larger 2-ton unit because several Locosters said the extra reach is worth the money. The engine in the Seven sits pretty far behind the front axle (technically making it a mid-engine car), and the smaller 1-ton hoist requires some hairy manuvering to get the engine in and out.

Besides, when I asked the sales guy his opinion, he said "you should always buy more tool than you think you'll need." It's hard to argue with that logic!

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Shedding excess baggage

This makes me want to never buy a car with AC and power steering ever again.

Just look at this pile! The components I've removed from the engine probably weigh 40 lbs. This stuff is completely unnecessary for the Spartan, and I'm thrilled to be tossing them into the "sell" pile. The bracket for the AC compressor (foreground) is a huge block of iron that must weigh 10 lbs on its own!

In any case, it makes me happy to be able to see the engine without all that excess baggage. It's starting to look more like a lean, killer sports car mill. Meanwhile, the engine compartment is getting more and more bare. Good stuff!

The interior is much better. I've completely gutted it with the exception of the pedals and all of the wiring. Speaking of excess baggage, I think I'll really enjoy removing the estimated 40 lbs. of excess wiring from the harness before it goes into the Spartan.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

This is what a free Miata looks like

It's not very pretty, but it sure is easy on the wallet. I've put quite a bit of time into stripping the car and selling off parts in the last two months. In the process, I've learned quite a bit of how Mazda builds cars. I had some friends offer to help strip the whole car in an afternoon, but I wanted to go slow and learn as much as I could. I'm glad I did.

Aside from the advantage of labeling everything, stripping the car by myself has given me the opportunity to ponder how I'm going to address each of the hundreds of things a car needs to go down the road. This is especially true for the little things, like keeping the OBD-II and Mazda diagnostic connectors or ditching the switch for dimming the dash lights.

I've updated my project cost excel spreadsheet (see the "Donor Vehicle" tab) to reflect the parts sell off, in case you want more information.

So for all those that are tackling the same task, a few thoughts about my experience:
  • Screw Ebay/PayPal - Their fees have gotten so high and their feedback system so crummy that it's not worth selling anything but the most desirable components online. For a $15 item, Ebay/PayPal took over $3. That's more than 20%, kids. And now that sellers can't post negative feedback on buyers I'm sure scammers will run the place into the ground. I guess I'm not the only one who thinks so.
  • Tough it out and sell on CraigsList - Sure you'll have the occasional doofus, money-order scammer or time-sucking tire-kicker, but you won't pay any fees and you'll always get (mostly) scam-free cash. It's not all bad, as I've found that most Miata folks are pretty nice people. And I had a cool conversation with the guy who was going to use the roll hoops from my donor to trick out his vintage-racer MGA.
  • Flat rate shipping is your friend - The USPS offers three sizes of flat rate boxes that allow you to ship stuff up to 70 lbs. to anywhere in the US. You can make a little more by boxing and shipping Ebay parts the traditional way, but it makes things so much simpler that I just couldn't justify the extra time. The postal service will also allow you to order the boxes online and will ship them to your door for free. Easy-peasy, Japanesey.
  • Take good pictures - People will pay more for items when they're sure what they're getting. Pictures that are well-lit, clear and that focus on important details are worth the effort. Which would you rather buy?
  • Be honest - It's easier to let it all out and just wait for a buyer than to go into used-car-salesman mode. Besides, I sold a lot of parts to "repeat" buyers who bought multiple items after inquiring about a single item for sale.
  • Sell low - There's enough value in even a wrecked Miata to get back your investment in all but the most overpriced donor. It's taken me quite a while to get past the "I must get every last cent for every part" mentality. In the end, I decided this project was about building a car and not selling parts.
Even though I'm at the break-even point, I plan on selling off as much as I can. I'm really curious to see how much of the project Winky will fund. Still, I'm anxious to get the stripped hulk out of my garage so I can park my daily driver in a warmer spot for the winter. My goal is to start my build table project sometime in the Spring. I plan on spending the winter measuring parts, modeling in CAD and designing the suspension.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

My project is trying to kill me

Ok, so not really. I've been parting out my car for weeks, but last weekend's activities have me really thinking about shop safety.

The task was simple - to siphon out the precious gasoline from the donor to fill my thirsty daily driver. I bought the siphon, got a clean bucket and went to work.

Things quickly got a little out of hand. As the garage filled with fumes from an open 5 gallon bucket of gasoline and I got repeately splashed with little (but worrisome) bits of petrol, I started to think that I needed to grab the extinguisher, just in case.

Suddenly everything seemed like an ignition source. Heck, I was even scared to ground myself to the car for fear of a static spark. To make matters worse, my infant daughter was asleep upstairs and no one else was home. My imagination went into overdrive, and I started to think about me roasting in the front yard with no one to get her out of the burning house. I called my wife and told her to come home.

Fortunately the fireball raging in my imagination didn't become a reality. Still, I'm taking a hard look about the safety of this project.

I've been involved in relatively risky pastimes before. I've almost broken my leg backpacking in the wilderness in South America. I lived with the bears for days in Alaska. Heck, I've been involved in shooting sports for years. But with shooting, for example, practicing gun safety can be very simple. You just have to remember some basic rules, and you can prevent any tragedies.

Cars seem to be a different animal. There's about 1000 ways you can get hurt or killed. Airbags can go off. Fingers can get caught in moving bits. And let's not forget about the ever-present danger of a 2000 lb. hulk crushing you like a grape. When an amateur racer dies, it's common for those casual observers to note that at least they "went doing something that they love." Screw that. I want to grow old doing something I love. Heck, I want to be Paul Newman.

If I sound a little irate with myself, I am. This is my hobby, and I get ill thinking of hurting my family because of it.

So the moral of this story is that I really need to think about what I'm doing before I dive in. In this case, I should have waited until later to siphon the gas. Better yet, I should have done it when I still had wheels on the car and rolled it out to the end of the driveway.

In any case, I just want to get through this project without any trips to the ER. I've been lucky so far, but I want to take luck out of the equation.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Winky's Last Ride

Here's a quick video of Winky's last drive before he gets stripped and reassembled. Hopefully, he'll emerge from the cocoon running better than when he came in!

The trip around the block wasn't just to hoon around my neighborhood. I've never actually driven the car, so I wanted to see how (if) it runs under its own power.

The good: The clutch seems very good. The shifter was very very fluid on the upshift, but the synchros seem a little balky downshifting into 1st and 2nd (I only got up to 3rd). That may be because the transmission was cold.

The bad: There seems to be pretty bad HLA knocking. I'll have to have those replaced or cleaned.

The ugly: White smoke coming out of the tailpipe! The 3 mile drive after the collision (with a busted radiator) must have toasted the head gasket. Hopefully it's just a gasket and didn't warp the head. There doesn't seem to be antifreeze in the oil, so maybe it's not that bad.

Now I'll have to decided whether to delay the build and rebuild the engine, or whether to press on ahead and just get the Spartan built and running. I'm leaning toward the latter, but I know having a basket case for a motor is going to drive me a little nuts.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

This is just a tribute...

One of the good things about taking your time with a build is that it gives you plenty of time to consider things before committing to them. In the last few weeks I've made a dramatic shift in my line of thinking concerning how I want the Spartan to turn out.

My line of thinking used to be that I was going to make some kind of F1 inspired rocket. It was going to be super-light, savage and wicked fast. There would only be a token concession to comfort for the occasional long trip. Two things have happened since then.

The first was this post on the LocostUSA forums. It was a discussion on how tough locosts can be on the driver. Shortly afterward, I read of someone who sold his Seven because he just didn't drive it anymore. It really made me think about my priorities. I don't currently autocross, and even though I really want to get into the sport I have to believe that 99% of the Spartan's life is going to be on the street, not the track. Making some kind of cone-killing monster just doesn't translate in to a good street car.

The second event was less rational, but lots more dramatic. I came up to a stoplight near my house and caught a beautiful ivory-colored Bugeye Sprite across the light. The driver was joined by his lovely wife/girlfriend/mistress, and both had huge smiles on their faces.

Austin-Healey Bugeye Sprite
The Bugeye is one of my favorite cars of all time. It to me is one of the heights of the British roadster era. Simple, light, good-looking and a hoot to drive. The car a classic Anglo jauntiness to it. Plus, with the Sprite you can have a handlebar mustache and wear a tweed jacket while driving around and feel perfectly normal.

That spotting got me thinking. Would my wife really want to ride in some kidney-punching terror? Would I? Was the car I was building really like the Lotus 7 I've loved since I was a kid?

The answer to all these questions was No. That's when I hatched my current plan, to create a Lotus 7 tribute, an homage to all those awesome Healeys, MGs, Morgans, Triumphs, Sunbeams and other greats from the 60s. Sure, under the sheetmetal it'd still be Miata powered and it would still have lots of current technology in the suspension and running gear. But the feel would be more Italian Job (the good one with Michael Caine) and less Bourne Identity. I want it to look and feel like it came from the 60s. When my wife and I are motoring around in it, I want to feel like I'm in a simpler time.

Lotus Seven Interior
Really this is more of a shift in philosophy than actual design. Fortunately there's plenty of apropriately vintage-y instruments, steering wheels, seats, lights, mirrors, trim, etc. available to the homebuilder.

As a plus, I think the task of researching old British cars for inspiration is going to be a blast! I've already planned a trip to the Lotus Owners Gathering and the Barber Motorsports Museum in Birmingham in May of next year.

I've always loved the Seven because of its purity. I guess I'm learning that purity doesn't just mean leaving everything off in the name of going faster. It's can also be about the single-minded pursuit of the joy of spirited motoring.

Saturday, November 1, 2008

Going a little faster than I thought

In all this planning I've been doing in the last few years, I always assumed the tear down and disposal of the donor was going to take six months. Now I'm thinking it'll only take a fraction of the time. I will say that I've probably spent 15 hours plus tearing the car apart in the last week. What can I say? I'm still riding the buzz of having my donor car in my garage.

Speaking of garage, I decided to upgrade the lighting. The new fixtures make a world of difference, and already I'm thinking of getting two more.

I'd mentioned before that I'm taking my time taking the car apart and trying to get organized. I'm especially concerned about the wiring harness. I get the willies thinking of having a giant unlabled box of spaghetti, so I've been pretty militant about labeling connections as I take them apart.

This may seem a bit anal, but I know I'll be thankful that I took the time later when I'm trying to condense the wiring harness into something simpler. Same goes for bagging and tagging hardware for removed components. I've read enough stories about doing a car restoration to know that's a must.

A week into the teardown, and all I have to say is it's shocking how simple of a car the Miata is. There really aren't as many parts as I thought there'd be. I knew there is a reason I love these cars so!

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Surveying the damage

The first task after welcoming Winky home was to peel away the damage and to see what the accident did to him.

I had the front body panels off within a few hours. I'm trying to be careful and take my time so I don't damage anything worth selling. I'm also trying to label the ends of every electrical connection so that it'll be easier to decipher when the wiring harness is out of the car.

You can see pretty clearly where the accident took out the front end. The funny thing is that the bumper is in perfect shape. Go figure.

Unfortunately, the frame is bent. That means I won't be able to sell it to a Spec Miata racer or someone who wants a project track car. I'm keeping the VIN anyway for registration purposes, so it would never be worth much anyway. This way too I don't have to be too careful taking stuff off of it.

This also means I'll eventually have to get rid of the stripped unibody myself. A quick call to the metal recycler confirmed that it was worth about $10 as scrap (I'm not kidding). I guess I'll cross that bridge when I get there.

Here's a good view of that leaky valve cover. I don't plan on working on the engine until it's removed from the car, so I know it'll drive me crazy. The plan here (other than replacing the gasket) is to powder coat the valve cover and brake rotors Ferrari red and paint the raised lettering white. It's going to look awesome!

The previous owner said it was driven a few miles after the accident. This is a little worrisome given that the coolant spilled out after the accident. At this point I figured it was worth the risk that the heat damaged something. I know that 1.8L Miata engines are tough little buggers, so I'm banking on their legendary reliability.

So after several hours of digging, grunting and cursing, here's what I've got:

It looks like everything forward of the radiator is toast, but everything behind is as good as it was before the accident. All in all I'm pretty happy, and I think that this will be a good base for an awesome build donor. Not having all the forward parts to sell stings the budget a bit (I'm guessing the parts are worth $500), but I'm confident that I'll still end up at $0 total cost before the stripping is done.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Meet Winky!

A lot has happened in the last few months.

I've moved into a home with a nice large 2-car garage. This was the missing element that has been keeping me from starting the build. It will be a little tight with my wife's Accord on the other side, but I'm sure I'll have more than enough space if I'm organized.

With the facilities in place, I made the single most important step in my build, which is buying the donor! Meet Winky!

Winky is a 1994 Mazda Miata B-package. For non-Miata folks, it's got the larger 1.8L engine, larger brakes and a Torsen LSD. I was going to use a 1990-1993 1.6L car, but the later version has a bit more power, a much better differential and more valuable (sellable) components. Mazda changed over to OBD-II engine management in 1996, so the 1994-1995 cars are a little easier to work on and should make for a simpler implementation in a Locost.

I got pretty lucky as beat-up Miatas in Atlanta seem to get snatched up off Craiglist before I usually have a chance to send the seller an e-mail. In my case, the seller had a dozen people lined up to see it. I was just the only person willing to come out that night in the rain to do the inspection. I guess the early bird gets the worm.

Winky's previous owner rear-ended a truck and took out most of the front end (front bumper cover, front fenders, headlights, hood, radiator). Fortunately the bent frame only lightly kissed the mechanicals and there doesn't appear to be any major issues aside from a leaky valve cover gasket. I did manage to get the car started during the inspection, so I at least know it turns over and runs. I haven't actually driven it yet, so I'm hoping I didn't buy a total basket case.

It was important to me to get a totaled car for the build. I love Miatas so much that I was actually a little ill thinking of taking a good running car off the road. I know there are several hundred thousand out there, but my conscience wouldn't stand for it. It makes me happy to think I'm taking a car that might go to the crusher and resurrecting it into something more.

I've spent many many hours over the last few days standing over the car just taking it all in. Standing there that first night it really dawned on me what I'm about to undertake. It's really daunting and exciting at the same time. I had to wait overnight to get the car, and I could hardly sleep for the excitement of it all. I've been planning this build for over two years now, and I'm really amped to get going!

Monday, August 4, 2008

LeMons South 2008

If you're wondering why I've been so quiet lately, it's been because I've been a little distracted. After much waiting, I was elated to hear that the 24 Hours of LeMons was coming to the South! From this pivotal event, Team Turbo Schnitzel was born!

We scoured Craigslist.org for available cars, and decided (somewhat brazenly) to compete with a Merkur XR4ti. The car was someone else's project car, which helped us learn a valuable LeMons lesson: NEVER BUY SOMEONE'S PROJECT.

We spent the better part of three months trying to figure out all the different hacks this guy did to make his Merkur "run better". In the end even when we returned the car to stock it still had all kinds of issues. But I guess that's the point.

Here's the team. I'm third from the left, but you knew that already. I didn't do any driving this year, but functioned as support crew and cook for our traveling band of racers. Next year, I'm going racing.

I've been following Jalopnik's coverage of the 24 Hours of LeMons since the first race in California two years ago. Needless to say I'm a big fan. When I arrived at the race, I was completely shocked to find out that two of Jalopnik's finest were judging the race. As a hack blogger and car nut, I took the opportunity to hang with guys who were living the dream. As it was, they ended up spending quite a bit of time in our paddock, and were both really cool individuals. It was in the middle of Jonny's story about how he got to drive a Seven through the hills of Southern California that I realized his job was probably much cooler than mine.

Alas, the race wasn't all schmoozing with faux-celebrities and glorious speed. About two hours into the race we suffered a blown head gasket. That knocked us out for most of Saturday. Sunday saw us running strong until the engine started to overheat, the exhaust started to come off and until we started to lose a wheel bearing (which made the brake fluid boil, thus taking out our brakes). I guess you get what you pay for.

In the end our 63rd place didn't lessen our enthusiasm for the event. Neither did our untimely end a scant five minutes before the checker flew. No, we left South Carolina determined to come back next year with the old #44, and possibly even a "new" #45.

Fahrt Schnell!

P.S. - Here's my photo gallery on Flickr
P.P.S. - Fahrt Schnell means "Drive Fast" in our butchered German

Friday, May 16, 2008

Keeping track of things

Being a nerd, I like to keep track of things. Excel and I are on a first-name basis. So it's natural that I'd want to accurately document my build.

Even though the Spartan won't be an absolutely low-cost locost, I still want to keep track. Some have suggested that this is a crazy idea, as it gives my wife real numbers to yell at me about. Fortunately for me my wife is really cool about this obsession of mine, so I feel comfortable keeping a budget spreadsheet with the actual figures for my build.

I'm going to count the full purchase cost of partial items. That means if I use 10% of a $4 tube of grease, it'll be $4. I don't want the pain of tracking how much welding filler wire I've used. The spreadsheet will also break out shipping and tool costs and list sources for each item. I figure that may help someone else understand how I got those figures.

While I've been waiting to start my build I've been reading like a banshee. I've also scoured the internet for anything I can learn about building a car. Along the way I've made lots of decisions about components and specs for my car. I've decided to keep a specification spreadsheet (xls) listing what I plan on incorporating into the Spartan.

Both documents are now on the sidebar, and they'll be constantly updated as I go along. You're free to copy and use them as you see fit.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

And so it begins...

My first ever component just arrived. Behold, the Spartan's steering rack!

I was alerted to a good deal on Ebay by an astute member of the LocostUSA forum. I'm not entirely sure it'll be what I need, but at the price I picked it up for it was too good to pass up.

Here are the details:
Appleton p/n: 7010410
18.25" width, tapered ends
2.5" travel per turn
4.5" total rack travel
17 lbs.*

The factory specs say that this unit weighs 17 lbs., but the shipping label says it's 14. I'll have to get a scale to make sure.

If you've been reading this blog, you'll remember that I'm not inclined to cut and weld a normal automotive rack. It's not that I think it's a bad practice, I would just rather spend a little more and know I've got a reliable unit. Losing steering control at speed doesn't sound like fun.

This rack isn't as nice of a unit as a Woodward rack, as you have to replace both the outer housing and the steering pinion to change the ratio. There also seems to be a bit of friction in the system, possibly due to the fact that the rack and pinion spacing are determined by the manufacturing tolerances of the housing, not some fine adjustment. I may be off base, but Staniforth claims that a good steering system will allow you to move the front wheels with one finger. Maybe he's a little used to high-buck purpose-built cars. I'll wait until I can inspect a stock Miata rack before I pass final judgment.

In any case I got such a good deal on it I figure I can still recoup most of my costs by selling it on Ebay if it doesn't work out. Besides, I've come to learn that a companion hobby to working on cars is collecting car parts.

Even if it's only one part, I'm still pretty excited about what this represents - my first tangible component of my car. It's all uphill from here!

Friday, April 11, 2008

Comparing Dimensions

I've been reading the excellent Lotus Seven & the Independents, and one thing I'm struck by is how much variation there is in the critical dimensions of various Sevenesque cars.

I've compiled various measurements for the two common Locost platforms as well as for three baseline Sevens and a few lightweight sports cars. I've also thrown in weight and horsepower numbers for reference.

Ride HeightWeightHP
1962 Lotus Super Seven Series II131.55639.547.548.588692485
Haynes Roadster (Gibbs)129.56746


57.5943.91309105 est.
Tanner's CMC Miata-Locost
12865.542.551 est.
56.2 est.924 est.1279175
FM Westfield131.563.455.556.291.55.75 est.1300125
2006 Caterham CSR Superlight129.966.340.059.357.791.13.91245260
1993 Mazda
1974 MG Midget 15001416048.346.344.8804163165
2003 Ariel Atom II134.370.847636392.33.51005220
1957 Lotus Eleven LeMans13960.53145.547884.5136084
2000 Lotus Elise1476745.256.757.990.66.31574143
1964 Austin Mini Cooper S
Click on the car's make and model for the sources for my data.

The first thing that jumps out to me is how tiny the original Seven Series II is. The Caterham is nearly 10" wider than the original car. Of course a lot of this is wider modern tires, but it's still significantly smaller than anything on the road.

The other thing is how much longer the wheelbase is on Gibbs' Haynes Roadster vs. every car in the table. If you look in the Haynes book, the front wheels actually stick out past the front of the nose cone! Since my frame design is based on the Haynes Roadster, reducing the wheelbase to 90-95" is going to be one of my design priorities.

I'm going with the stock Miata front and rear track on my Locost (as of right now), so the width of my finished car should be in-tune with the rest of the pack.

Update 6/22/08 - Chris Gibbs has contacted me with corrections to my table. It appears that the figures I had before for the wheelbase were way off, as many have commented. Now with the correct dimensions, it appears that the Haynes Roadster isn't as big as the discussion forums would have suggested. This makes me feel much better about using the design as a starting point!

Update 4/14/09 - It appears the Haynes Roadster wheelbase figures are in dispute again. I've received word from a reader who very adamantly states that the wheelbase is actually 94". The reader states this is what he got in CAD when modeling up the frame. Gibbs himself on his forum states it is 92", so I'll chalk that up to the book not completely representing the actual car.

Sunday, March 30, 2008

Two British Lightweights

When I started researching for my locost build, I'd never seen a real Seven in the flesh. As of the beginning of this month, the closest I'd ever come was checking out Andrew's build-in progress. Fortunately, in the last month I've gotten to check out my two favorite cars (and biggest inspirations) in the flesh...er, metal. Both experiences were carried out with huge child-like grins!

First up was an honest-to-goodness Lotus Seven Series II that I caught at the 2008 12 Hours of Sebring. Actually, there were two of them - a racing and street version. These cars are owned by Paul Stinson. He races the high-output version in the SVRA and SCCA. The street car is his golf-cart substitute for commuting around Sebring!

He was kind enough to let me sit in the street version, which reaffirmed my need to lose weight or build a larger chassis. I was able to catch the car on video as it went out for a recon lap of the Sebring infield.

The best photos I took of both Sevens are up on my Flickr site.

The other car is the ultimate evolution of the the light-and-agile Seven. The Ariel Atom is my favorite car. If I won the lottery tomorrow, I'd drive to pick up my check in this bad boy. This particular Atom was parked nonchalantly at the 2008 Georgia Tech Auto Show.

I could have stared at this car for hours, but I was taking care of my daughter and had to look fast (fortunately pictures last longer). There are so many fantastic details, so many awesome welds and crafty bits of carbon fiber! Everything clearly had a lot of thought put into it. Even if my Locost doesn't go as fast as the Atom (which it certainly won't), I hope that I can put as much effort into the design and construction of my car as the folks at Ariel do in theirs. It's really a stunning car.

The Atom at the show was for sale for the cool price of $79k. It's tempting to sell our house and buy it, but since there are no body panels and no roof it wouldn't be very good to sleep in.

Both of these cars capture everything that is good and holy about sports cars. They're light, agile, responsive and provide the right medicine to treat the current pandemic of bloated, overweight and overwrought sports cars. I hope my locost comes close to their awesome example.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Starting to lay stuff out

The time has come to start to put things together with the design of the Spartan. I've reached the point where I've got far too many ideas for the frame and layout and it's becoming difficult to keep them coherent in my head.

I work with CAD every day (Pro/ENGINEER to be specific), so I can get quite a lot done during my lunches at work. Fortunately, the software is flexible enough that I can lay out a tremendous amount of detail before actually having the critical components in hand.

The chassis started as a Gibbs chassis, but I've already made several mods, most notably reducing the length 2". I think the Gibbs design is pretty long, and I'd like to get the wheelbase down to 95"-98". I'll post more about the frame once I get the preliminary design done.

The components are rough models based on pictures of the actual components and a few key dimensions. Already I'm pretty concerned by how big the stock Miata intake manifold is.

For right now, though, this will give me enough information to pick components and place them in the car. I'm hoping that I can do an accurate enough job to reasonably predict the CG of the car and do some tweaking. Eventually I'd like to have a very accurate model of the entire car.

Besides, frame development in CAD is cheap and easy. I have access to FEA software, so I intend to model the "stock" Gibbs chassis and compare it to my evolved frame so I can get an idea if my ideas will work or not.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

2008 12 Hours of Sebring

Last weekend I made my first trip to see the ALMS 12 hours of Sebring. What a blast! The racing was excellent and both the starting grid and the infield were full of awesome cars.

I didn't realize that it was spring break, and we made the mistake of camping in the middle of 20,000 drunken college students. That doesn't make for good sleeping. The facilites at Sebring are also atrocious, so I think the next time I go to the race it will be in an RV.

Here's a GT2-class Corvette heading out in the morning for its recon laps. While the full-power GT1 cars are neat, GT2 is where it's at. There is so much diversity in the lower class this year and it makes for pretty awesome racing, even if some of the newer cars are moving chicanes.

The biggest reason I wanted to go to this race was to catch the only North American appearance for Peugeot's LeMans diesels. Even though they dropped out early, they're still stunning cars and a lot of fun to watch.

I've posted the best of my pictures on my Flickr site. Here's a slideshow:

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Atlanta area Locost builders' meetup

Last weekend I met with several Atlanta builders to introduce ourselves and chat about Locost stuff. We all had a great time, and it was nice talking about the car with a group who are as passionate about building a locost as I am.

Additionally, I finally got to sit in a Locost/Lotus/Caterham sized frame (thanks eVox!). My first reaction is that the car is tiny! Unless I give up lateral support in the seats, I think I'm going to have to widen the frame to fit my physique. I'm trying to lose as much weight as possible before starting my build, but even then things are going to be tight.

I'd been resisting building a plus sized frame for some time, but I do think something's got to give. The Gibbs chassis is a +221, meaning it's 2" wider, 2" longer and 1" taller than the earlier Champion design. I think the extra 1" per passenger will make a big difference.

The extra width would also come in handy in the driver's footwell. It's a little tight, especially with my clod-hoppers on. I may have to invest in a pair of driving shoes.

No matter what, sitting in a mostly completed frame underscores the need for some kind of seating buck to simulate the passenger compartment of the finished car. Better to find out I don't fit before I start cutting metal...

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

The Spartan 7

Naming my daughter wasn't that hard. Naming my car has proven to require much more thought. I'm not exactly a major manufacturer, but this name will stick with the car throughout the build, and I feel like it needs something a little better than "my locost".

I wanted a name that was serious, without being too stodgy or ridiculous. The "Conway Superturbo AstoCaster XD6" may sound cool to a 6 year old, but it just doesn't fit the car I'm designing and building.

So I'm calling my car the Spartan 7.

The name evokes a certain aggressiveness and purity of spirit. Maybe I've watched 300 way too many times, but I think the name relates the Seven's hard-core philosophy. It also conveys the minimalist ethic so important to this kind of car.

I plan on creating nose and tail badge artwork for the finished car. I'll post them here when they're fleshed out.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Some thoughts on safety

"Do you ride motorcycles because of their proximity to death, or in spite of their proximity to death?"
This was the opening question posed by Matt Chambers, CEO of Confederate Motorcycles, during a recent presentation on American design.

I don't ride motorcycles, but if I did I'd have to answer "in spite". I'm lucky in that I have an abnormally high sense of self-preservation. I usually lift off the throttle well before the limits of my car and I always instinctively slow when rounding a blind corner. That's why I'll probably never be a great racer, and why I pay next to nothing for insurance!

I'm a father and a husband, and I don't particularly want to get killed or maimed for my hobby. Worse, I don't want to take someone out with me. So when a recent discussion with co-workers turned to the subject of the safety of my home-built car, it led me to make a few more decisions on what my car will be about.

I don't expect this car to be as safe as a real car, period. I plan on using 6-point racing harnesses, but I won't have airbags, ABS or even side-impact door beams. If I get t-boned by an Escalade, it'll probably put me in the hospital (or worse). I take my safety seriously, but I also lament the time where cars weren't loaded down with 1000 lbs. of safety features. I'm starting to get fanatical about weight, and a line has to be drawn between safety and the purpose of the car.

That being said, the primary approach I'm taking with regards to the safety of the vehicle is to prevent a loss of control of the vehicle or dangerous vehicle dynamics while on the road. I'll have to practice "active safety" (aka paying attention and driving defensively) with regards to threats from other vehicles on the road.

To me, loss of control usually falls into 3 areas: structural failure, loss of brakes, and loss of steering. There's also the terrible threat of a fire.


Carroll Smiths "Prepare to Win" is an awesome book, and I think all builders should read it. It outlines his fanatical attention to car preparation to minimize mechanical failures. I won't go over all the details covered, but here are a few "high points" I'll focus on during the design and build:
  • Use aircraft grade hardware to secure anything that'll hose you if it fails. Lock washers, nylock nuts and loctite just don't cut it.
  • Safety wire or cotter pin all hardware that may vibrate loose.
  • Redesign stress points (like suspension mounts) to maximize weld area and to prevent loading welds in tension. This is a major issue (to me) with the current Locost design.
Additionally, I'm planning on integrating the roll-bar into the frame (like Moti did on the LocostUSA forums). I'm not really impressed with the way the roll bar mounts on the current Locost design.

Finally, I just need to pay attention when designing and building the suspension. I don't plan on cutting corners with the structural integrity of the suspension bits and mounting points.


Mark Rivera's crash at Mid-Ohio really opened my eyes to what could happen in my car. In his case, a fastener worked free on his brake pedal and he lost brake control.

Thankfully again he was on a track with enough run-off to contain the accident. My worry is that my car will careen out of control on the street. I've made a few decisions regarding the brake system.
  • I'm going to use a commercial pedal set w/dual cylinders. I don't want to make my own when so many proven systems are out there.
  • I intend to run brake lines away from heat and sources of puncture. The brake lines to the rear will have to run past the driveshaft, so I'll have to think of a way to protect them.
  • I'm going to run hanging pedals, if possible. As one commenter on the LocostUSA forums pointed out, hanging pedals are less vulnerable to debris clogging the works.

There have been many posts on the forums concerning steering rack modifications to reduce bump steer. I get the willies when I think about welding my steering rack. Especially because once welded and reinstalled, there's almost no way to quickly inspect the welded area over the life of the car. If at all possible, I'd like a professional solution, either an off-the-shelf rack or something modified by a pro.

I'm considering using a removable steering wheel, but I need to do some research regarding the safety of these on the street.


This really scares me, and it should scare everyone else, too. It's going to be friggin expensive, but I want to use a real fuel cell for my car. I intend to mount the cell in the rear above the differential to give as much crumple room as possible in the event of a rear impact.

I'm going to have a fire extinguisher in the passenger compartment and battery cutoffs on the dash. I intend to run fuel lines in the same "protected" zone as the brake lines.

In closing, safety isn't just a punch list of features, it's a design approach. As I design and build this car I'm just going to have to be diligent about building something fun and light, but not dangerous.

Monday, March 3, 2008

Happy Birthday to Me!

Awesome! My birthday present just arrived - a 900 page, 10 lb. epic work of automotive design philosophy and practice (and its companion workbook).

This isn't exactly light reading, so I imagine it'll take me awhile to go through it. At first glance it doesn't seem too daunting, at least compared to some of my engineering textbooks. I know that it's referenced heavily wherever vehicle analysis is discussed, so I'm looking forward to reading it!

I know, I'm a dork.

Here's a locost tip - get a friend who's in the SAE to buy it for you. The set is 25% cheaper to members.

Friday, February 15, 2008

Wheel and Tire Selection

Several sources I've read (the Kimini book, Competition Car Suspension by Allan Staniforth and others) recommend choosing tire sizes before ever embarking on suspension and chassis design. This makes sense, since nearly every book I've read so far starts out by stressing the critical role the tire plays in making a car go, stop and everything in between.

Tire Diameter

Since I've already decided on using the Miata as a donor vehicle, deciding on an overall wheel diameter is somewhat straightforward. The original NA Miata (1990-1997) was shod with 185/60R14 rubber, giving a wheel diameter of 22.74".

I'm going to add two additional requirements: I want to keep all 4 wheels the same, and I want to keep to relatively common sizes. These need to be in place for the simple reason that I don't want to have to spend a ton on odd tires or risk not having them available in the future. If I need larger rears that's something I'll have to address later.

So with a tire diameter set and a few requirements in place, I can start "shopping" for new shoes. My biggest priority for selecting wheels and tires is low weight (to reduce unsprung mass and rotational inertia). But at the same time I'd like to spec a wheel size that allows for reasonably short sidewalls and crisp handling.

Wheel Diameter

A stock Miata rides on tiny 14x6" wheels (45mm offset, approx. 11 lbs.). As has been mentioned many times, ther are not a lot of good wheel or tire options at this size, which is why most replace these little "daisies" with 15" wheels...which is exactly what the previous owner of my current Miata did. They replaced the stock wheels with the lightweight 15x6" wheels (40mm offset, approx. 13 lbs.) from an NB (1999-2004) Sport model.

Despite a relatively heated conversation on the LocostUSA forum, I've elected to stick to the Miata-plus-one 15" wheel diameter. While some may argue that 15" wheels are on their way out, I have faith that NA and NB Miatas will be in vogue for quite some time. Also, Spec Miata racing and autocrossing should ensure a long-lasting supply of tires for road and track.

Besides, that's what the front and rear uprights were designed for. Here's a great reference for stock and aftermarket Miata wheel sizes, offsets and weights.

Tire Width and Aspect Ratio

So given a wheel and tire diameter, it's time to pick rubber. Here's where things get broader. My current Miata rides on 195/50R15 tires (22.67" diameter). Staying in the ballpark of that size gives me 3 larger options. Here's the tire diameter calculator I used to get these figures.

There seems to be many more options at 205/50R15 than with my 195s, so I think that that's the best fit for my build. This gives me a tire diameter of 23.07" (+ 0.33").

Wheel Style

As far as the actual rims themselves are concerned, I've always loved the DTM look (image from the NY Times). I'd love to get a set of O.Z. Supertourismo WRC wheels (in white), but they're expensive and friggin 19 pounds!

I want to keep my wheels to less than 13 lbs (the weight of the upgraded 15" rims on my Miata). I also think that white painted wheels would really look awesome with my paint scheme. White rims will show every spec of brake dust and road grime, but I won't be driving my locost as much as my daily driver and it'll give me a lot of motivation to keep it clean!

These Kazera KZ-M 15x7" wheels (30mm offset) look awesome, come in white and weigh only 12.5 lbs. As an additional bonus, they were designed specifically for Spec Miata racing so they bolt right onto Miata hubs without any adapters. Finally, they're recommended by Flyin Miata which is all the validation I need. Did I mention they're also cheap?

Seems like a no-brainer. I just hope they aren't discontinued before I get around to needing them!

In Conclusion...

Whew. So long story short (too late), I'm looking to get a set of Kazera KZ-M 15x7" wheels shod with 205/50R15 rubber.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

An essential addition to your library

Getting your locost library started is pretty easy. There are only three or four books necessary to a basic reference library. But which book should you get next? Without a doubt, you should get Kimini: How to design and build a mid-engine sports car - from scratch by Kurt Bilinski. In fact, I'm starting to think you should get it first.

At first, the Kimini doesn't seem at all like a locost. But despite it's more passive-aggressive styling, the car was designed, built and refined in the same manner as any other serious homebuilt. Kurt is fond of saying that this book is not a "cookie-cutter" set of plans on how to build, but instead is a detailed account of the process of building a car at home.

When I started looking into building a locost I was initially attracted to the "baseline" design. Heck, the car was done as far as I was concerned. As I've read more, I've found that the art and science of building a car at home is less about black magic and voodoo and more about carefully and purposefully thinking things through.

Reading about the Kimini build, I'm emboldened even more to research, analyze and detail every aspect of the car (within some kind of reason). After finishing the book, I started pouring through the standard locost books looking for the same level of engineering and design methodology as Kurt had put into his project. I didn't find it, and now I feel that there may be more left to improve in the design than I'd first thought.

Don't get me wrong. The Kimini book outlines years of research, development and building. Locost books make construction look easy enough to do. The Kimini book is much more realistic and transparent. If you still want to build a car after reading about Kurt's 10 year build, this is the hobby for you!

So I intend to roughly follow the design sequence Kurt laid out early on in his book. You can get a rough sense of the process from the table of contents. I'm sure there will be tons of references to his work in this blog in the years to come.

Buy this book. It's a good deal at twice the price.

And if you just want to cheat and skip the whole process, Kurt's Kimini is for sale...

Sunday, January 20, 2008


I've been talking about building this car for months now, and the first question everyone seems to ask is "Why?"

This question really should be 3 questions:

1. Why build a car?

I spend most of my life hacking away at a computer. Building a locost caters to my intense desire to make something with my hands (an obsession that drove my previous blog for 2 years). I want to learn to weld, to shape sheet metal, and to work on cars. I've been tooling around with my daily drivers for several years now, and I'd love to have another project to work on.

I've spent the entirety of my engineering career working under the burdens of schedule and budget. By necessity, I've had to stop work on several projects before I felt the work was as good as it could have been. With this project, I run the schedule and budget. Here's a chance to do engineering on my own terms. That's why we have hobbies, isn't it?

I don't have a budget for this car. I'm a natural cheapskate, so I think the car will cost somewhere between $5000 and $10,000. But if it costs more, then so be it.

One of the best chunks of wisdom I've read so far came from the book Kimini, Kurt Bilinski's build guide. He said this was a hobby, and as a result he didn't feel the need to create artificial deadlines for his hobby. Sage advice!

2. Why build a Lotus Seven clone?

This question starts when I was 12. I started getting into cars and reading Road&Track regularly. The articles on various new cars came and went, but the "Side Glances" columns written by Peter Egan stuck with me. He's been my biggest automotive influence, and his love for British cars wore off on me in a big, big way.

I owned a black 1977 MGB in high school, but what I always wanted was a Lotus Seven. This was a real sports car - light, agile and dripping with British charm. I didn't care that their tops were a joke or that it was based on an ancient car. It was elemental and pure. A racer for the road.

Fast forward to now. Original Sevens are far too rare, and Caterhams are WAY too expensive for someone of my means. I don't know how, but I found Kieth Tanner's web site about a year ago and I was hooked instantly! I read his entire build diary that day which is not easy when there are over 1400 entries.

Project started out as a cheap way to get a Seven, is now a way to get my dream car. It won't be perfect, but it will be uniquely mine.

3. Why use a Miata as a donor?

There's a saying in cooking - a meal is only as good as the quality of the ingredients that go into it. This project is exactly the same.

Despite its reputation as a hairdresser's car, the Miata is a true sports car. I drive one daily, and I think it's the most wonderful car I've ever owned.

As a donor, it's nearly a one-stop shop. It's got a great engine and all the requisite rear wheel drive bits. I can pick up a beaten and abused Miata and have nearly everything I need to build the car. The parts I won't use are also still pretty valuable, so hopefully I can recoup most of the cost of the donor by selling the bodywork and interior on Ebay.

There's also a huge aftermarket community providing performance parts for the brakes, engine and transmission. That means I'll be able to increase performance as much as I'd like down the road by bolting on parts. There's also an awesome community supporting the Miata that I can go to for help.

Here's another reason to build a Seven. Few cars are awesome enough to require sub-titles during their test drive.