22 Aug 2013

Kit cars - All things considered, you probably shouldn’t

What do you suppose goes through a person’s mind when they decide they want to build their own car?

For some of them, it will be a craving for the jigsaw-like challenge of putting together a lightweight sports car such as a Caterham 7.  All the pieces arrive from the factory and the prospective Caterham owner will then have several hundred hours of screwing (probably the only kind they’re going to get for the duration of the project), fixing and fettling to look forward to before attempting to summon up enough courage to clamber into a car they’ve built themselves and daring to put it on the road.  

It takes a special sort of bravery to take on this kind of project; not only is it quite a substantial outlay for something that may never be roadworthy if they give up half way through, but imagine what it would be like to drive a car where you knew with absolute certainty that some of the bits ended up in the dustbin by accident, and there didn’t seem to be enough of a certain type of bolt, and not only that a few shortcuts were taken but exactly what those shortcuts were…

The rewards, however, can be enormous.  Choose the right car, take your time building it, follow the instructions to the letter and make sure someone with proper knowledge has a look at any bits you aren’t sure about and you should end up with an entertaining little head-turner that gives you the added satisfaction, after a thoroughly enjoyable bit of B-road blatting, to step from the car, look back and say, “I made that.”

Of course, the Caterham route isn’t the cheapest way around things, and building something from that level of disassembly is a bit too daunting for some hobbyist automotive engineers.  For them may lie the path of the ‘Special’, a replacement body shell, and sometimes interior, for a particular car.  Although less common than they once were, the Special is a way of getting your hands dirty and ending up with something a bit different without needing to break everything down to bare bolts or ending up with a decree absolute to hang alongside the car’s MOT certificate.

For other hobbyists, the kit car approach allows them to replicate a dream car they might otherwise never be able to afford, with levels of accuracy from hair-splittingly good to hair-raisingly terrible.  You could go for something like the Hawk Stratos – where any panel could be swapped with its Lancia original without difficulty – or maybe a classic Ferrari or Porsche (a former neighbour of mine had an absolutely perfect 356 Speedster replica, but had to admit the game was up when I asked him why the DVLA thought it was an old Volkswagen…), if they’re more your style.  It’s an option that gives you plenty of scope when it comes to under the bonnet, and with something to suit almost all budgets and tastes, replica enthusiasts are a broad church.

But for a select few, a buying a kit or modifying an existing vehicle simply isn’t enough.  We’ve all heard tales about the bloke who scratchbuilt a racing car in his kitchen, and the man who had part of his basement demolished to free the replica Lamborghini he’d spent a decade building under his house, but for the most deluded enthusiastic shed engineer, even replicating someone else’s work from first principles isn’t enough.  No, for these few, these happy few – often diving in with no design, systems, materials or engineering knowledge or experience – only building and driving a car they’ve designed themselves will do.

You have to wonder what goes through their minds.

There are low-volume manufacturers in the UK, who, by means of eccentric blokes in sheds, may get very few cars on the road, but when you see a Bristol or a Noble or a Lightning GT, at least they do it with style.

Unfortunately for the chaps and occasional chappesses fettling away at home, most of their end results tend to look like distant cousins of Top Gear’s home made range-extended electric effort Geoff (a car almost as successful as the Vauxhall Ampera, and with about as many examples on the road).  In fact, several years prior to Geoff’s inception, I saw something wobbling around a roundabout in Plymouth that could have been prototype for Clarkson et al’s wooden-doored aluminium box-on-wheels, right down to the bits of shelf unit used in its construction…

As for this Q-plate catastrophe, I think the photograph says it all…
It’s certainly a head turner, but perhaps not in the way its creator intended.  Reactions have ranged from ‘Oh, it’s a Smart if they were from the 70s,’ to ‘Have they brought back the Invacar?’ and simply ‘What the bloody hell’s that?!’

Actually, the Q-plate is a very major way these home-made motors vary from the Top Gear Technology Centre effort – in the end, enough of the TVR that underpinned Geoff was recognisable enough that it retained its original registration number, like a Special or a kit replica.

And yet I can’t help having a certain admiration for people who do decide to use a car they’ve designed and built themselves.  It must take balls of titanium and a hide like a rhino’s to get into something that will be laughed out of town and will kill you very messily indeed in even a relatively gentle accident.  As far as I can tell in the example above, the side impact protection consists mainly of the driver’s elbow.  Would you want to drive a car you’d built in your spare time in a shed?  I know I wouldn’t.  I’d be constantly waiting for it to hit a pothole and collapse.

So shed-based petrolheads currently taking to the roads in cars of your own design and manufacture, I salute you.  You are as certifiable as your cars, but you are far braver than I.

Article by Sharon Endacotte

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