Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Satisfying Man-urges with a Lotus Clone....

(Published in AutoRacing1.com on January 19, 2007)

The average man, when looking at options for a second childhood, usually boils things down to two choices: A mistress, or a sports car. I'm going for the sports car, if for no other reason than my mistress prospects are limited, and my wife has reluctantly said "yes" to the car.

Normally, a middle-aged guy will simply buy the car that he dreamed about when he was 15. However, 1st-gen Camaros are now fetching premium prices, and Superbirds are solidly in the 6-figure range. Newer cars, such as the C6 'Vette or the new 600 hp Viper, cost more than the current worth of my retirement plan.

By chance, I happened on Ron Champion's book, Build Your Own Sports Car for as Little as £250 and Race It! The title might as well say, How to Lose Weight, Regrow your Hair, Play Basketball Like an 18-year-old, and Make Love Without Viagra. I was hooked. The book details the author's steps as he used a British 1300cc Mk2 Ford Escort (nothing like the American version) to make a replica of the legendary Lotus Seven.



If you've never heard of the Lotus Seven, then you've missed a fun part of motor sports. Colin Chapman built the Seven in 1957 to be a "...four wheeled motorbike -- as light as possible, small, cheap and fun." Lotus sold it as a kit to avoid the killer British auto taxes of the period, as well as a complete car. The stressed-skin, tube-chassied car didn't include anything that wasn't required to make the car go fast, or keep it legal. The initial 1100cc motor produced a whopping 40 hp (later increased to 75), but the car weighed only 960 pounds. Built around the 5'7" Colin Chapman, it was 123 inches long and 53 inches wide, and as low as a Countach. The kit sold for around $7,260 in today's US dollars. By comparison, a modern SmartForTwo is 98 inches long, 60 inches wide, weighs 1600 pounds, has 84 hp SAE, and costs $34,000.

In 1973, Lotus sold the rights to for the Seven to Caterham. AutoRacing1.com readers might have seen Caterham featured on the Brit TV show, Top Gear. Caterham continues to build the Seven, both in kits and completely assembled. Caterham's 1012-pound R500 Evo, fitted with a 250 hp engine, set a production car record when it went 0-100-0 mph in 10.7 seconds, with 0-60 in 3.4 seconds, 70-90 mph in 2.3 seconds. All this can be yours for, say, $66,500 (give or take).

Other manufacturers emerged to produce cars, and kits for cars, that look strangely like a Seven, but are not called a "Seven" due to trademark considerations. There are dozens of "sevenesque" or "clubman" manufacturers world-wide. Many AR1 readers remember Westfield's knockoff of the Lotus Eleven from a 1980's Road and Track article; Westfield produces a sevenesque roadster as well. Dennis Brunton builds his "Stalker" kits to accept a GM V-6 power plant (including the supercharged 3800) and Chevy S10 parts. Coveland Motorsports sells soup-to-nuts Locost parts, including a frame ready for a Miata IRS. If you've got a little money, and want to get going fast, a kit is your best bet, at least to get started-- but make sure you're dealing with a company that is sound financially!

However, anyone can buy a fun ride if they have enough money. The real trick - and the charm of Champion's book - is the idea that a clever and resourceful person armed with their wit, Ron Champion's book, and a borrowed welder can put together a hot rod without tapping into their elderly parent's nursing home fund. Such cars are called "Locosts", and a quick Google of the word will reveal hundreds of Locost builders around the world.

The basic Locost rules are: Keep it as light as you can, keep it cheap, make it look roughly like a Lotus Seven, and keep it fun. The project is basically a road-legal midget car built for two. Donor vehicles are usually any small RWD vehicle (Miata, Mustang II, S10, 1970's import, etc). At least one example is built out of wood. Power plants are up to the builder, but range from Mazda 13b twin-turbo rotaries (dubbed "Rotus"), motorcycle engines (Honda Fireblade, Kawasaki ZZR 900-1100, Hayabusa, Harley-Davidson), 2.3L Ford Pinto motors, electric motors, and at least one turbo diesel. Some builders stuff 450 hp V8 motors in their projects, but at that point it is neither "low cost" nor "low weight -- but I do want to drove one at least once. While £250 -- about $500 dollars -- isn't realistic unless you own your own junk yard, $8,000 is probably a good budget, and $10,000 allows for some niceties like a programmable ECU, Wilwood brakes and a pre-made frame.

If you're interested in building a Locost, Yahoo has several active Locost groups. Ron Champion has a new version of his book due for release in a few weeks, entitled "Build Your Own Sports Car for as Little as £1000." Keith Tanner has turned his Miata-based build (featured in Car and Driver last August) into an acclaimed book, "How to Build a Cheap Sports Car" plus a killer website. Virtually all Locost builders stop by Jim McSorley's website, which features plans for a slightly expanded version of the "book build" that accommodates American-sized butts. Australian chassis flex laws have given rise to all sorts of chassis modifications that greatly add rigidity at a very low cost, either in money or weight. Google is always your friend in one of these projects.

Assuming that the Locost builder keeps their car's weight to 1400 pounds - weights under 1000 pounds are seen in motorcycle-engined cars -- and uses any number of the current 200 hp minivan or econobox motors, the power-to-weight ratio will be better than the current Dodge Viper, and not too far from the C6 Vette. While a Locost's hopeless aerodynamics -- not to mention one's amateur welding skills -- won't allow for the Viper's top speed, the Locost's weight will allow you to trounce the Viper around those cones. Best of all, it will allow a man to scare his mistress to death, which is the definition of a great second childhood.

Note - cudos to Keith Tanner for his assistance. Keith routinely beats C6 Vettes by 5 seconds on a 1-minute autocross course in his Locost.

Related Links

Top Gear Caterham assembly video
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u1mJgk4STIc

Locost Assembly video:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fVbvcmWa9xg

Caterham in slalom:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UCRUoeToLPk

Car and Driver Article, August 2006
http://www.caranddriver.com/features/11304/features-review-the-homemades.html

Keith Tanner
http://cheapsportscar.net/

Jim McSorley
http://mcsorley.net/locost/

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