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Thursday, June 9, 2011

Build at your own Risk(or joy) draft

by Smyth Performance on Thursday, May 12, 2011 at 2:14pm
This section is still raw in draft form...

Modifying a factory car is a time honored tradition in this country and most others.  Automobiles have always been big purchases whatever your budget...and always will be. It is also true that unless you have no sou, the decision about your ride is a pretty emotional one too. The purchase says much about you and your life.  Like a home or apartment we spend an enormous amount of time and money in these cars.  The car was an incredible invention that continues after a hundred years to allow practically anyone to work, travel and enjoy their world without geographical limits.  A 16 year old newly minted adult(yes a 16 year old is an adult in the car space) from the midwest with 500 dollars in his/her pocket can buy a used car from ebay, fix it, and be 1500 miles away with their buddies on the beach for the price of a night out on the town.  If you were not a gearhead in some way that trip cost you over a grand...if you were, that kid wanting to make the impossible road trip you always will be. The dream of the open road and freedom may start at 15 but lasts a life time for some of us.  Later in life it just takes the form of Bikes, Planes, Boats AND cars.  Even years later with all the successes and failures that a life of learning gives remains there as part of who you are.  You still have the power and satisfaction of being the one that can fix things and get where you are going.  At 15 it was a 1968 baja bug(which explains my JC whitney product knowledge to this day) for others like my cousin a v8 transplant in a v6 nova...but all of us got our "car start" with a story that still elicits a smile that comes straight from a youthful heart.

With five kids my dad was always doing a flipping brake job.  Every time the family was set to take a trip to Michigan or any other kind of significant car travel we would all wait for the inevitable last minute brakes off the car... literally packed up and otherwise ready to go.  The dog, the kids, the stuff, everything.   He was good at it too.  Dad may not have liked cars...but he was not going to pay some guy 500 bucks for something that took him an hour to do.  The brown Chysler Town and country station wagon was gonna stop well with his family in it.  Being a man of ritual(he is now a deacon) I really do get it now.  The trip needed that brake job just as it needed the late night playing of "mystery theater" on the car radio as we drove through Chicago late that same friday night.

But to do the work it took tools...and tools he loved...not  When my grandfather Ted Smith died in 1972 the professional tools of a lifetime refrigerator man went from the basement of his Michigan home to my dad's in our suburb of Chicago.  I was 10.   With all those kids my dad had to go one of two paths....fixing things...or paying other people to fix things.  If you want to use your cash for trips and adventure with the family as a true fix things...and that meant brake jobs and rebuilding carburetors.

The smell of carb cleaner...not the gumout stuff in the can..but the 5 gallon pail of etcher/solvent you bought at NAPA in the days when we were just thinking up the idea of catalytic converters.... that stuff meant cars to me.  Bad I am sure....corrosive....death in a pail.  But a carb that come out of that basket was new again.  The DDT of solvents I am sure.  Dirt and mosquitoes were not a problem back then.  I don't want to glam up the old days... but man that stuff worked. Now like most things that cleaned/did anything with this kind of vigor, it was probably just plain toxic and has no place in our modern world.  We are better off without all the chemicals that were probably just dumped somewhere when you were done...they didn't have recycle days at the dump back then...the pails just sat somewhere.  So good riddance of course...but the smell is fixed in my memory.

So here lies the rub.  As any of us who have made the transition and become a "car guy(gal)" can tell you, working on these machines can be a risk.  I am here to remind even the most experienced of you in this hobby of the obvious...that even the simplest project such as changing the rims and tires on a Jetta can be turned into a life and death situation down the road. Messing with these machines since I was 15, designing and making fast cars, boats, bikes and planes for close to 35 years, and I still  make mistakes that can cost me my life.

An example of this occurred last week.  Look, I can change a tire....first thing most people should learn after filling the car with gas, right?  Well I did the quick front brake job on the jetta since like most car guys I let the brakes go a bit and just started to feel a bit of metal to metal wear....I even showed Rob at work the pad with maybe a shaving of material left....bragging about how close I came to the edge of nothing left.  Pads and new rotors went on, wheels and tires back I went home.  A few days later I realized a bit of vibration on the highway.....then it got worse...bummer...more front end work I thought(this old car may prove my enviro slant but I have my limits...enough already).  I went to check the front, ready for some new work to do, and the wheel studs were not tightened all the way.  Rookie move that could have cost me a wheel flying into the woods and an accident.  Not tightening wheel lugs! A lifetime car pro and race car guy.  Nice. And I was going to fly my home built p-51....right.

Slow down.Be careful.  Especially if you are a pro.  The fear that a first time car builder has is the reason they do such a good job.  The fact that modern cars are engineered so robustly with so many fail safe scenarios taken care of at the factory is a blessing that we all take for granted,  and is the single biggest reason I am enamored with the one donor concept in kit car building.  Even before there was a factory Five I loved using everything I could out of a donor car not just for the economy of the build...but for safety.  The factory production car is a wonder of durability and low cost...and we want to use all we can in our projects.  The hot rod and custom car market disagrees since they want beauty and function.  The factory part are rarely pretty...function and cost control is death to car art.  Smyth Performance says ok to this trade...we will sacrifice the elegance of the aftermarket part for the factory reliability and safety in  a lower cost package by design.

At the end of the day it is about staying connected with the hands on side of the car business for me.  To be in tune with your customers that build cars you have to build the carr just like they will.  And the pure fact is that unlike my Dad,  I have always enjoyed working on machines in my free time.  If you always have someone doing the work for you the brain starts to forget and you make mistakes in design.  We think through these designs with amazing detail and when you do the assembly yourself it is like an architect that builds a house with her own hands...I will bet the plumbing lines up a little better when the mistake in design costs you the builder a few extra days to fix.

New world of projects.

These days you can download a free CAD program from google and have a complete Harbor freight sourced shop in a week.  Plasma cutters, welders, drill presses and bending brakes are half the cost they used to be if you only need limited use out of the tools.   As we design and build hot rod cars, each change to a system is scrutinized with 100 variables and outcomes since we are professionals.  The home builder sometimes spends even more time online making sure guys like me do a good job.  Whole discussion threads are out there analyzing the decisions of designers and how they could have done a better job.  The internet and the various discussion forums have created  "experts" out of windbags and litigation over everything in our society often keeps true experts silent.   I think the power of the car enthusiast crowd through blogs and forums such as makes car projects much easier than years ago.

We had access to a handful of Petersen Publishing books like "How to Hot Rod a Chevy(Ford) engine"  but that was it.  The occasional issue of "Hot VW's" or "Hot Rod" usually had a tip or build section on something interesting while the JC Whitney catalog and classifieds in Hemmings  taught us what cheap stuff was junk and what parts were worth it.  All fun memories... but when you need information to fix a car....the forums are immediate and helpful in the extreme.  You have access to a thousand people working on something just like yours every minute of the day.  It is simply incredible.  We all have a thousand wingmen ready to help at a moments' notice.  A true game changer and a force that is driving the growth in the car mod business.

When talking about the kit car business model over the years I always mention the cul de sac rule.  In every neighborhood/group of houses there is "the one" car guy.  His  garage door is up every now and then, and as you drive by you can't help but look at what the heck is in there.  Sometimes a couple guys hanging out/ hanging in.  But THE car house.  In this life that is the person I serve.  The forums have made us all able to talk to each other which just means that all the cul de scas are now connected.  There are a few more of us project guys out there because of it.  Smyth Performance is more than a cool sports car you make from a Jetta.  We are quietly going to institutionalize the home built/rebuilt car as a viable option to buying a new car and these "car guys" are the ones who will lead the way if we succeed.  You don't have to be 15 to start either...the chat rooms are full of new(at 50 years old) blood that always wanted to do this kind of project but went to grad school instead.  Having kids and working for a living takes a bite out of your day after all.  If you are late to the party, welcome.

So back to the projects and risk.  If the design change from stock is drastic, such as a completely new suspension design, we think it through, we test and we usually strap our own fannies into the machine and test it.  In the homebuilt plane business all home built machines that you can fly legally are labeled "experimental" by the FAA.  When you get into a plane that reads"experimental" it reminds you every time you use it how serious an experiment you are conducting that day on flies and you really want to be a good builder since you are the one strapping into what you created with your hands.  Ultimate freedom and ultimate risk.  The fact that you can still do this in America reminds me how valuable we all treat basic freedoms.  A great example of an extreme form of freedom.  Even though there is social risk we allow people to build and fly airplanes and cars that they built with their own hands and skills.  Amazing really.

The tests and inspections that are supposed to keep unsafe cars and plane off the road and out of the sky are pretty good.  Any local inspection station(most states have them) does basic visual and sometimes actual inspection of the cars that are registered in that state.  If you live in a state where safety inspections are not done routinely in order to register a car you are living in the U.S. the way it used to be as a completely free car enthusiast.  It probably won't last since regulation and legal action against this kind of freedom is everywhere.  The same country that allows someone to sue a ladder manufacturer after falling off a ladder still allows us the freedom to make a car from scratch and drive it...contradictions abound.

The truth behind home built machines is that the risks are real but the actual claims are low since in general the type of people that build and strap themselves into something they created with their own hard work and money tend to really take care of the machine they made.  It makes sense that the person who built a kit car or kit bike/plane spent an incredible amount of treasure time and love on the project.  Then when it is done you find that you know more about that type of machine than anyone who just drives built one after all....a different level.  You are going to enjoy it, but more than anything I have found that you have a respect for machinery joys and perils like only a wrencher can have.

Lets go through some of the things that can go wrong so that I can remind you how dangerous the hobby can be.  This section is a part of  the build manual for the Smyth kit and will be written to remind you as you build the smyth car of some of the areas that can hurt or kill you while working on machines.

Wheels and tires lugs

Brakes pads/lines/leaks

Ball joints/tie rod ends

Steering linkages


Explosion/fire from fuel or heat

Arms legs fingers toes


ears/hearing..grinding, exhaust bang,

Air Bags

Batteries...electric shock/heat/fire/fumes charging

seat mounts



Suspension settings


Eye protection

cuts/bruises wrenches

to be continued...

Working on cars has come a long way but is still full of jacking heavy stuff up in the air and running high horsepower engines on gasoline or diesel.  Have fun. Be careful.  Save some money. Spend lots of money on those special projects. Share with the kids however old they are.  After all, my Dad may not have liked working on cars,  but I sure loved working with him.

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