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Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Tools, Rabbits and First Rides

I use Margery Williams' "The Velveteen Rabbit" and Dr Seuss' " Oh the places you'll go!" all the time both as a parent of five children and in business.

Velveteen rabbit moments are rare in life but you know when you have one.  They are those times when it dawns on you that you have become "real".  The birth of a true car guy is usually after removing and reinstalling an engine in a car.  Your first major car repair or project whether brought on by necessity as a broke 20 year old that blew up an MGA engine in college or as a fun hobby at the age of 60 makes you a car guy and you become "real".  You can't fake just are at a certain point.  Changing your own brakes or bolting in a new alternator is a good start...but you are just beginning the process. You will know when you are a true car guy after you are one, that's how it works.  At that point the signs will be there.  Dirty fingernails as you go to the Hospital if you are a doctor.  A bandaged cut on your hand as you go into your law firm.  Staying late at the car dealership to work on your own car even though you put in a full week working on customer cars.  Tools that take on a familiar feel in your hand instead of still being in the original plastic holders.  Paint and bondo in the creases of your hands from sanding and spraying...they all are signs you are a real car guy.  Normal people and the want-a-be crowd can't really play in this know things about machines and how they work from doing it yourself.

I gave my old 1999 Navigator to my Dad a few years ago since he drives quick trips around town as a deacon and needed another car.  The car promptly broke and cost my Dad a thousand bucks to keep it going...nice gift eh.  The car then served its purpose and went unused for a bit when my 16 year old spotted it idle in the driveway  one holiday.  All Brendan saw was the super stereo I had put in years ago when it was my daily driver.  The classic "i gotta have it" look that all 16 year old boys have regarding their first ride emerged.  My Dad said sure since it had been sitting for a while.  Well to get the car home I had to go up to Wellesley and get the car with him.  We went to start it...nothing.  Battery problem.  The first c-note of many and a new battery was gift to the new driver and his new car.  The old truck fired right off for my son as if it had been waiting for him.  The truck was so excited that when Brendan stepped on the brakes all the brake fluid came out from some over rusty hydraulic line down underneath the middle of the car.   Being an hour from home and after autozone had closed for the day we packed it in and headed back to Dartmouth discouraged but hopeful that the next trip would see a quick spliced brake line fix and a ride home for Brendan in his Navigator.

A few days later I grabbed the boy and we drove back up on a school night after I had grabbed the fittings and sections of hydraulic line.  I went into my Dad's garage to get the the tools and was hit like a truck with the familiar layout of my Dad's craftsman red tool box.  Each drawer was as it was the last time I used it back when I lived at home.  Each tool familiar and in  a comfortable place.  Certain tools you use all the time fixing cars and they get worn in to your hand and show wear from use.  You can't fake being real.  My Dad's tools were also my tools as a young man with too much project courage.  They and my dad had nursed me through the fixing of each of my many rides.   Vw Baja Bug, VW autostick Bug, Pontiac grand ville 455, MGA, Jaguar E-type, Jaguar xk120(never finished), Jaguar XJS... all possible because of the hours spent with those tools.  Real has many signs. Without his love of the right tool for the job I probably never could have started messing with cars as a 15 year old dreamer.

Brendan and I cut and flared the brake line with a quick is still hard to do a bubble flare even after you have done it a hundred times by the way...and we filled up the reservoir with brake fluid.  Smiles all around.  Off we went around the block to test.  The brakes were not the best as we wore off the rust on the discs but they got better after a few stops and we decided the car was ok to drive home.  We parked and went in to say our good byes to grampa and grandma, triumphantly got in the Navi and...nothing....wouldnt even crank over.

Looking deeper the terminals and the whole starter solenoid were corroded and the starter needed replacement...another trip home without the car since auto zone was closed.  There is no easy way to learn the meaning of a free car than to try to get a free car home.  Three days later we returned to the car and my dad, Brendan and I replaced the starter, fired the truck up and finally said goodbye and rolled out the driveway.  The grin on my son's face is exactly the grin we all had with our first car...priceless and full of potential.

Bren's ownership experience continues to teach through broken rear control arms, brake leaks, and the amazingly poor mileage that a Navigator from 1999 can achieve.  He is not a car guy yet.  He may be some day, but he is just starting out.  I love watching the replay of my own life through my boys.  The car experience is about the freedom it gives these budding adults and there is nothing quite like it for a young male.  I am helping with the control arms tonight when I get home and I can't wait.  Timmy called to me in to his room the other night...he is looking at older jettas on craig's list...1.8T versions...with a certain look in his eye....he is 16 in August:)

Mark Smith

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Smyth Performance and the end of life

My VW jetta is approaching the end.  Since I have used it not only as a test bed for the new Smyth kit cars but also as a truck for hauling, it is a tad on the rough side.  Numerous scars of a great life are everywhere...cooper's fastball always gets away from someone and "thump" another dent in the side...Brendan missed a three pointer and somehow the ball bounced off the windshield at just the right angle...cracked.  The tan seats have been slid into a couple hundred times too many by a guy who is welding up a new kit car...tan doesn't hide dirt and grime after all.   A very large SUV(hey I have 5 kids)gently bumped the front wheel of the parked Jetta...leaving the wheels aimed at the curb when the steering wheel is aimed straight ahead. Another luxury truck took out the passenger mirror.

On top of these day to day happenings I was leaving the driveway a week ago and I heard a "ka-tung" sound that was different from the usual "ka-tung" sound in that it ended with a clank...a piece of the front spring was laying on the ground under the car...I knew the strut bearing was making sounds, but a broken spring top?...never seen that before....alright then.  The car seemed to still work fine so I did what any car guy does and kept going to work.

Normal people would have had a new car 6 months ago.  So yes. The saws-all will be coming out in a few months and this Jetta will become the second Smyth Performance demo car after the white one being finished now.  Perfect donor really, even with all these problems, the parts of the car I need are in decent shape...plenty of life left.  As Capt. Jack Aubrey said,

"Would you call me an aged man-o-war, doctor? The Surprise is not old; no one would call her old. She has a bluff bow, lovely lines. She's a fine seaboat: weatherly, stiff and fast … very fast, if she's well handled. No, she's not old; she's in her prime."

The entire strategy behind Smyth performance has been to make an incredible car out of an ordinary one, a Jetta needs a bit more of a bluff bow to deserve a second shot.  Ordinary cars are thrown away after a couple hundred thousand miles, incredible cars are always rebuilt.  This is the key to our green story that is ringing true in the car community.  Sure a tdi diesel powered Smyth car gets 60 mpg and rips through the quarter in under 15 the key to the long term strategy of the company is taking cars that are not worth rebuilding and giving you a reason to rebuild them.  Is this the kit car business, not really.

A used Jetta is just not worth the money it takes to rebuild.  If you are a real environmentalist I guess you would rebuild the boring car because it is the ultimate environmental act short of riding your bike...but like it or not we don't drive for completely rational reasons...we drive because it is fun.  And if we are going to drive we usually want our chariot to reflect our personalities, egos and income as well as our day to day transport needs.  Sometimes this mix is a bit off...I enjoy the low key(OK a bit toooo low) wrecked tdi wagon with the diesel clatter instead of the  Italian super cars in the garage...go figure.  I use the ferraris often in these pages since they represent much more than cars.  As art they are a joy.  As cars they are a blast to experience.  And you never throw them away...ever.  This is the key for Smyth Performance and any car that achieves immortality.  If I can provide a package  that puts a bit of passion into that old car, you will rebuild it.

Without this added emotion or passion the car is on its way to the crusher...a huge waste of all that engineering and value that is just sitting there ready to be rebuilt and enjoyed.  V8 mustangs, vettes, Porsches and specialty performance cars have this immortality if they are not completely abused.  Sedans and utilitarian cars/trucks do not.  Even fancy Bmw's, and Audis end up in the scrap yard when they hit 200k miles or are in a minor accident late in life...people are done with them...just not special enough to spend the 5-10 grand it takes someone to rebuild a car.  There are exceptions of course, anyone can attach some sentiment to a car for any number of emotional reasons, but in general...cruncher.

The other day I posted a picture of the new Smyth car we will start working on in the fall.  We are building a $3500.00 kit that will transform your old Jetta into a 40+ mpg pick up truck.  Not just any truck...a truck that will get people to ask you questions at the gas pump...and if you are a car guy/gal that is the ultimate goal...the gas pump "I didn't know the Jjetta came as a truck" line of questioning.  Motorhead heaven. The G3F and the truck make a real statement not only by being exclusive(you can't have one if you don't build one) and stylish,  but by being home grown green.  The prius crowd wishes they could be this responsible....and we get to lay rubber living our green  lifestyle.  Passion comes from the building of the car yourself combined with a nifty ride in the end.  If you build a car you take care of the car...immortality.

As a car builder I like the ability to tell a story that has balance to it.  We drive fast on the track. We waste some gas doing it for fun. We spend countess hours on these machines that we love for single moments of joy on the weekends.  I have been known to have a cup of coffee and just look at the mechanicals of a fancy piece of engineering in the garage.  The analogy is the mechanical Swiss watch...thousands of moving parts ticking and turning away on your wrist...simply amazing.  You either appreciate that amazing feat of micro engineering or you wear a quartz watch just to tell time.  All we tinkering souls need is an emotional  reason to redo our boring cars and we will jump right in. The fact that you can use the Smyth jettruck and the Smyth G3F sports car every day just makes them fun and practical. The real story in this company's strategy is that we are giving a car the second life it never had.
Go Green, Go Fast, Repeat.

mark smith

It's a Miracle

This week marks a huge milestone for the Smyth Performance G3F kit car.  It is always a little stressful when the hand made prototype is converted to computerized tooling and parts.  Making things by hand is very time consuming as you all who have followed the project on the Smythperformance facebook page can see.  The last months have been a two pronged effort as we work toward the shippiong of the first kits.  First we were driving the hand made car to assess the basics of the car's handling and braking, and concurrently we were drawing the car parts on the computer so that they could be replicated and manufactured easily.  It may take a year of feverish creativity to nail a design in practice, but once you document the work on the computer you can make as many of them as you want fairly easily.

 This is where the miracle happened.  After spending two months working with Rick drawing the parts we had to pony up and order the steel from the laser cutter and the tubing supplier.  A laser cut tool was also ordered that was drawn to hold all the tubing in place.  If the drawing is wrong, all the tooling and parts are is a big deal.

The parts came in...I tacked the steel together in the computer cut jig...and it all fit perfectly.  Phew.  The miracle of computer aided manufacturing is still cool to me after 15 years of seeing it happen live.  To the right you are looking at five plates, three tubes and a lower vw suspension part that all came together the first time...a miracle.

You hear in the press about full digital design and fast prototyping in the new product world today....and it is is a great way to get there.  But in my world of products with a bit of passion behind them, I can't do it.  The art side of the product has to be done by hand to me...and then digitized at the end.  The number of running changes to the car over the last year and a half has been staggering.  We changed more each week than most companies do in months.  If we waited each revision for laser cut prototype parts rather than just cutting what we want with the plasma cutter here, we would be sitting around doing nothing half the time.  In house laser cutting or a small cnc plasma is great...but you still have to draw the parts in order to use the cnc tools and cutters....time that I think is better spent "playing" around with the actual car in front of you.  Cut, tweak, grind, use foam, wood, whatever you like...just prove the concept works aesthetically and functionally before you digitize.

The result is an intant transition from hand built prototype to full production kit.  The first two customers have started cutting their jettas already, and I will ship them the rear frame assemblies shortly after test fitting them both to my car.  Since all the items that make the car function are off the shelf vw items we don't have the "will it work" risk that most guys do...we started with a running car and we simply moved a few things around which was the key to the business model.  Our job is to provide a front and rear frame extension and a nice body that allows our guys to transform the boring economy car into something special.  Since the frame is the guts of the car we are thrilled that the parts now go together for our welders like a nicely cut puzzle.  So after a fun development ride you will only see crisp clean parts being assembled out back in the pictures...  The foam and creative mess of the last two years transforms into a real professional operation that will be fine tuned to deliver consistent and reliable welded and molded parts.  The show changes a bit now from "what the heck is mark doing today" to "what an interesting car and process".

Making the same car parts every day is not as fun as the wild man an a warehouse so the emphasis going forward will be a focus on the people and cars they are building.  So look for Clint and John's builds out there as number one and two customers and have fun, I know they are...and even though they can drive the cars every day if they want,  in the toy car business the fun building with family and friends is the real goal.

Mark Smith