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Friday, September 9, 2011

Welcome to the Small Time: Sub-car Innovation

Coming up with something truly innovative in the car business is a real challenge.  Millions of people are passionate about cars and the various things we enthusiasts do with them.  This leads to many brains working on the same theme...making most models of the modern automobile "better" and different.  I put better in quotes because from some views the improvements may not look like a step up to some...but that is the point...making the car into what YOU want it to be.

I have been lucky enough to come up with two real breakthroughs in what I call the sub-car business.  This small part of the car business caters to the home builder.  Our guys that I have been selling car kits to for 15 years have been reading those small ads in the back of Popular Mechanics magazine since they were know the ones....usually an ad for a mini desktop drill/lathe/milling machine(the ad still runs today I'll bet).  I am proud that I own the largest kit car company in the history of the genre but am brought down to earth when I look at the actual volume of kits we make.  At 500 kits a year(even our best years in the early 2000's we were still just under 1000 per anum) pale compared to the real car business.  Chevy sells more vettes in a week than the entire kit car industry as a whole probably delivers in a year...and the Corvette is the epitome of a niche ultra low volume car for GM.  We are not even on the car world map if you look at the volumes. The sub-car business defined.

So what are my personal contributions to this sub-car world?  Way before my work in Wareham these last 15 years or so the true kit car business was born with the Meyers Manx in the 60's.  Bruce Meyers took a VW beetle and removed the whole body, cut out a foot of the middle of the frame and put a new fiberglass dune buggy body on top.   Sure there were a few kit cars made as early as the fifties...but we are talking insignificant volume before Bruce.  With the meyers manx and all the copycat dune buggies that followed, a few weekends later you as the kit customer were driving a wacky VW dune buggy on the street or off road.  A simple idea that Meyers made work as a business for a while.   Sub-car but far from sub-par since the transformed car delivered on the promise of fun on the cheap.

Throughout the 70's the proliferation of VW beetle framed kit cars in almost any design was what defined the category.  T buckets, Bradley GT's, Kelmark GT's, porsche 356's, as well as the ever popular dune buggies became real business.  Still the sub-car business of course since volumes probably never exceeded a few thousand a year, but a business nonetheless.  With a few exceptions these cars all used the VW beetle frame and kept all the mechanicals in their original locations...rebodies but still a VW beetle frame underneath...not exactly hi performance hardware.  Several guys used the performance aftermarket that had flourished for the beetle, but over 150 horsepower was pretty rare.

Later on mid seventies we saw the advent of the first Arntz cobra replica. Even though Steve Arntz and his replicas fizzled as a business, he was responsible more than anyone else in ushering us into the high performance fully framed kit car.  The cobra was a perfect choice to replicate and started a market that is still the backbone of the kit car industry.  Note..the term Cobra is owned buy Ford and licensed to Shelby for his cars...Factory Five and Smyth Performance are NOT connected to Ford or  Shelby.  So back to our discussion...when you talk replica vintage roadsters or a historic view of cobra replicas you will see that everything changed in 1993 next to a transmission shop in Framingham, Massachusetts.

In 1993 after business school and while still working as a Chemist/product manager at Avery Dennison(markers and inks were fun too), I finished the first prototype car for what became Factory Five Racing.  By taking the popular 5.0 liter mustang and using all the mechanical/suspension/wiring components off the car and designing them into a brand new full frame with a replica body the birth of the one donor cobra replica or "roadster" was complete.  Cobra replica kit cars had been around for years but were made from the parts of many different cars...jag rear ends, ford big block engines from the 60's  custom wiring, suspensions/wheels/brakes from all sorts of cars such as the pinto and assorted MG's.  They had become the most popular kit car in the world by the 90's because they were the first kit car to deliver the goods...they looked fast and drove really fast.  My twist was driven by the fact that these kits were a bloody fortune to make if you wanted a nice car.  I took the 5.0 Mustang from the late eighties that I knew well and had been beating up for years, disassembled a wreck 5.0 in my sisters garage, and swore that I would use every nut and bolt I could from the car and make a replica cobra that had the quality I wanted at a price I could manage.
The most popular kit car of all, an FFR roadster on the Dyno

I was able to squeeze all the parts from one v8 hi-po car into that custom engineered round tube frame platform that I designed and welded up specifically for those 5.0 parts.  When I was done you could take a wrecked mustang for 3 grand and finish a bona fide street race cobra replica for another 10 grand.  The time searching for parts became one purchase of the donor car.  The aftermarket for the v8 mustang was enormous.  I got a B- (maybe even a C)on the project a few years before as a last project for my Bentley MBA in 1992 and that sealed the story of the launch of Factory Five in 1995 when I invited Dave out to start FFR.  He has run FFR since I left in of the best feel good fun small business stories around.

The domination of the kit market by FFR is small time kit car history though.  Only a handful of kit car enthusiasts even care about the lineage of these bastard cars so it really isn't too big of a deal in the business world.  The fact that we used EVERYTHING from the mustang was ground breaking AND a big deal innovation wise...who would have thought you could use the instrument cluster turned backwards, or remove and cut the plastic gauges from the cluster and remount them behind a vintage looking aluminum dash while keeping the entire computer controlled wiring harness and engine controls in tact?   Who would have thought that you could take a strut front suspension from the mustang and convert it into a double wishbone high performance front end with nothing but a coil over shock and a clever welded conversion mount?  Sub-car business innovation at its very best in my very slanted opinion.  My first contribution to the car world is still a pretty good one and all the quality folks over at FFR work tirelessly today to ship the best home built car kits in the world.

Seatek Diesels 750HP
That Bio-Diesel sticker always elicits Q's
As most in the industry know I left FFR for Dave to run in  2002 after we survived the ford/shelby trademark case.  I went totally diesel crazy for my next venture Smyth Performance while keeping my half of the company even today.  After repowering a 50' scarab with twin 750 hp seatek diesels and surface drives,  I realized that the economy wasn't quite ready for a big expensive kit boat project.  So back to cars I went and bought the jetta wagon diesel as the test bed in March of 2008 for what became the current Smyth G3F diesel sports car.  After 6 years away from FFR  I finally found my next true contribution to the car world.  Designing a frame add-on for a frameless  car(VW jettas are sheet metal unibodies in design like most modern cars and have no frame) and moving the engine to the rear from its position in the front,  a new category of car was born.  We transformed a frameless econo box jetta into a fully framed/reinforced mid engined sports car.  It was a wild idea from the start with absolutely no support from even my fellow engineers at FFR, let alone from Dave.  Dubbed the franken VW by my brother in the early concept days in 2008 his skepticism remains today and is understandable...a four door economy car cut up and turned into a sports car while using the entire sub structure and floorpan of the donor jetta?  Really?

I remember showing up at shows with the first FFR fuel injected replica and hearing the other cobra replica companies say"no one will buy a fuel injected cobra".   I think of that today as I launch a very interesting G3F to a part of the home built market that has not been served.  The fuel injected FFR segment of the replica market ended up being bigger after a few years than the entire market was initially, and I am hoping the same thing happens again here with these little VW's.  I have a feeling that this car as the greenest car you can possibly drive(doesn't hurt that it peels rubber for a city block) will change the kit industry for the better and usher in a wave of interesting small car kits.  It still amazes me that the hybrid framed G3F came out as cool as it did.

The innovative part of the Smyth  idea was the reuse of so much of the donor car.  It goes beyond the mustang donor concept since it preserves the whole floorpan and the mechanicals while becoming the ultimate recycled car.  It even stays a Jetta since the VIN is still there along with all the pollution control/crash equipment as well as all VW suspension parts.  At 2300 lbs and tuned up to 300 horsepower with a turbo gas or diesel engine the Jetta based kit creates a new kit category that builds on the legacy of the first VW kits in the 60's.  Add a frame to a frameless car and move all the parts around and presto...value added sports car that deserves the money you will put into it and delivers the performance of a mid-engined car.  Good bye econobox and hello sports car special...all for 7900 bucks and an old jetta.  Bingo.

Special and fun doesn't have to cost 30 grand IF you build it yourself.  And that is the real power of the kit car industry, finding ways to build amazing machines in the sub-car universe that all us car tuners/builders live in.  If you spend your time in the little ads in the rear of the magazines...join us for some 60mpg, 14 sec 1/4 mile, 1.0+g cornering fun for 10 grand.

Mark Smith

1 comment:

  1. I just gave you props on

    I love your work already!