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How to Build a Car

Old 04-23-2015, 10:24 PM
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Join Date: Dec 2009
Location: China
Posts: 63
Default How to Build a Car

The unmistakable feel of metal scraping skin forces me to look down at my right hand. I see blood welling up from the middle knuckle of my index finger. I had thought that the space beside the transmission tunnel of Local Motors' Rally Fighter (think: a street-legal version of Mad Max's desert racer) could accommodate both my hand and a seat track. But it couldn't—at least not while I was trying to wrestle the seat into position and bolt it to the floor—and now I have a slice in my flesh.

I turn to Mike Pisani, one of Local's R&D engineers, and explain that he must have ordered a batch of defective seats. There's no way these fit. He calmly nods toward the other three cars on the line. They all have seats. Which means that if there's a problem, it's not with the hardware but with the goon holding the wrench. Therein lies the beauty and the challenge for Local Motors and its customers: You can't just walk into a dealership and buy a Rally Fighter. You have to roll up your sleeves, grab a ratchet and help build it.

The process that led to my newbie car-building moment can fairly be described as unprecedented. Local Motors CEO John "Jay" Rogers Jr. hatched the idea for Local Motors while he was at Harvard Business School, where the concept won the annual Pitch for Change contest during the 2006 to 2007 academic year. Before Harvard, Rogers had served for six years as a U.S. Marine Corps infantry commander. Which means he could kill you with his bare hands, but he'd have to make a business case for it first.

Rogers's big idea is to harness the creativity of underemployed industrial designers, art-school students and car-design geeks—people who have notebooks full of sketches but lack the means to produce a vehicle. But instead of one designer providing a few options, an online mob goes to and submits 10,000 schemes for cars (actually, more than that at last count); the coolest ones rise to the top, based on voting by the LM virtual community. Winners receive $10,000 and a childhood dream come true: seeing a car they drew go into production. That's how Sangho Kim, a student at the Art *Center College of Design in Pasadena, Calif., turned the wild idea of an off-road P-51 Mustang fighter plane into a rolling reality. "I was totally inspired by the P-51," says Kim, who now works as a designer for GM Korea. "I was searching for what could make a strong, bold and sexy car. The P-51 has a really cool silhouette and American DNA."

After Kim's design was selected, Local Motors built its first production facility near Phoenix, hewing to the company's plan to set up microfactories in whichever area suits a given car. The Rally Fighter's specialty is fast off-roading in the desert, so Phoenix fits the bill. Other designs, not yet in production, include the Green Apple, a compact electric car with a windmill generator and enough moxie to survive in the Big Apple, and the Miami Roadster, a "modern, hot" car that provides "elegance in an aggressive package," according to LM's website.

Practically speaking, Pisani says, "there are four major impediments to building a car: tools, time, space and ability." Local Motors takes care of the tools and space. I've got plenty of time. So for my Rally Fighter build, ability is the wild card.

The finished product will be roadworthy, of course, but different from a conventional set of Detroit wheels. Its DIY pedigree and certain details—for instance, it has seatbelts but no airbags—dictate its registration as a custom- or homebuilt vehicle. If you're thinking kit car, you're on the money. But Rally Fighter buyers don't build the car in their garage; instead, they spend two weekends at the factory, enjoying expert help. The last time I built a car, it was made out of Legos. But with Pisani's guidance, I'm up for the task at hand. I think.

Pisani leads me to a rolling chassis and ticks off our to-do list: Install the aluminum honeycomb trunk walls, assemble the trunklid, and fit the body over the steel-tube frame. We'll also deal with my nemeses, the seats. I'm fascinated by the naked Rally Fighter, with its immense Fox Racing remote-reservoir shocks. While a BMW diesel powered the development car, all the vehicles here on the floor are fitted with a GM E-Rod LS3 V8 crate motor. It's not as novel as the BMW straight six, but it has the advantage of 50-state emissions compliance—and 430 hp to the BMW's 265. In its current, bodiless state, the Rally Fighter shows how it maximizes the use of off-the-shelf parts. The rear end is from Ford, as is the steering gear. The gas tank wears a BMW part number (M3 tank, 16.6 gallons; M5 pump). The front and rear bumper structures are Mercedes. For a car that will cost about $60,000, this thing has some fancy innards.

Our first task is to install the trunk walls. That means fitting weatherstripping to the top edges of the panels and then bonding the walls into place with angled aluminum and Plexus adhesive. If you've never used Plexus—and I haven't—the important message seems to be that you shouldn't let it touch two things that you don't want stuck together forevermore. Thankfully, I'm able to draw a tidy bead with the glue gun and get our walls clamped into place without inadvertently gluing my head to the rear suspension. This car-building stuff is easy.

At least that's what I think until I'm tasked with installing the seats. Each one is mounted on a rail, and the mounting holes play peekaboo depending on the seat's position on the rail. That precipitates a chicken-and-egg conundrum, since you can't easily slide the seat on the rails until it's mounted, but it's hard to mount the seat without moving it along the rail. As I struggle to get the seat into position, I notice there's a lot of swearing going on around here. And it's all coming from me.

With that frustrating task behind me and my knuckle bandaged, I move on to the rewarding part: dropping on the body. The upper shell—roof, rocker panels and front fenders—is fiberglass; the lower parts that are subject to abuse, such as the bumpers and rear fenders, are carbon fiber. The shell weighs just 150 pounds, so Pisani and I easily lift it into place. Next, we tackle the trunklid. Housing the taillights, a latch, hinges, license-plate lights and the center brake light, the humble trunklid has a lot going on. And that's before you install it.

Pisani and I attempt to bolt on the hinge brackets, but the holes aren't lining up with the chassis. The trunk's weatherstripping is slightly thicker than originally planned, so the brackets are slightly off. Pisani removes a bracket and drills out the mounting holes. Now it fits. "After we finish, we'll take the measurements and change the CAD data so that the next ones will bolt right on," he says. "We could just keep adjusting each one, but that's the hack way to do things."

We move on to the trunk wiring, which requires a couple of spots of solder. I confess that I've never soldered anything, and Pisani gives me a quick tutorial. This, too, is part of the process: If there's a technique or tool that's unfamiliar, the Local Motors crew teaches you how to do it. And it turns out that soldering is great fun. You're using fire and liquid metal, which is elementally satisfying.

Come to think of it, the whole procedure is satisfying. You're handling tools and bonding metal, watching a car take shape. But the really difficult tasks are handled by the pros. You get the validation of seeing your work translated into a tangible (and, in this case, fierce-looking) machine, without the fear that you'll get 20 hours into the assembly and then realize that you installed the first component backward. As my workday winds down, the Rally Fighter is a little more complete than it was when we started. It's gone from a naked chassis to something that looks like a car rather than a dune buggy. But it's not yet ready to hit the trails. For that, we'll be using Rogers's own Rally Fighter, one of the first V8 cars to roll out of the factory. That car is finished. Almost.

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