How to Build Your Own Car in Just 400 Easy Steps
Think of a Factory Five kit car as the ultimate adult Lego set. The premise: An average weekend warrior, armed with basic tools and about 250 hours of spare time, can build a hot rod, a midengine supercar, or a replica Shelby. Spend $19,990 for Factory Five's Mk4 Roadster kit, add an engine, transmission, wheels, and paint, and you have a sweet Cobra for less than $35,000.
Yes, the term "kit car" still carries a bit of pejorative sting. The early days of this automotive sub-industry included machines that were unappealing concepts (art deco roadsters based on Volkswagen Beetles), had parts that didn't fit (this was before computer-aided design), or both. Not so anymore. Modern kit cars are designed using 3D CAD software and engineered around powerful, reliable running gear like GM V-8s or Subaru flat-fours. A half-million-dollar laser CNC machine cuts parts with accuracy to within a hundredth of a millimeter, so the pieces actually line up.
"They build their cars to a standard that we wouldn't even go for ourselves."
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Even so, the prospect is daunting. Can a half-competent wrench jockey like me really build a whole car? I'm at Factory Five's Massachusetts headquarters to find out.
Before me is a red fiberglass body and dozens of boxes that, I'm told, contain the raw ingredients of a car. Three employees help me gingerly lift the body off its tube-frame chassis. Then, we start wrenching.
Today, our goal is to get this car rolling, with brakes, suspension, and tires. Almost immediately, I screw up. I bolt the lower control arm onto the chassis only to discover that I've used the wrong spacers. If I'd slowed down and read one step further in the assembly manual, I would've known better. When founder Dave Smith walks in, I ask whether my handiwork is besmirching the company's good name. That's not something he worries about. "Early on," he says, "a consultant said that one of our biggest issues is that our name is on the final product, but we don't control the quality." But that hasn't created any problems. "People are invested in what they're building," he says. "They build their cars to a standard that we wouldn't even go for ourselves." I'm not sure if that'll be the case for me. Have you
ever been deep into a piece of Ikea furniture and realized that you bungled something 15 steps back? That's where I'm at. But I fix my mistakes and make progress.
A real Shelby Cobra costs seven figures. Factory Five's kit version is less than $35,000. You just have to assemble it yourself.
"We don't structure the build for speed," R&D director Jim Schenck says. "It's designed to deliver periodic rewards so that you don't get discouraged." I backtrack, swap the spacers, and continue. Soon enough, I'm lifting the 8.8-inch solid rear end into place with a floor jack and mating it to the chassis. The suspension goes on, followed by the hubs and brakes. The wheels are especially satisfying, the whir and rattle of the impact driver tightening the lugs on the studs. I've been in here for three or four hours, but it feels like minutes. I would've bungled more than a few steps without Schenck's help, but I feel like I could do this.
I walk outside to fire up a completed Mk4. This one's got Ford's 5.0 Coyote engine, found in Mustangs. It's a popular option with plenty of power, and the result is a balanced, controllable car. But it drives like you're riding a grenade-powered skateboard. It feels too raw for the street.
In a way, it is. You can't just buy a car like this from a dealer. The thicket of regulations that govern modern vehicles means that building a kit is the only way to get a new car that's exempt from rules about stability-control systems and ignition interlocks. That changes next year with the Low Volume Motor Vehicle Manufacturers Act, which will allow a company like Factory Five to sell as many as 325 kit cars per year fully assembled.
But skipping to the finished product, I found, is missing the point. Only when these parts are scattered all over your garage and you're muscling a torque wrench to the positive click of 190 lb-ft do you appreciate the artfully orchestrated amalgamation of parts that gets you to the Quik Mart. Where, incidentally, a woman pulls alongside my silver and yellow Mk4 and declares, "Badass." I smile, waiting for her to ask who made it.
*This article was originally published in the October 2016 issue of Popular Mechanics.