Today’s cars may seem too sophisticated for tinkering, but the DIY auto movement is thriving, yielding designs and innovations too radical for mass production. Here are four awesome examples of modern garage-guy ingenuity.
The Rally Fighter from start-up Local Motors is a burly, menacing vehicle no major manufacturer would ever include in its standard lineup. With its 33-inch tires, 20 inches of suspension travel and rugged inner skeleton, the street-legal desert racer is too niche for mass production. But Local Motors knows that this beast is exactly what a small subset of buyers wants. How? Those buyers designed it.
The company was co-founded in 2007 by former Marine and Harvard Business School graduate Jay Rogers on the notion of combining the crowd-sourcing and DIY movements with staid auto manufacturing. Amateurs and professionals submit designs to Local Motors’s Web site, and users vote on the winners in a monthly contest. If, among other factors, a vehicle generates enough buzz that the company thinks it could sell at least 500 of them, the engineers fine-tune the design to make it feasible. Then Local Motors sets up a micro-factory—think automotive plant meets semi-pro DIY garage—where buyers build the car themselves under guidance from the company’s instructors for an estimated $50,000. “We’re not trying to make cars for soccer moms,” Rogers says. “We’re trying to make cars for people who are really deeply interested in automotives. Local Motors can bring these low-volume, highly desirable vehicles to market.”
Before builders show up, they will watch an instructional DVD at home: basic pre-training for the less handy. “They need to know the difference between a socket wrench and an Allen wrench,” Rogers says. Next, the customer will come in with up to two “build partners” for consecutive three-day weekends of work—roughly 60 hours in total. At the start, their Rally Fighter will simply be a welded chassis waiting for parts (pre-molded body panels will also be ready, but unmounted). Up to four groups of customers can be overseen by a single builder/trainer. Rogers describes these Local Motors employees as a mix of teacher, engineer and garage buddy—as he puts it, “personable folks who love sharing knowledge about cars.”
For someone like Jay Zuppardo, who has Rally Fighter No. 30 reserved, this sounds more like fun than work. He can’t wait to get inside the micro-factory and prep his Fighter for the desert. “I could go buy a Jeep or an FJ Cruiser, but it’s not going to do what the Rally Fighter is designed to do. I want that car,” he says, “and I want to get involved in what it takes to shove it down the line.”
Three years ago, rock legend Neil Young drove his 1959 Lincoln Continental to the shop of Wichita, Kansas–based super-mechanic Johnathan Goodwin and asked him to turn it into a hybrid. Goodwin had already made a name for himself by converting Hummers and other trucks (including Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Jeep) to biodiesel and boosting fuel economy from 12 to around 25 miles per gallon. The result of that meeting, the Lincvolt, should be on the road this summer. (Young recently dedicated an album, “Fork in the Road,” to his new love.) A 150-kilowatt electric motor, powered by lithium-ion batteries, pushes the three-ton Lincoln down the road. But the real heart of the car is an engine under the hood that can run on biodiesel, diesel, ethanol or other fuels. When the batteries run low, that generator recharges them on the fly, so there’s no need to pull over and plug in. Goodwin estimates that the car will exceed 70 mpg.
Five amazing, clean technologies that will set us free, in this month's energy-focused issue. Also: how to build a better bomb detector, the robotic toys that are raising your children, a human catapult, the world's smallest arcade, and much more.