Over the past many years, I have built kit cars, along with race cars, restorations and just keeping cars and trucks running so that I could use them. My first kit car was in 1979 – an MG-TD replica built on a Volkswagen Beetle floor pan. Made in Daytona Beach, it was a Daytona MiGi. That summer we drove it to Colorado and back from Florida on vacation. We were a lot younger then…
Building that car was a great amount of fun, but having the manufacturer located a few miles away made it a lot easier and a lot smoother. I was already familiar with the VW mechanicals, found a good donor car, and took my time so that I could make sure I did it right. We had a lot of fun with that little car.
But building your own kit car isn’t like getting a model kit from the hobby store and putting it together with paint and glue. Even those who say that the car “can be assembled in a standard garage with hand tools” isn’t telling the exact truth. The kind of car you want to build will also dictate the level of complexity involved in making it happen, and also dictate the cost involved. The more complex, the more difficult, the more time, and the more expertise is needed to build your dream.
Just like choosing a restoration project, your choice of kit car build will depend on a variety of factors. You have to make these considerations:
- Weather. Do you want to drive your creation all year long? Some open cars don’t have a top, and most that have a convertible top don’t seal very well. In the rain, you will get wet, and so will the interior. So will you be happy with a car that you can only drive when there is no chance of rain? Also, closed cars also tend not to seal well at the doors, door windows, and others, meaning that they will also leak. If it rains almost every day where you live, you may want to go in a different direction.
- Construction area and tools. You will need, at the very least, a two-car garage, and nothing else will happen in that garage while you are building. So no cars can go in the garage…everyone in the house needs to know that, if you get my drift. Jacks, jack stands, vice, bench grinder, drill press, parts cleaner, and storage space are all needed. A nice big chest of tools is good to have, including a variety of SAE and metric wrenches and sockets. (I have two large rolling tool chests with upper boxes – and I run out of space.) A medium-sized compressor with air tools makes life better, as does battery-operated drills and saws. Lighting is also a big deal, since many will work at night. Do you have all that? Then you are ready to go…maybe add a small 115-volt wire welder in there, too. Is your entire collection of tools kept in a bag that you can pick up with one hand? This may not work for you.
- Skills and Talent. If you have trouble changing the air filter in your Ford, then maybe building your own car isn’t for you. If you have the kind of tools described above and can use them, can follow and understand directions, don’t mind asking for help, and learn quickly, you probably have the skills and talent needed to think about building a kit car. But do an honest “skill inventory” and assess your own skills and abilities. Check your available resources and get help where you need it.
- Paint and Bodywork. Regardless of what they say on their websites, all kit cars need some kind of bodywork and paint to be presentable. Many kit car builders have to get others to do this part of the build, and it can get expensive. (Mechanics don’t normally do body work, and paint-and-body people don’t normally do mechanical work.) Some have tried to learn to paint on their own, and may paint their kit car in the garage or driveway. This is a lot to learn, a lot to mess up, and end up in a lot of re-doing before its over. But, it is quite rewarding. (If you want to paint your own car, get help unless this is something you do all the time.)
- The Friends and Family Network. Once great idea is to get two or more people in your area (friends) to embark on this journey at the same time. I give you an example: A group of newly-retired executives wanted to build a variety of kit cars. They got together, rented and outfitted a warehouse near their airport, and ordered their kits. Each had his own talents and experience, and each brought something special to the table. They set up a schedule where everyone would work certain days
and evenings, and they all got together and worked on their cars. In a year’s time, each had produced a car – two Cobra replicas, a Lotus Seven replica, a ’32 Ford Coupe (a la American Graffiti) and a fire-breathing mid-engined GT car. They pooled their resources and helped each other with the heavy lifting, solved problems and had a great time.
Here are some tips to help you plan your project:
- Research all the companies that manufacture the kits that you are considering. Online forums are a great place to look, but also try to talk directly to people who have built that particular car. They can be a great source of information.
- You are going to spend more than you initially plan to spend, regardless of how you plan your budget. Keep that in mind, and if you do come in under budget, congratulate yourself.
- Regardless of your skills, you are going to screw things up and have to backtrack to do things over. Its not a problem – happens to us all. This is where some of the budget overruns come from.
- The fire-breathing mid-engine Lola, Ford GT or Porsche 917 replicas are difficult and expensive to build (but really cool!). They are also impractical as anything other than a show car. For a first endeavor, choose something that is relatively simple and uses a lot of donor car parts – keep it simple, stupid. If you want to drive it, find something that you can actually drive.
- Power steering, power brakes, air conditioning, electric windows and locks, cruise control – these all add levels of complexity and expense. If some of these come “with the kit as standard,” then they may be easier to install and make work. BUT – if they are extra-cost options, they may not be that easy. Again, beware.
- Having a lift in the shop makes things a lot easier, but most garages don’t have the overhead space to install one. If you have the space, it will make your build a lot easier, as well as maintenance down the road. You will also need to transport parts and even the entire car elsewhere for alignments, paint and body, and other tasks during the build. If you have a truck and trailer, then great. If not, you need to consider this need and adjust accordingly. A truck is a must – borrowing or renting a car trailer when needed should be part of the plan.
- Keep working on your project. Do something every day if you can. Too many of these projects die a painful death due to neglect – the builder gets distracted; the builder comes up to a part that is difficult or outside his or her skill set, and just stops building. Or the money runs tight. In either case, your partially-built kit car is worth about forty cents on the dollar – or less.
- Think about buying someone else’s partially completed project. Yes, you can take advantage of another’s failure and buy a project for less than half price. However, this is not for the weak – there will be parts missing, parts not properly cataloged, and assemblies that were not put together quite right. (This is probably not a good idea for a first-timer.) Remember why people stop working on their cars. And don’t buy a project kit that was manufactured by a company that you otherwise wouldn’t consider due to reputation, quality, etc. There are some great bargains out there, and some are found on the forums.
- If you can, take a trip and visit the manufacturer’s facility. Look for cleanliness, efficiency, volume, quality control, and your general impression of the facility and workers. I visited one factory and was allowed to walk around and talk to the workers. One guy had only worked there for about a year and a half – the rest had been there for over four years. The place was clean and efficient, and the staff really cared about their parts eventually becoming a car.
- The first-timer may want to instead modify a car instead of building from scratch. Admittedly, this normally involves more paint-and-body than mechanical work, but the finished product takes a shorter period of time and can be much less expensive.
- Some replica manufacturers provide partially completed cars that require less work on the part of the customer, but at a higher price. Some will build to whatever level you like, including mounting, aligning and painting the body, all the way up to complete build less engine, transmission and wheels. Check them out if you have a higher budget and lower skills or time.
For a car builder, there is no better feeling that actually driving and enjoying a car that you built. “Where did you get that?” is answered with a confident “I built it.”
The internet has made it much easier to build your own car. In 1979, our MG-TD replica was a simple build; did not require painting; and retained the mechanicals from the VW donor car. Today’s kit cars are much more sophisticated, safer, and easier to build than ever. And the internet makes the purchase, assembly and enjoyment much better, and it will only get better.
Also see I’ll Restore a ____ When I Retire!
Email your experiences with building a kit car, and we will post it on this blog!
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