Join Date: Jan 2003
GT40: Cape Town, South Africa
Car building is a complex business
As we move towards the end of yet another year I would like to share with you some thoughts and personal experiences about the complex business of building cars.
My opening message is that the building of a car is a challenging, difficult, involved and time consuming process. Ain't no short cuts. The project has to be properly funded, be it a production car or a one-off and it has to be planned with military precision. If these two basic rules aren't applied, please don't even begin. Rather go and read a novel on the beach it'll be a more rewarding experience.
Also remember Jimmy Price's stock phrase, 'It always takes longer and costs more than you think.'. Absolutely true! If you budget $100,000 for a project make sure that you have access to $300,000.
A major problem is that the specialist sports car/kit car industries draw passionate people, dreamers (I'm told that I'm one too!), hopefuls and people with unrealistic hopes. To succeed in this tough industry you must understand it from every which angle, you must have been at the coal face and have qualified at the School of Hard Knocks. There are also wealthy people who've made money in other industries who invest in car building companies and projects because of their love of cars. This can work but the investor must pick competent and experienced people, leave the business in their hands and not interfere.
The formal sports car manufacturing industry and the smaller specialist manufacturers generally enjoy a good reputation, but this regrettably cannot be said for the 'kit car'industry. The industry is plagued by a high level of chancers, moon lighters, deposits taken but no delivery, poor quality, no build manuals and much more. For these reasons the dream of building a beloved sports car often ends in tears, divorce or nervous breakdowns, not to mention financial loss.
In my travels throughout South Africa and the UK I've often been appalled at the sheer lack of professionalism, non-existent administrative control, no records, no time schedules, filthy factories and workshops, offices that look like pig sties, etc.How people can go to work under those circumstances is a mystery. What is also amazing that sometimes good cars emerge from these conditions.
There are about 120 companies in the UK kit car industry and thanks largely to the Special Vehicle Approval (SVA) regulations some superb cars have emerged in recent years and are now so good they could come from 'proper'car factories, ie Gardner-Douglas, GTM, Grinnall, Ultima, Westfield, a few Cobra and Jaguar replica manufacturers and others. At the bottom end of the scale are some appalling and ugly cars which could only be described as crap. It's not difficult to style a beautiful and aesthetically pleasing body shape so why do it all wrong, why even start shaping up the buck when it's going to end up as an ugly duckling? Even more astonishing is that people buy the things!
IMHO high quality cars must be built under clinical conditions in keeping with the saying, 'You can eat your breakfast off the floor.' The extreme clinical conditions of the FI shops might be difficult to attain by Mr Average Car Builder but they could be a benchmark. It all adds up to a sense of efficiency, orderliness and professionalism. Potential customers like walking into a smart reception area with matching furniture, neat shelves and filing systems, pot plants and prints on the wall. Gives them faith in the business.
I enrolled in the Senior School of Hard Knocks in 1990 when Norman Lewis and I started on the build of a KVA-type GT40. At the time I owned a small Ford sub-dealership in the Cape Town suburb of Fish Hoek, a sea side town about 16 miles due south of Cape Town central. We were contracted to build the car by an English client. Norman would build the car hands-on and I would support him on the administrative and parts sourcing sides.
First of all the kit was very basic and there was no build manual, which meant that we had to basically re-invent the kit before the actual build could commence. The hoped for 750 hours build time eventually ended up at about 2,500 hours! What was supposed to be a pleasureable exercise ended up basically as a nightmare. With the added stress of having to sell Henry's cars to put a crust of bread on the table I was rapidly heading for 'executive burnout', a fancy expression for a nervous breakdown. My doctor eventually put me on Prozac and booked me off work. Been there, done it, have the T-shirt!
The suspension was awful. Front end was a Ford Cortina 'K-frame', but which was quite practical as the whole sub-frame contained the upper and lower control arms, shocks, hubs, discs, calipers and steering rack. No wonder it was popular with the British kit car industry. Rear suspension was modified Granada which made the rear end look like locust about to pounce.
This experience taught me some important things - the need for tight control, detailed cost control, forward planning and absolutely essential, a build manual.
Anyway, we must have got it right somehow as the car now belongs to a Mr Hansjorg Winkler, who is a VW dealer in Feldmeilen in Switzerland. And we know how fussy the Swiss are about quality!
As I've mentioned before, this GT40 build laid the foundations for the CAV/GTD deal about six years later.
With regard to build manuals, I've seen several good ones in the British kit car industry but they all missed out on an important point, the listing of the tools, nuts, bolts, washers, screws, rivets, etc, required for each of the building stages. If you want to be in this business a detailed build manual is a MUST.
I believe that if anyone with only half a knowledge of car building were to follow the 65 page build manual that I wrote for the GTD/CAV space(tube) frame GT40 they would be able to build it - like painting by numbers. It took me about two months to complete it and that time spent by anyone wanting to enter the industry would be his best investment. It's go a long way to preventing broken dreams, nervous breakdowns and divorces! Above all it could make the build experience an enjoyable one and not a nightmare.
Without a correct suspension layout a car will be dangerous. I'm amazed at how often I've come across someone who thinks that he can design and build a car and then welds up wishbones and other suspension components which are all wrong and then ups with a car that handles like a pig on the way to the abattoir.
Bump steer is major problem in suspension design. In a nutshell this is caused by incorrect geometry. The other day I looked at a bare chassis with suspension attached. At the front there were no coils-over-shock in place, which meant that the hubs and discs attached to the upper and lower wishbones were at rest at the bottom. When I lifted up one of the hubs I moved it up through its full travel. Looking down on the disc I was horrified to see how it changed direction through its travel. If this car were to be built the front wheels would change direction slightly from left to right as the suspension travelled up and down in particular on a rough surface. In other words the steering of the car would have a mind of its own. I shudder at some Cobras I've seen built in this country. In fact when I see one coming in the opposite direction I start looking at some flat piece of countryside I can use as an escape route. If it were a Jimmy Price Cobra I would wave happily but then it's hardly likely to be as 99.9% of his cars are exported to the US.
The best book on suspension design is called RACING AND SPORTS CAR CHASSIS DESIGN by Michael Costin and David Phipps. It was published by B.T. Batsford of London in 1961. Read it, you'll quickly be an expert!
Those silly little things called nuts, bolts, washers, screws and rivets, without which a car won't come together, require careful management. I've often seen them in little boxes, plastic bags, all over the place and out of control. Not controlling these items can lead to a great deal of wasted time, like rushing off to the shop to buy six bolts which are out of stock and wasting an hour in the process.
At CAV I ordered a plastic storage drawer system and each item was individually stored and clearly labelled. You can't have assemblers running around scratching for these items. In fact this aspect of car building can be the biggest waste of time.
The CAV GT40 required the following quantities of varying shapes and sizes:
Rivets (477); Bolts (152); Nyloc Nuts (225); Screws (340); Washers (375); Rivnuts (29) and Cap Screws (22).
Apart from the GT40, Norman has built several cars including seven Cobras, a Lola T70, two Porsche Speedsters, two Lotus Sevens, a 1937 Jaguar SS100, and two Rickman Rangers. In the early days he also worked for CAV for a while. It's always been a pleasure working with him, for as a former RAF jet aircraft electrician he comes to the party with armed forces discipline.
In early 1992 I wrote an article for our local CAR magazine on the build of the GT40. See below.
Here endeth the lecture! If you want to be in the car building business DO IT PROPER! You owe it to your customer. You'll enjoy the challenge and who knows you could even make some money!