Saturday, February 21, 2015

The Bug, Part Deux

Still February, still the worst month of my life, the nasty cold/flu gone but for a residual cough that past experience tells me that I can count on as a roommate for the next five to eight weeks, and snowed in on a weekend, again.  It could be worse, of course: travel is optional on weekends, so I can console myself with the thought that at least I didn't have to deal with a seventy mile round trip to and from work. To be honest, I leave so early in the morning that there typically aren't a lot of cars on the road (but plenty off of it!!) when the weather is bad, but it is slow going and that is not something that I enjoy. I've racer's blood coursing through my veins, intermingled with the elements that draw me to flying.

Speaking of, it has always seemed to me that people drawn to the types of airplanes that I most enjoy, that being small, nimble, and efficiently simple, are also drawn to the types of cars that I tend to seek out. I don't have statistics to back this up, but I believe that the car most often owned or pined for by people that own/fly Van's two-seat airplanes is the Mazda Miata. Much as Van's defined the homebuilt airplane market (or if "defined" is too strong for you, try on "enabled Van's to dominate" for size) with a realistic compromise between a sport plane and a travel plane, Miata can be credited with returning the two-seat roadster to mainstream acceptance for the same reasons.  Affordable, tremendous fun that isn't entirely dependent on a great deal of (expensive) horsepower, primarily because handling comes first.

Horsepower is fun in a straight line, I suppose, but give me a light road-hugging car and a desolate twisty road any day of the week.

As I continue the search for my next project, I'm finding the ground to be sparse when it comes to anything that can equal, far less surpass, the RV-12. It can be difficult indeed to find something to do if you started my climbing Everest.  Regular readers will be shaking their heads and/or rolling their eyes: "Didn't we just slog through a lengthy essay on the benefits of open-cockpit biplanes?"

Well, yes. Yes we did. Here's the thing with that, though. Or to be more precises, things:

  - Need another hangar, both for build and storage.
  - Need more insurance, and for a plane of that nature, it would come at a premium (heh!) cost.
  - The nature of the engine that would be used and the strength of the airframe would increase risk to your's truly.
  - Much more latitude in how it's built, which equates to a much harder build than the 12, which had the not inconsiderable benefit of having detailed instruction from the very first rivet to the completion of the first flight.
  - I've already built a plane.

Those are not necessarily showstoppers, but they weigh heavily enough that the mental gears are still grinding in a quest for other ideas.

I keep coming back to building a car.

This is nothing new - I have been looking at building a car since the day I became aware of Factory Five. Factory Five is to kit cars what Van's is to kit airplanes, which is to say "the most dominant manufacturer in the industry."  There is great value in this for any number of reasons, but the most obvious are:

  - long-term viability. Anything can happen, of course, but the chances of them being around to support the product are pretty good.
  - Proven product. Hundreds, yes HUNDREDS of their kits are successfully built. I have have an old high school friend that built one.
  - Refined product. They're on something like version 5 of their top seller, which is a Shelby Cobra replica.

They are not the only game in town, though. There are plenty of others that don't have the same scale but are still viable alternatives.

But that's getting a bit ahead of the game, so let me circle back.  Step one in building an airplane kit is deciding what airplane you want to end up with. For me, the decision was a small, light, efficient plane that would work just as well for short-ish trips as it would for a half hour of throwing it around the sky. For that one I took a short cut and bought an already-flying RV-6. It was a great airplane, but it obviously didn't quench the thirst to build something. When I through "attainable assembly" into the mix, and found that I hadn't done any aerobatics for a couple of years, my choice of plane to build came down to the RV-12.

This is the stage I am at if I am considering a kit car. It has to be reasonably approachable to the first time builder, and it has to be something that I want to drive.

It is that second attribute that I have been thinking about, although the "is there even a kit available, and is it reasonably build-able" question is never far afield.

This discussion came up yesterday during my every-now-and-then visit with the CEO.

As a bit of background, he is a big fan of Netflix in the same way I am: 99% of their offerings are dreck (I grant that this is very much an "eye of the beholder" thing), but there is great value in the number of high quality BBC shows on offer. One of the things I like most about some of the older shows, or at least shows staged in older times, is looking at the cars. You Downton Abbey aficionados may be doing something similar.  I'm not talking about the fancy Rolls-Royce Silver Ghosts and the big Cadillacs, mind you, but more along the lines of the famous two-seat roadsters from the golden days of the 20's and 30's.

Here are a few representative samples:

These (and to be honest, my own roadster that I use as my daily driver) are, with the possible exception of the last one, very refined cars that provide more than a modicum of comfort in addition to their sportiness. There is nothing wrong with that, of course, but....

I want to be very clear about something. I love my SLK. It is probably the best car that I will ever own, and the day I found it sitting on a used car lot with five years but only 14,800 miles under its belt will always be considered one of my luckiest finds. But...

That refinement and comfort comes at a cost in the same way the modern, capable RV-12 does when compared with the RV-6. I suppose the best way to say this is to just come out with it (at the risk of sounding like a spoiled child): there are days when I miss the Miata.

I love the SLK in the very same places I disliked the Miata: on the highway and in traffic.

I miss the Miata when I get out into the rural areas and find roads that would reward a light, nimble car, and where horsepower doesn't bring much to the table.

We're about to take a major change in direction here, and I would really appreciate it if you could take a few minutes to watch this video before reading on. No, really, you'll thank me for it.

Can you see where I'm headed with this? It's the racing heritage that compels. The long, storied history of the Lotus 7 pulls much harder than the playboy nature of the MG TD (the top three photos above) and seems to be a worthy stable mate to my SLK (which has plenty of playboy nature in it, thank you very much) for those days when I just want to drive for the sake of driving.

Having come to this conclusion, I am happy to report that, unlike the MG TD, there actually is a kit manufacturer that can supply just what I need.  The name of the place is Westfield, and they are located in Britain. That would normally be a giant pain to deal with, but fortunately it is simply an expensive thing to deal with. There is, you see, and American dealer that resells their kit in the US. The expense comes from shipping the kit across the Atlantic, which costs a princely $4,200.

(All of you RV-12 builders in Australia, Europe, etc. are currently drying your tears for my plight, right??)

Of course, I think I probably paid at least half of that to have my -12 kits shipped from Oregon, so it's not quite the tax that it appears to be.

In any event, I give you the FM Westfield:

Impressed?? I am!

But being the cagey little twerp that I am, I kept the best part for last:

It's build on a single donor car, which just happens to be.... A MIATA!

You can visit their web site here.

So, what would be the logistics of something like this?

  - Small enough to build in the back of my hangar.
  - No need to go out and find/strip a donor car. I would buy a pallet. I would opt for the higher-end 1997 parts, and that would cost around $4,000.
  - The kit itself, including the $4,200 shipping, would come in at around $21,000.
  - The body parts are already finish coated with Gel Coat, so no painting required, although I'd probably find someone to paint a nice yellow racing stripe on the British Racing Green body.

Open question: where to store it when done. It would actually fit in the hangar, but I would have to find a new home for my canoe and its trailer. I'd probably get a tarp to cover it and park in the back of my yard.

So, can I get you to watch another video? This is a Westfield Lotus, albeit with a different engine and non-English narration:

Can you see the appeal? I swear I saw some RV smiles in there!!

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