car

I built my first car model when I was 8. It was a Duesenberg 1934 Coupe Chauffeur. Magnificent. Body pieces that snapped together, metal panels, chrome interior details, glass windows that folded down, real fasteners, burgundy interior fabric, rubber tires with white-wall siding, metal spokes, cables, and a miniature motor.

My older brothers bet I would never finish it, but I might as well have been glued to our playroom table because I didn’t get up for three days that summer until the entire model was finished and gleaming. And I had just as much fun organizing my workspace, tools, glue, and paint as I did building the model. It was my first man-cave, the first little place in my life that my sister didn’t want to mess with. The whole experience of car creation just seemed to be so essentially satisfying. I was hooked.

Thirty years later, I’m still at it. Only this time the cars are real, and I’ve learned to share the love with thousands of fans on the internet as together we design the cars that we’re going to build together.

I run Local Motors in Chandler, Arizona, which is the first collaborative car design and engineering business wrapped up with the world’s first micro-factory production facility. Here, customers are invited — no, required — to join us in the build of their car.

We recently began manufacturing our first car, the Rally Fighter. Designed by one of our 20,000-plus community members, Sangho Kim, it’s a premium, authentic, off-road vehicle that’s also on-road legal. Building a Rally Fighter at our micro-factory is the ultimate kit experience, priced at $74,900.

Open Design

Here’s how it works. Local-motors.com hosts the open collaboration space Local Forge, where people can post their ideas on anything automotive. Most of what’s there is free exploration, but the discussions always come back to the essential question: “What would it look like if I were to make it real?” This is not a fantasy picture site, but a place where engineers, designers, and enthusiasts collaborate on stuff that the big automakers wouldn’t dare to. You can dream anything you want here, but to see it come alive, you must also justify your ideas to your peers and accept guidance from our engineering team.

We also design for simple assembly. Our customers aren’t trained auto workers, and we can’t assume their level of expertise, so we steer designs to ensure the customer’s capability and enjoyment as they build in our micro-factory. Each car must be buildable by two people in 12 days, from a clear set of instructions that the team develops on a wiki.

This open source ethos promotes understanding and sharing by all stakeholders, which eases manufacturing and service later. The result is that our build process accommodates all comers, from 13-year-old Iowa Boy Scouts to 85-year-old businessmen from Kazakhstan.

Our cars are literally open source. The build wiki is accessible and modifiable by anyone. Each build is broken down into day-by-day instruction sets, each with a text listing and photos of all the required parts and tools, and YouTube videos taking you through the entire build step. We build our cars here, but there is no part of a Local Motors car’s assembly that someone can’t study and replicate elsewhere.

The Rally Fighter

Sangho Kim was a young professional industrial designer who dreamed that Group B-inspired Dakar racing coupes like the Fiat Enduro, Porsche 959, and Lancia Stratos needed a younger brother available to the common man. He posted his concept drawings of a high-waisted, desert-running, P-51 fighter airplane-inspired, off-road car that could also work on the road. Kim’s simple side views and gestural drawings from several angles described the feeling and stance of his Rally Fighter idea, which immediately caught fire in the Local Motors community.

In the next stage, the community discussed initial concepts of how to fit the necessary components inside the Rally Fighter. For this, we made orthographic packaging drawings, where the original concept is flattened into 2D planes from the side, top, and front and then the major systems (wheels, engine, transmission, driveshaft, axles, seats, steering, etc.) are placed in their proper orientation.

The result: the Rally Fighter would have a lightweight space frame, composite aerodynamic panels, 20-inch shock absorbers, and a mid-mounted engine with rear-wheel drive.

This exercise is effectively ground truth for the engineers focused on function, but any changes to the 2D orthographic views to accommodate gear can also alter the 3D appearance of the car in unexpected ways. To realign the space requirements with the original vision, we snap the orthographic lines back out into a 3D surface, add highlights, gravity effects, and texturing, then render the revised design. With the Rally Fighter, the community’s gut reaction to the renderings was still powerful and positive. We had the makings of a potential car.

The next step was open development to get the Rally Fighter ready for micro-factory production. This is a grand effort, because with each car built, we have to train our “build force” (our customers) anew, so we’ve got to make the process as clear and supportive as possible.

The Factory

At our facility, people equipped with only hand tools and desire, in a 10-by-15-foot concrete build bay, go from a box of parts to their finished machine over the course of two weeks. Our amazing architect worked round the clock on a minimalist plan that accommodated everything Local Motors needed in our 40,000-square-foot space, from our offices and “R&D cage” to the materials fabrication area, where chassis are welded and composites are formed.

We use scanners and 3D printers for fluid, rapid prototyping, and fabrication equipment like water jet cutters for rapid manufacturing. We limited the fixed machinery and put everything else on wheels so we can move it around. If you think a rolling crosscut saw is a bad idea, think again.

Our ten build bays are stacked together on the build floor so that customers can eyeball each other in a friendly game of “I can build to standard better than you can.” Competition is an amazing motivator. If it works in Dearborn, it should work here.

The crown jewel of the build bay is your very own tool cart, which contains exactly what you need and nothing you don’t. This cart disproves the common notion that you need every tool under the sun in order to build a car. Actually you only need a few; they just have to be the right few. Each bay also has a web-enabled screen to consult the all-important build instructions, which can be updated on the fly with new build-floor wisdom on the open wiki.

Finally, since we demand ten-hour days or more in this car-building boot camp, we include a kitchen and refreshment area managed by a local Arizona Culinary graduate who comes prepared to keep the troops well fed. A happy belly is a productive mind.

That’s how we roll here, and if you breathe automotive and style, I invite you to visit local-motors.com and engage in real-time auto evolution: design, buy, build, and love the car of your dreams.