My Triumph Spitfire opened my eyes to the joys of British open top motoring, and while I’d had to part with the Spitfire, I was left wanting that experience again. I’ve also always had a hankering to increase the performance and reliability of a classic roadster with a modern drive train swap. Alas, I only had a small budget to work with, but stumbled across a book that would change the direction of my automotive project desires.
On a lunch break, I popped into a bookstore and was browsing the (poor) selection of automotive books when I came across this gem. Known as “The Book” in the Locost community, it is an inspirational tale of a man building himself a Lotus Seven style replica from a pile of scrap metal and a rusty Ford Escort Mk II. The name Locost is a play on Lotus and, of course, the cost is intended to be low. It contains semi-detailed plans with enough vagueness built in to keep the lawyers happy (allegedly, it is heavily based of a Westfield design), while at the same time giving ample guidance to the amateur builder.
While not an inexpensive book, I had to have it and uncharacteristically bought it right then and there. It was my obsession for months (ok, years afterward). I’ve read it from cover to cover so many times, it is likely permanently burned into my memory. In a fit of optimism, I figured it was easier to build a car than fix rusty panels and neglected mechanical bits on an existing one.
The first stumbling block was the lack of perfect fit donors, since this book is of British origin. The book used a Ford Escort MkII as the main donor which provided the engine, gearbox, steering, rear axle and whatever else you could salvage from it. More frugal builders re-purposed seats, wiring, wheels, etc. Since the Escort had strut front suspension, the book specified front spindles from a Ford Cortina Mk3/4, and we didn’t get those particular Escorts or Cortinas here in North America. Or did we? Canada actually did get the third generation Ford Cortina in fantastically small numbers. I’ve only ever seen one in a photo so the chance of finding a donor is remote. Even if you did manage to source one you’d have to be willing to sacrifice such a rare car.
The Ford Cortina MkII, sold in North America, is actually very similar to the Escort where it counts and was sold in larger but still small numbers. The axle is almost the exactly the same and both could be had with Ford’s crossflow Kent engine. A crossflow equipped Ford Pinto would be a reasonable donor, assuming one could actually find one. The bigger Pinto engines were on the tall and heavy side for a standard-size build. Deviating from the book’s donor meant a redesign of the front suspension which I was hesitant to attempt. These days such deviations are much more common and widely documented but I was determined to make the build as simple as possible to maximize the chances of success.
The oddities of Canadian market were able to provide a solution. The first generation, rear wheel drive Hyundai Stellar was essentially a re-bodied Ford Cortina Mk3/4 with a choice of Mitsubishi motors. The rear axle was too wide for a standard size Locost but again Hyundai came to the rescue, since the smaller Pony uses what is essentially a Cortina MkII rear axle. Between the two, there were all the pieces except for the Ford Crossflow motor. The 1.6L engine Mitsubishi found standard in the Stellar or optionally, in the Pony, is a very simple carburetor-fed affair, and while a little taller than the Ford motor, would give equivalent or better power. As a bonus, it could be had with a five speed gearbox for somewhat less frantic highway cruising.
I set out on a search for either a 1.6L/five-speed Stellar plus a Pony rear axle, or a complete Pony and a set of Stellar spindles. The Stellar was never a common car, even when new, unlike the Pony which was actually Canada’s best selling compact for at least one year. Despite this, I managed to source myself a running and driving manual transmission Hyundai Stellar. The older couple I bought it from somehow got the impression I was restoring it and I didn’t have the heart to correct them.
A Pony axle was sourced from the local scrapyard from a car with a mere 44k kms on it. Oddly enough, the car itself contained the dealer window sticker as well as a small cache of porn inside. I should have snagged it (the window sticker, not the porn) but was too busy with the axle.
I set about stripping the Stellar for which I felt a little guilty. It was a running example of what had become quite a rare car. I felt rather like I was putting down the last unicorn. Maybe a particularly ugly unicorn with a limp and a bad back, but a unicorn nonetheless. At the time I didn’t have an engine crane, so I set the engine on blocks and cut the car away around it. I bought myself a welder and proceeded to practice on some scraps. That turned out to be a very frustrating process as the welder was defective out the box and I didn’t have the knowledge at the time to realize it.
After the welder was sorted out, I reasoned that I should perhaps buy my suspension arms since that was the area with the greatest potential for problems and according to the book’s list of compatible donors, there were several sources available. As it turns out, I didn’t have to search very far because a company several hundred kms away in Innisfail, Alberta was importing British Luego parts to build Locosts, and my wife talked me into looking at their whole frame, perhaps suspicious of my welding talents. I took a trip up north and ended up coming home with their demo pile of parts.
Stuffed in the back of the family van, I received some interested looks on the drive home. It was rather less complete and documented than a proper kit like Caterham or Westfield, but certainly a huge leg up on a from-scratch build. And here is where my keep-it-simple approach went off the rails.
I’d spent quite decent amount of money on the Leugo parts, so surely I couldn’t slap in a nasty old Hyundai motor could I? The salvaged rear seat converted to a front bench wouldn’t do, either. And thus the budget and complexity bloat started. A Toyota 4AGE twin cam four cylinder engine from an AE86 Corolla GTS was sourced. Not a stock fuel injected unit, but one equipped with dual side draught Weber carburetors. It didn’t come with a gearbox, so I bought another non-runner engine for its attached five speed gearbox. No sense putting installing the drive train without replacing the clutch either.
The Seven project followed us through several house moves. It actually accumulated a decent amount of mileage but sadly, all of it in the back of U-Haul trucks. Slowly it lurched toward completion but with strict budget and time constraints. Building a car on the surface appears to be fairly straightforward, but there are an almost unending list of jobs both big and small. It is like death by a million paper cuts: fabricate engine mounts, wire in the horn, plumb brake lines, etc.
I won’t bore anyone with the details but with family commitments, I had hit a wall with it financially, and very little progress took place over a two year period. A few obstacles were left, and none I could solve on the cheap. Due to 4AGE engine’s desire to have the exhaust header live in the exact same area as the steering shaft, a custom header was needed. Ironically, the Mitsubishi motor I threw away had the exhaust on the passenger side and would have been much more simple to fit.
A drive-shaft also needed to be fabricated and to top it off, even the registration process looked daunting. Add in a wife agitating for another house move, I decided that rather than let it sit and gather dust for a decade, I would find a new owner to finish what I couldn’t.
While it remains my biggest automotive disappointment (and a money pit, since I sold it incomplete), the new owner was able to complete it very quickly and I am happy it finally made it to the street. His final vision differs from mine, but it was no longer my car. The concept still haunts me and I often think I should give it another go, this time sticking to the simple and cheap concept. A Chevrolet Chevette would make a decent donor …