Can you assemble your own car?

Do you think you have the skills required to build your own car? Check out these concept car pictures.
Courtesy of Steve Graber

When you really think about it, this is a pretty good question. In fact, maybe it can best be answered by posing a similar question -- can you walk around the world?

The answer? Sure you can, just point yourself east, or west, put one foot in front of the other and you're on your way. At least that's the simple answer. But what about food, water, shelter and even walking shoes? What do you do when you lose your hat in a sandstorm in the middle of the Kalahari Desert, or have fend off mounted bandits in Outer Mongolia armed only with a battered umbrella? Yes, these are points to consider before setting out on a round-the-world journey.


Assembling your own car runs along the same lines, only the adventures happen in the driveway and bandits are usually thin on the ground. But given time and care it's possible -- the build just has to be taken one step at a time.

Today there are a number of companies offering kits to modify existing cars into custom vehicles -- think of using an old Pontiac Fiero as a donor vehicle for a Ferrari lookalike. Others offer a selection of parts and accessories to make a one-off mongrel machine that nonetheless looks like a custom touring car straight from England's Lakes District. Variations abound. Or a person can begin fabricating the car literally from the wheels up if he or she chooses.

While short cuts are possible, assembling your own car is a daunting task. This is definitely not something for the faint of heart; however, amateur and professional builders do it every day, and the pay off can be something to behold -- or hide, in some cases.

Read on to find out more about the joys and challenges of making your own car.


Getting Started with Car Assembly

Most people who assemble their own cars begin small, with something like a kit car or a modified Volkswagen dune buggy. They're also usually mechanically inclined, have access to tools, and most of all, they're passionate about building the perfect car -- just like Steve Graber.

In 1997 Graber began building a replica Ferrari 250 GTO working from the chassis of a Datsun 280 Z. The Arizona computer animator and programmer (with a passion for cars) finished the project in a year, and in 1999 Graber's car was featured on the cover of Kit Car Magazine.


The car building bug had hit him hard. Worse still, he said he began thinking he could do better. "The designers did a great job with the kit but they had to make compromises," Graber said. "I thought, if I built my own car, then whatever compromises I made would be my own, not someone else's."

By 2001, Graber's GTO replica was sold to another auto enthusiast in Georgia, and the seed for building a car from the ground up was planted in Graber's head.

In 2002 he began building the La Bala, a custom-fabricated roadster with a graceful exterior mounted to a powertrain capable of about 180 horsepower -- a combination of muscle and mass. Occupying one half of the family garage for four years, the project produced not only a car but an education, too.

"The first step in any build is education," Graber, now 43, said. "It's very possible to build your own car, but it's complicated." Graber explained how a person embarking on a build cannot think through challenges and problems by considering them as isolated incidents. In a car, each layer or system in the car, is connected to other systems, which are in turn connected to other parts. "If you start with wheels and tires, this will determine what kind of brakes and suspension you'll need," he said. "Those numbers will determine the frame configuration, what the wheel base is, and on and on."

But, he added, if you're focused and determined, each of the individual problems can be surmounted. "If you try something and it doesn't work, try something else," he said. As Graber pointed out, cars are essentially interrelated systems and interlocking problems.

Keep reading to find out about those systems and see what you may have to deal with if you decide to assemble a car.


Assembling Your Car's Systems

Steve Graber driving his own creation -- the custom-fabricated, La Bala roadster.
Courtesy of Patrick Ernzen

There are several subsystems within a car that are like ingredients in a vehicular recipe. Several are critical, while others are more for driver comfort and convenience. But each one will need consideration during assembly. A few of the critical systems are listed below:

  • Power system: This is the system that changes heat or reactive chemicals into energy. Essentially it's what you need to move your car and you have to decide if you want a traditional internal combustion engine, an all-electric car (battery-powered), a hybrid system or maybe even a fuel cell. This will also determine how many of the other systems within your car are chosen and assembled.
  • Starting and charging system: This system gets the motor running and helps power the electrical system. On a traditional car it's the alternator, starter motor, and battery. But variations are becoming more common as new systems, like hybrid vehicles, are introduced.
  • Powertrain system: This transmits the power from the engine (power system) to the wheels and can incorporate a number of different types of transmissions, transaxles and differentials. If you're involved in a hybrid or an all-electric build, you'll need to know how to direct the transmission of power from electric motors to the wheels.
  • Steering system: This allows the driver to point the vehicle where they want it to go. Some cars use a steer-by-wire system that dispenses with mechanical linkages to steering racks and instead uses electronic modules to transmit exactly what the steering wheel is doing to motors that move the wheels.
  • Suspension system: This system incorporates the tires, shocks and springs that provide better handling and control of the car as well as what type of ride you select -- soft, hard, responsive and so on.
  • Brakes: If you go, you have to stop. This system allows for that, as well as integrating anti-lock brake systems, traction control and electronic stability programs that reduce spinouts.
  • Frame system: This supports the body, as well as providing a structural element for other safety features like crumple zones.
  • Body system: This protects the driver and passengers within the vehicle, as well as the vehicle's many hidden components from outside hazards.
  • Electrical system: Now considered the single most important system for vehicle operation; however, in a home-assembled vehicle, you can choose how elaborate you want to get with your vehicle's electrical system.

Alone, each one of these systems is a challenge to tackle. And when you're assembling an entire car, all of these systems must be considered simultaneously and made to work as one -- efficiently and effectively. This is the biggest challenge of all.


But now, with the mechanics out of the way, the true allure of a home-assembled car becomes clear.


The Art of Car Assembly

A finished Mercedes 500K replica
Courtesy of Vern Hance

Vern Hance can say with assurance his 1935 Mercedes-Benz Special Roadster is indeed special. The sleek lines and Great Gatsby appeal of the convertible two-seater draw admiring stares when he pulls up in front of car museums. But little do people know that under the graceful fenders, the custom top, and the blue-blood air lurks a very pedestrian frame culled from a Ford LTD and other assorted American components.

"People are surprised when they find out," Hance, a retired mechanical engineer, said with a laugh. "It's like Rodney Dangerfield said, 'I don't get no respect.'" Hance, 78, is treasurer and newsletter writer for the Northern California Kit Car Club. He's also a car builder with more than 30 years of experience. Hance has produced replicas of the Ferrari Dino and a 1952 MGTD, and he has his eye set on a 1937 Cord replica -- that is, if he chooses to embark on another project.


He said it was rare for one person to have all the skills needed to complete a car from start to finish, especially when it came to the body and upholstery, where science leaves off and art comes in. "How the car looks when it's finished is what attracts people," he said. "But that's what people take a lot of pride in."

Each year the club holds a concours event, inviting the more than 70 members to show off their cars to each other and the public. "You want to see and be seen," he said. "And the real classic cars are works of art."

Steve Graber found the look of the car was important as well. When he developed the lines for the custom body on his La Bala he was surprised at the feedback from people. "They didn't comment so much on how it worked, but how it looked was something everyone could have an opinion on," Graber said.

Some of the comments were positive, others negative. "But whatever the comment, they were looking, they were interested, and that was satisfying," he said.


Finish Assembling Your Car

Assembling your own car is a possible, yet daunting, undertaking. Vern Hance began working on cars when he was young and had the training of a mechanical engineer, plus the other members of the club, to help him through the builds. Steve Graber, who started a kit car company himself based on his La Bala in 2007, often brings in help from outside experts when faced with a particularly knotty problem.

Here's some advice from those experts on getting through your own car build:


Hance: "You should start with a good self-assessment of your skills, and start a project that you think you can finish. Today, they have kits geared for most levels. This is not something to do lightly; you need real stick-to-it-ness."

Graber: "If you're willing to make the sacrifices you can build your own car, but most people have families, too, and that should be balanced out. Every problem can be solved with a little time and thought, but don't count the hours it takes."

And the reward for what amounts to literally years of effort? "Man, I just grin from ear to ear every time I drive this car," Graber said. "It's a great feeling." Hance said he has a similar feeling. "We have a 'coming out' event every year at the club," he said. "All the members who finished their cars come out and show them, and I know that feeling. You did it yourself and you just can't help smiling and showing off."

If you'd like more information about building your own car and other related topics, follow the links on the next page.


Lots More Information

Related HowStuffWorks Articles
More Great Links

  • (June 16, 2009)
  • Graber, Steve. Owner, Personal interview. Conducted June 4, 2009.
  • Hance, Vern. Treasurer, Northern California Kit Car Club. Personal interview. Conducted June 1, 2009.
  • Kit Car Magazine. (June 16, 2009)
  • National Kit Car Club. (June 16, 2009)
  • Popular Mechanics. "The Boy Mechanic - Book 3: 800 Things for Boys to Do." 1919. Pages 1-3. (June 1, 2009)
  • The Northern California Kit Car Club. (June 16, 2009)