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Background:

In 1957, Lotus produced a car called the Seven, and later, the Super Seven. In 1973, production of the Lotus Seven was sold to Caterham Cars, where they continue to manufacture kits and complete cars to this day.

Due to the expense of Caterham kits, in the mid-1990’s, Brit Ron Champion wrote Build your own Sports Car for as little as 250 British Pounds. In it he coined the phrase “Locost”, a play on words referring to a low-cost Lotus Seven knock-off. A more recent book by Chris Gibbs, Build your own Sports Car on a Budget effectively replaced Champion’s book but they share the common design of a small, light, front-engine, rear-drive sports car resembling the Seven. The Champion book is now out of print but the term “Locost” lives on, referring to any scratch-built sports car that resembles a Seven. Both books use parts commonly available in England but less so elsewhere. Because of hard-to-find parts, and with front engine rear-drive drivetrains becoming sparse, is where Midlana comes in.

What’s with the name?

“Midlana” = “Mid” (being mid-engine) + “Lana” (our granddaughter). I’ve always liked the sound of the word “Katana”, a Japanese sword, and since my car is partially Japanese due to its drivetrain, and our granddaughter being partially Japanese, it just kind of fit.

What is a Midlana?

Midlana is presented as the next generation Locost, retaining the raw elemental simplicity of the original Seven, with its characteristic nose and fenders, updated with a modern drivetrain. Builders don’t have to work with composites; an off-the-shelf fiberglass nose is used instead of spending thousands for a shell. As with the original Seven, and Locosts, Midlana is designed to be easy to build and maintain.

There are few small front-engine rear-drive drivetrains to chose from for a Seven-type car – not everyone wants to use a Miata engine. Until now, there hasn’t been a book on building a Seveneque car using common FWD drivetrains and mounting it mid-ship. Midlana uses common Miata suspension and steering due to the Miata’s light weight, availability, and reasonable price.

Probably the single most important feature of Midlana is the use of a FWD drivetrain. Many potential builders already have knowledge of a FWD drivetrain from their street car. Midlana allows using that knowledge instead of being forced to use an engine they don’t have, don’t know, and don’t want to use.

Is Midlana is better than a Locost?

Define “better” – some people only think it means faster. Since the primary difference between a Locost and Midlana is engine position, the only way to find out would be to run the following test: Two cars, equal weight, equal wheelbase, equal track, equal aerodynamics, same exact engine, one mounted front-engine, the other mid-engine, and the same tires. Same driver, same track, same day. Drive 10 laps in each and see what’s what – that’s it. Anything else is meaningless because of so many factors which can throw off the results.

The chance of this test ever happening is about zero. Mid-engine cars have won every single F1 race since 1958, but they’re hardcore downforce-producing race cars, but given the choice, why not start with what been proven as superior on-track, since that’s what most builders aspire to (reasonably or not!). Phil Hill once said, “It was really astounding how just the placement of the engine [behind the driver] gave comfort to the drivers. The whole feeling of being – at the end of the string – was gone.”

I do feel Midlana is better; not because it may or may not be faster, but because of all the secondary benefits placing the engine behind the seats provide – foremost being a much wider choice of engines, much more foot space, and the resulting low PMOI. 

Is Midlana easier to build than a Locost?

It will be about the same as building an IRS version of a Locost. Like a Locost, it is designed so that no machining is necessary; you won’t need a lathe or mill, though a drill-press is a big help.

A FWD drivetrain in the back? Won’t it run backwards?

Think of the FWD drivetrain in a normal FWD car. With the drivetrain moved to the rear, the wheels still turn the same direction but instead of pulling the car it’s now pushing – it’s just a shift in perception.

I want it more “curvey”

Those sexy curves come from an expensive composite shell. This is one of Midlana’s selling points, that you don’t have to spend $6000+ for an unpainted composite shell. That figure isn’t an exaggeration, check around and see what full-body composite shells cost. Spending one tenth that on composite means at trackday events you won’t worry – as much – about every little rock because there’s less to damage.

What are the dimensions of the car?

64″ front track, 60″ rear track, and a 96″ wheelbase. Overall height is 44″, about the same size as a Locost but a little wider.

How big is the engine bay?

Large enough to nearly any 4-cylinder engine, and some small V6s. With modifications, bike engines and Subaru drivetrains can fit as well.

Can I use a bike engine?

In short yes, but once the bike engine’s overall length (exhaust, cylinders, gearbox, and rear axle drive) are added together, the challenge will be getting it all to fit. There is however, nothing wrong with lengthening the chassis a couple inches to properly package it.

I want in-board suspension

You got it! Actually, both in-board and out-board front suspension is an option in the book. Rear suspension is outboard.

I have a bunch of FWD engine parts laying around, can I use them?

Absolutely!

How much does Midlana cost?

How much does it cost to build a house? The answer depends entirely upon you and how much you choose to spend. For example:

  • Seats, 0 – $1200 each
  • Dash instruments, 0 – $3000 for a full flat dash setup
  • Gas tank, $200 for a self-built one, $2500 for a real custom fuel-cell
  • Shocks, 0 – $3000 – each (yes, really)
  • Axles, depends on power level, $400-1000
  • Wheels and tires, 0 – $3000
  • Drivetrain, 0 – $The Moon
  • Paint, from spray cans to vinyl to powder coat and car-show quality, $50 – $5000
  • Fenders and nose, $500

The actual steel and aluminum is about $1000. Miata donor parts (uprights, steering, and a few odds and ends) will be $100-400 depending where they’re sourced from, Craig’s List on the one end – boutique-style wrecking yards at the other. As you can see, it completely depends upon you. As an practical example:

  • Seats, $400
  • Dash instruments, $400
  • Gas tank, At least $100
  • Shocks, $1000
  • Axles, $500
  • Wheels and tires, $1600
  • Drivetrain, $2000?
  • Paint, $1000?
  • Fenders and nose, $500
  • Steel and aluminum, about $1000.

So that’s very roughly $10,000, which is virtually the same as a Locost since it uses so many of the same components. If you really want a hard number, it’s always 25% more than you think!

This doesn’t include the chassis table, welder and tools. What they cost is somewhere between free and $5000. So the total for a lean Midlana (figuring I’m forgetting things) is around $10,000, – $12000. Of course, the cost is spread over however long it takes to build the car. Some builders think that’ll happen in “six months, tops”, but life will make it take longer, and know that the build is the fun. Get rid of the cable TV, Starbucks coffee, and take your lunch to work. That alone adds about $250+ a month to the project bank account. In three years that’s $9000, which practically pays for the car.

Be wary of comparing Midlana’s price to venders that claim you get their “complete” kit for $15K. Their idea of what “complete” typically includes only the shell, chassis, and suspension. No drivetrain, seats, fuel tank, pedal assembly, steering rack, instruments, harness, or a hundred other odds and ends, never mind paint. They low-ball you into buying the kit and then nickel-and-dime you for the rest. To get a better idea of what a kit really cost, drop to the bottom of their price list and see what they get for a turn-key car, which is usually around $30K. While that includes profit, it’s far closer to the actual cost.

Is Midlana cheaper to build than a Locost?

The only unique feature over a straight-axle Locost is the need for custom half-shafts. It’s very unlikely that the drivetrain’s axles will just happen to be the right length and spline count and spline size to fit the Miata uprights. Because of that, assume axles will be necessary, which run $250-1000 depending how much power you plan to run. Than again you won’t have a driveshaft to shorten, so that saves some money there.

My budget’s only $3000, can I still build one?

Yes but challenging. Doing so means using everything possible from a near-free donor. Engine, tranny, seats, instruments, stock OEM ECU, adapting the OEM wire harness, with Miata steering, rack, and wheels and tires. And hopefully you already have the tools.

I would do things different

Excellent, then Midlana is for you! The book notes areas where builders must make choices based upon their own goals and preferences; it’s okay to be different. Renderings of different ideas are included so builders can pick and choose what they like, or they can make their own unique modifications.

I’m no styling expert and want people to customize their car. I’m a slim 6′ tall; if you’re taller or shorter, the roll cage and passenger compartment can be changed to suit. If you’re heavier or slimmer, widen the car, narrow it, move the seats forward or back, or tilt them and bring the cage down. Want to add tubes to the cage, great. Want to change the engine cover? Great. Variations are a good thing.

Think of the book as a cookbook. If you – the chef – want to add a little more of this or that, great! The book provides a starting point, a known solution for a fun competitive car that works, but individual variation is encouraged. As long as the suspension geometry isn’t changed, where the tubes go isn’t a big deal, really.

I want more hip space, can I make it wider?

Yes, but the body will taper inward more sharply toward the nose, so unless the nose is modified it’ll look odd with the steeper angles. Also, the car is already 72” wide at the outside of the tires, so don’t go crazy else it might end up as wide as a HUMVEE – without exaggerating. Making the car wider also has implications for the suspension because it lowers the roll-centers, but whether the builder cares or not depends what the car is used for.

That windscreen frame…

Some have expressed concern that the front windscreen frame may collapse in a rollover because it doesn’t have proper bracing. Per the SCCA/NASA Rule Books, this is correct. The thing is, you have to be able to get in and out of the car. It was my judgment call that most builders don’t want to squirm in through the top of the cage or slide through the side like in a stock car. In a hard rollover, yes, the windscreen frame may deform, but not as much as some people think. Draw a line from the top of the main hoop to the front of the chassis and it shows that the frame can deform downward 5.5″; this is not a large amount. The windscreen framework and overhead X-tubes also serve as strong points for hoisting yourself in and out of the car and is much stronger and safer than a Locost because the Locost has nothing forward of the main hoop!

A race car designer wrote: “…there’s nothing wrong with the forward corners of the cage – they have a long ways to go before they contact anything (unlike the main hoop and its proximity to the occupants’ heads), and having some give helps absorb energy. Keep in mind that formula and sports racer cars have no forward corners at all…” However, I want builders to feel safe in their car, so alternatives are listed.

Does it have power steering and power brakes?

Neither are needed nor necessary. Steering is extremely light due to having so little weight on the front wheels. Even at a standstill, steering is not a problem – really. Eliminating the power circuits also has the benefits of less weight, fewer hoses to leak, fewer lines running down the center channel, and two less things to maintain.

I want an aluminum chassis

 Many people think they want an aluminum chassis. To make a long and contentious issue short, a steel chassis can be flexed a small amount forever and never fail. If an equivalent aluminum chassis is flexed any amount (even vibration) it will fail eventually. To be blunt, some builders don’t know what they don’t know.

Some point at an aluminum chassis OEM car (such as Ferrari or Lotus) and say that if they can do it, so can we. Sure, anyone can weld together an aluminum chassis; the critical difference is that they have engineers who’ve figured out the fatigue life of the chassis. It’s just metal, but knowing what alloys to use and how to distribute it is where the skill is. I won’t do it because I know what I don’t know but that doesn’t stop some builders. I’m always tempted to ask builders of aluminum frames for their structural analysis, suspecting that there isn’t any. To me, dismissing an aluminum chassis design as trivial is an ignorant slap in the face of structural engineering, sometime accompanied by the flippant, “they’re thinking inside the box.” Yes they are, and that box is called “metallurgy.” It’s highly doubtful that these optimistic builders found a way to get around natural material qualities.

Ignorance hasn’t changed the physical properties of aluminum and these same builders seem oblivious about heat-treating the chassis, but apparently if they don’t know about it, it isn’t necessary. No, there is no aluminum chassis for Midlana – if you want to do it anyway, you’re on your own.

It looks like a dune buggy

The cage can be left out but doing so cuts torsional rigidity in half and of course having the cage there is safer than not (on-track at least). It’s all about choices. For example, if the windscreen is removed along with its frame, the passengers lose a great way to hoist themselves up and out of the car and also lose protection from getting pelted with bugs and rocks. The frame is also a convenient attachment point for doors, too. Everything’s connected to everything else…

I want to start building now!

You can get started right now:

Research your local motor vehicle registration process to ensure it’ll be legal to drive after it’s built

Clean out the garage, build shelves and get everything off the floor

Locate and buy a welder (this alone can take months if looking for a used name-brand unit)

Build a chassis table

Collect donor parts

Decide on a drivetrain

Find and buy said drivetrain

Rebuild the engine if needed

Rebuild the transmission

Research which ECU to use

And which seats, and steering wheel, and quick release hub, and wheels, and tires, etc, etc

This process also it gives time to build the budget, since a fair number of parts need to be purchased up front before the chassis is done. If you want to get a sense of what it’s like to build a car, check out my book on building a mid-engine tube-frame Mini from the ground up; the chassis and drivetrain layout are similar to Midlana, http://www.kimini.com/book_info

You keep mentioning SCCA/NASA rules like everybody’s going to race

Some owners will take their car to track day events and it gives owners a good feeling to know that Midlana has been track tested. If they choose, they can take their car out on the track knowing that the SCCA rule book was used during design.  That said, running Midlana in SCCA or NASA events probably won’t be much fun because it’ll be classed against cars utilizing ground-effects, highly aerodynamic bodies running 1″ ground clearance. Builders are free to go with smaller or thinner tubing but it is their full responsibility to understand the consequences of doing so. My constant reference to the rule book was an effort to produce a safer chassis without crash-testing. Using what the SCCA has learned over decades seems wise and exceptions are noted where builders must decide their own course.

Where are the parts lists?

The parts are listed in the book.

How long does it take to build one?

Using the same analogy above, how long does it take to build a house? It all depends how much time you have available, if you have help, and how efficiently you work. I’m actually not a good example since I designed the car in parallel with building it, never mind writing a book at the same time. Existing builders are a better source of data, but I can say that it’ll be longer than you think due to life getting in the way… it just does. When people say they’ll be done building a project in a given timeframe, they never meet their self-imposed deadline. This isn’t a reflection on Midlana but more a commentary on overly-optimistic human nature when applied to any large project.

What does the book include?

A lot! Full plans and hundreds of pages of pictures, guidance, tips, and options. Think of it as me being in the garage with you, providing drawings, the plans, and providing lots of helpful input. See the book info page here.

How much is the book?

It’s less expensive that the very few other mid-engine sports car books/plans found on the Web, which don’t provide 400 pages that walk you through the entire build process, never mind options.

Can I buy pre-cut parts?

Short answer, not from me. Midlana is aimed at the Locost community, where people build cars themselves because they haven’t the money to buy one. There are other kits on the market which supply pre-cut tubes but these come at a high price, often what potential builders simply can’t afford. I don’t feel there’s a large enough market to warrant the overhead, but builders are free to set up a side business of their own supplying pre-cut parts.

What are your qualifications?

I am neither a degreed mechanical nor chassis engineer. (I work in aerospace doing HW/SW design and field support.) However, I previously designed and built a car, kimini.com, which the new owner seems happy with. Anyone can build a car if they do the research and take their time. Many Locost builders do most of their own design work because it’s the only way they can afford a sports car, and they aren’t engineers either. That’s much what happened to me; I started reading like crazy and went from there.