On Research and Development

I haven’t done much work on the car since I added the storage bag last week. There’s some stuff I need to do — Mike Forte tells me he thinks the transmission leak wasn’t fixed by what I did, although I haven’t pulled anything to look for more leaks. I think I have a header leak, and my passenger valve cover is leaking oil still. That said, the car is driving just fine. I’ve got almost 400 miles on it now.

A couple times, while out driving, I’ve gotten “the question”: Is that a kit? In none of those cases was the question asked with any sort of negative connotation, and certainly I didn’t take anything negative from it (although, from reading some of the forums online, a lot of people do…).  It does beg the question, though, of what is a Factory Five car, and what is the right answer to that question.

One could argue these days that Factory Five sells “kits” — you can go to them and get pretty much everything you need to build one of them, sans motor and transmission. I’ve even heard the new MkIV manual isn’t a waste of paper like the MkIII manual (which, frankly, I only used once or twice and every time it was wrong…).  Arguably, that is a kit car if you buy it, follow their directions, slap in a drivetrain and drive it. There really aren’t much in the way of decisions to make, and part backorder issues aside, you’ll be up and driving pretty quickly.

The “complete kit” from Factory Five is something new in the last couple of years. Prior to that you could buy the equivalent by picking up an EzPak from Breeze and getting all the parts you needed. In fact, there’s a lot of animosity in the FFR “scene” because of all of the work establishing markets for services like that by all the various specialty vendors that have been absconded by Factory Five. (Hint: there’s a reason the Open House was mobbed with vendors four years ago and has none now…)

A lot of guys (and gals — I’m not trying to be sexist, here) prefer the term “component car” — which is actually the legal definition in most places. Particularly for those of us who bought before a full kit was available, or those who buy now and don’t buy the complete kit, its arguably a much better term anyway. “Custom car” is used for any yahoo who slaps a body kit on his ’92 Honda Civic, so that’s not a good description. In either case, I usually just tell people that it was built from scratch, from both custom fabricated parts and parts bought from a bunch of different places.

That brings me around to the actual point of the post today — when you build a car that is really “from scratch”, even if you buy a chassis or body from somewhere, there’s a whole spectrum of choices to be made relative to every tiny nuance of the final vehicle. You can take the short road, and buy parts you know all work together and use them in the same way that everyone else has, or you can take the proverbial road-less-traveled. The latter then takes research and development.

I’m, of course, not talking about the sort of R&D a car manufacturer does in aggregate for a new vehicle, but I am talking about the sort of individual R&D that any given engineer working at a car manufacturer has to concern themselves with. The open collaboration on the Internet between people doing this sort of work is part of the vibrancy of the Factory Five ecosphere. That work is made even more beneficial when the various silos for each manufacturer come down and ideas spread among the various forums and communities online. I think there’s often too little of that happening in the Factory Five community, but you do see it.

I’ve been working on this car for four years now — thousands of hours. Massively beyond the time people often quote for what it takes to build one of these. I had a conversation with someone recently who commented that reading my “blog” made him less comfortable about his ability to build one of these cars. I want to be very clear on this: any difficulty or complexity I’ve had in this process was of my own making.

I work in R&D. That’s what I do. I spend all of my time, at work or at home, thinking of ways to do things differently. Sometimes those ways are better, sometimes they’re not. Doing something new (for me) is the important thing. That’s why I didn’t use a manual when I built the car. That’s why I’ve done a lot of things in ways people don’t typically do them. And that’s why sometimes I seem like I’m struggling with getting something to work the way I want.

A case in point: I’ve realized this week that I’ve made a mistake in how I planned how the climate controls work in the car. As anyone who has been following this site for the last few years know, I’ve spent a LOT of time on this. Its one of the really completely custom setups I’ve got on the car, and I went through a bunch of gyrations before I got a setup that worked, and fit in the car, was serviceable and everything else. An important part of R&D is actually building things, and trying them out. Well, I’ve tried the climate control system in the car out, and I’m not happy with it.

So what’s wrong? Well, really a few things. First and foremost, the amount of air that is pushed through the system when the car is moving is vastly higher than I expected. Of course, unlike someone at Toyota or something, I didn’t have computer models or flow dynamics calculations, so it was really just a hunch about how much airflow I’d get. Even with the blower off, I get a lot of air into the vehicle while I’m moving. With the heat on, its wonderfully hot air (or horribly hot, depending on if I want to be hotter or cooler). With the heat off, there’s a great flow of fresh air.

So, why is this bad? Well, it means I don’t really need the blower most of the time, and I stupidly hooked up the power to the heater bypass valve to the blower control module. So, to adjust the temperature I need to turn on the blower, adjust it, and turn it back off. That’s bad UX (user experience). That’s not a huge deal to change, although I have to pull the dash off to do it.

The other thing I discovered while driving is that at anything but a dead stop, the  blower doesn’t provide any noticeable increase in airflow at anything other than full-blast. Presumably the amount of pressure it can create at 50% or 75% is less than the pressure of the air entering the brake duct. That basically means the control knob for fan speed doesn’t do a thing useful unless I’m entirely stopped in the car. That would be fine, I suppose, except if I’m at a dead stop in the car I no longer have the “bubble” of warm or cool air trapped in the cockpit as the car is moving and to stay warm or cool I actually need the air moving at full-tilt. So basically, I need it full on when the car is stopped, and when the car is moving I barely need it at all. Well, this is what one calls experimental results. Getting something wrong when you are doing R&D is a great thing — it means you pushed a hypothesis too far and it cracked.

So now I need to figure out what I’m going to do. I need to pull the dash to rewire the valve power. That’s a giant pain, but my highbeams aren’t hooked up, and I never did wire in the garage door opener switch, so I can kill three birds with one stone when I pull the dash. I’m not sure yet when I’m going to do with the blower. I’m thinking I may end up pulling the rotary blower knob out (the lefthand knob on the climate control panel), and replace it with a simple off/on toggle switch. I’m not sure at this point that I need anything between “full on” and “off”. In a car that isn’t causing hearing damage in the pedestrians I drive by, the difference between full blast and half with the heat is something you can hear in the car. I can’t hear the blower at all with the engine running, so why not have it just full-blast when its on? I’m leaning that direction now — pulling the PWM fan controller and hard-wiring everything to a simple switch. The way I have it would be ideal if I had a normally-plumbed heater blower, pulling air from the engine bay. I think this is a case where simpler is better.

That was just a single example of the sort of R&D one can choose to take on when building one of these cars. I’ve got a dozen other examples I could use, like the e-brake, or the use of HID headlights, or the way I ran the brake plumbing. These were all things I chose to do differently, even if it made things take longer or the process more complicated.

I had someone at work ask me how long I was going to keep posting on my site — when did I think I was going to be done with the car?

Done? Why would I ever be done?