What is a Locost?
Most automotive enthusiasts know what a Locost is. It's a car built from a design penned in the early '90s by British engineer Ron Champion. But this question isn't so much about what a Locost is, but what it isn't.
The Champion book fired the imagination of hundreds of would-be car builders. Many of those builders went on to build Locosts. But many used the idea of a Locost to build something else, which is great, so long as those cars are recognized as something other than a Locost. Call them "Locost-inspired" if you like, but a Locost is not mid-engined, it doesn't have an aero body, and it's not made out of aluminum, or carbon fiber, or round tubes.
Because the book isn't specific about a lot of design variables, every Locost is different. What makes them the same is the frame, which is spelled out in great detail, the suspension, and bodywork. Most of the differences are due to having different donors, but every Locost has double-wishbone front suspension, rack-and-pinion steering, two seats, and a manual transmission with a 4-cylinder engine up front. If you have a book frame and meet these other qualifications, you probably have a Locost.
One of the earliest players in the Locost game, Champion Motor Cars (now defunct), supplied a lot of pre-built frames to Locost builders who didn't want to weld. The frames were generally made for a book donor or similar, but at some point Champion (the company, not the engineer) got the idea that a Miata would make a great donor, if the frame could be modified slightly for the Miata's independent rear suspension. Because IRS was basically the only modification, everyone agreed that cars built from these frames were still Locosts.
Then an early Locost builder named Jim McSorley launched another revolution by publishing very detailed and excellent frame drawings online. He published one set for book-sized frames, and additional sets for larger frames, expanding the dimensions of the book frame to accommodate the more ample sensibilities of the typical American driver. Except for their size, McSorley frames were identical to book frames, and so everyone agreed that cars built from the McSorley plans were still Locosts.
Unfortunately, IRS and plus-sized frames were just the beginning, opening the door to everyone else's design fantasies. LocostUSA was an early adopter, featuring specialty forums for all sorts of design aberrations. Some were good and some weren't, but all of them diluted the original Locost concept. And many were not low cost. Some of the big bucks cars may have been gorgeous with their streamlined bodies and blingy new hardware, but calling them Locosts was a joke.
But you might be asking, so what? What difference does it make? What's wrong with not building a Locost? Some really nice cars have come out the Locost movement, and plenty of designers continue to push the automotive technology envelope. So if it's a good design and a good car, who cares what you call it?
The problem is this. Building cars has always been a fun and rewarding hobby, but over the years a lot of people who wanted to build a car never did. What kept them from jumping into the hobby was the perceived high cost, and lack of needed skills. Champion's book changed all that. The Locost looked like a car anyone could afford, and after reading the book it looked like a car anyone could build.
Unfortunately that perception is changing, and not for the better. Just about every design decision Ron Champion ever made has since been questioned or just plain disregarded. That, and the proliferation of non-Locost Locosts, has persuaded a lot of would-be builders that they need to make a lot more design decisions, many of which end up being overwhelming, intimidating, and expensive. Which is a big step backwards for a hobby that needs first-time builders.
I think we need to push the the idea that building a traditional Locost is still a worthwhile pursuit. We can start by not calling every homebuilt vehicle a Locost. If first-time builders stick with the original Locost design, the benefits are huge. You learn a lot and gain a lot of confidence in your automotive skills. And in the end you get to drive a very fun sports car.
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