Local Motors wants to create unique automobiles that conventional automakers cannot possibly make. They want to design with creative talent from around the world, using the Internet and open source practices to make computer renderings into reality. After seeing (via word-of-mouth Facebook event) their first offering, the Rally Fighter off-road coupe, I have to say this business model is so crazy it might actually work.
Local Motors chose a fancy Houston restaurant for their release party, with their Rally Fighter prototype parked amongst the Cowboy Cadillacs (that’s a truck to you Northerners) entering the valet lot. It was a stunning contrast, until a truck shared the Rally Fighter’s adjacent parking spot. While it looks like no other dirt-ready Pre-Runner, this car is just as massive as your average long bed rig: it’s a modern interpretation of a 1970s Camaro lifted on a Chevy Blazer frame. Local Motors uses international design talent to create their flights of fancy, but designer Sangho Kim’s “American Southwest” inspiration is a clarion call for the mullet wearing, Journey-listening rocker within.
From the Civic coupe taillights, Miata door handles and the vinyl-wrapped body (a novel alternative to eco-rude paint booths) this rig is quite the eye catcher. While lacking an interior, all the proper wires, seats and controls are present and accounted for. The finished product is near, but the Rally Fighter is still a strange creation: this makes Tesla’s cramped roadster seem downright logical. But the Local Motors fan base chose this concept when put to a vote: implying they’d put down greenbacks to own a Rally Fighter.
Considering the design’s simplistic nature, they only need a few buyers to make a buck: hire a few engineers with collegiate SAE Baja backgrounds and the car almost makes itself. There’s even a dollop of green washing, with a BMW-sourced turbo diesel promising good power with clean diesel technology. But choose the LS-X based Chevy V8 if you want to save the green in your wallet, superior performance notwithstanding. GM sells these gasoline crate motors for $10,000 or less: I suspect a turn-key clean diesel from Germany will be double. Or more.
Pricing isn’t available yet, but $50,000 was one number thrown around. And to extend the platform’s commercial appeal, Local Motor’s has future plans for a street worthy Rally Fighter: lower ride height, high performance street suspension and the requisite big wheels make more sense given the body’s curvaceous profile. But a solid rear axle and a frame worthy of a truck? The “Street” Fighter is delusions of grandeur: given the crowded high performance car market, the Street Fighter sounds thoroughly out of its league.
Then again, this is a vehicle of limited production and scope: according to Local Motors’ PR folk, Rally Fighters are registered by a state’s Custom Vehicle umbrella. The lighting is DOT approved, the powertrains already pass EPA regulations, but the roll cage is only certified to meet desert racing specifications. Racing helmets aside, Local Motors assures us that the Rally Fighter has crumple zones like any modern passenger car, and will meet federal standards when they sell enough units to justify the expense of testing.
I spoke at length with Local Motors CEO Jay Rogers. Like every MBA-backed, former McKinsey & Co. consultant that I’ve met, Jay possesses the charm and intelligence to lead any organization to victory. And his passion for cars brings about a secret envy: making American cars without the Detroit state of mind. Jay’s definitely got the “vision” thing down, and speaks in a shockingly candid manner about anything automotive. We only dream of this level of candor in other auto making execs: refreshing doesn’t even begin to explain it.
Yes, buying into Local Motors means believing in their Commander in Chief. But start-ups are just that: the success rate of modern entrepreneurs in the OEM car biz is terrible. But if you’re gonna take the plunge, learn from Tesla and start small. And don’t overpromise. Local Motors’ regional centers are a good start: an IKEA-like facility in a suburban area that provides assembly and manufacturing, sales and support. It’s one stop shopping, a destination unto itself. And once the purchase is made, servicing the Rally Fighter is like open source software: any mechanic has access to Local Motors’ repair information. Hard to believe, but check out their webpage: even the Rally Fighter chassis’ CAD drawings are there for inspection. Try getting that from any other automaker.
So Local Motors has a great idea in their hands. The first product is certainly not for everyone (anyone?) but the business model has enough traction and common sense that Detroit should stand up and take notice. For all the talk of the American manufacturing sector’s decline, Local Motors is one moon-shot that merits a closer look.