Interview With Jay Rogers Part II: The Rally Fighter

This is Part Two of a three part interview with Jay Rogers, CEO of Local Motors. They recently displayed their Rally Fighter at the 2009 SEMA show and look to change the way cars are designed, and built. Read Part One here.

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On Monday we covered how Jay Rogers, CEO of Local Motors, had a vision for a new kind of car company. He wanted the people to design and vote on the car they wanted. That is how the Rally Fighter came to be.

Of course, drawing a car is a lot easier than building one. This is the same reason concept cars rarely make it into production unscathed. The Rally Fighter evolved substantially from Sangho Kim’s first rendering, though the resemblance to the famous World War II P-51 fighter plane (where the Ford Mustang also got its name, before going to the equine imagery) remained intact. What came next was actually building a car, based on Sangho’s design, without the benefit of a factory or an army of robots.

This meant it was time to make some hard decisions. But Jay would get help from his community of designers for that too.

1/4 scale model, with the design and drafting boards in the background.

The Rally Fighter has been chosen, designed, and built to fill a niche. Jay wants to fill the niche market, targeting his company’s vehicles at certain areas. For example right now a contest is under way to design a vehicle for Alaska’s extreme climates (today is the last day to vote!), and previous contests include San Francisco, Boston, and Texas as the target cities. The Rally Fighter was designed as a street legal, off-road capable car/truck for the American Southwest.

The first thing Jay had to decide early on is how Local Motors was going to build such a vehicle. There were two paths he could choose; re-body an existing car platform, or build their own chassis and body and use bits from different cars to fill in the blanks. It really would define the way the company was run, and ultimately being a re-body company means they would have to work around an already designed architecture and figure out how to make it work with their design. Ultimately, Jay decided Local Motors would build the chassis and the body and have custom glass made for their car.

One of Sangho Kim’s first designs had the Rally Fighter as a mid-engine SUV, though it has since evolved into a more workable front engine/rear drive design.

Everything else would come from an existing car. And the list of companies and cars that form the Rally Fighter is representative of almost every major manufacturer the world over. The tough part was getting a community of designers and his team of engineers to agree on anything. “You have to get them to talk. The designers want one thing, the engineers will tell you no, and often you have to get the two to reach a compromise. Both sides will defend their choices, and sometimes you’re going to piss people off,” he says. “But by exposing our decisions to the harsher light of day, we were able to get a lot of outside perspective.”

So they had a design to inspire them, a community to keep the design in check, and a team of engineers to make it all a reality. But they still needed an engine. Eventually they settled on a BMW inline-six cylinder engine with twin turbochargers backed by a six-speed automatic transmission for several reasons. In addition to providing the needed oomph (in the form of 425 ft-lbs of torque) required of an off-road capable truck, the diesel engine was able to achieve very impressive fuel mileage. The tubular steel frame and lightweight carbon fiber body parts keep the Rally Fighter’s weight down to just 3,200 pounds, also contributing to the fuel efficiency.

The Rally Fighter at home in its garage in Wareham, Massachusetts, where the whole car was built. Nothing fancy here, just hard work and lots of passion.

“If we can make something cool that, on the backside is also fuel efficient, I think people will love that,” he says. While the “official” number is 30 mpg, Jay implied that the Rally Fighter is capable of even better mileage, depending on how you drive it. The BMW engine was compromise in action; fuel efficient, powerful, clean, and cool.

Of course there is more to a vehicle than the engine. The Rally Fighter was designed as an alternative on/off-road vehicle, a two seater you can thrash in competitions like the Baja 1000 and then drive home. This required a heavy duty suspension, which came courtesy of a late-model F-150. “We choose the F-150 parts for their stoutness and availability and comparable cost.” Indeed, Ford isn’t likely to stop making the best selling vehicle in America anytime soon. The anti-lock brakes, spindles, and rear axle were also donated from an F-150, and they even took the inner door handle because if its simple design. Fox Racing shocks were chosen to up the Rally Fighter’s off-road credibility. To make it street legal, the Rally Fighter would require side markers, which came from a Volkswagen Passatt, and side view mirrors which were taken from a Dodge Challenger.

Local Motors designed the Rally Fighter around individual parts rather than the architecture and chassis of an already existing car. This let bits like the Honda Civic tail lights fit flawlessly.

Jay and his team chose certain bits because they made the most sense, but other parts they put up for the community of designers to choose. He uses the tail lights for example. The argument always broke down to three basic reasonings; “It wont fit, it won’t look good, or it will cost too much,” he says. They went through six tail lights from a variety of vehicles before the community settled on the lights from a contemporary Honda Civic.

The Rally Fighter isn’t finished yet, though it is a running, driving, workable vehicle as it sits right now. The interior needs finishing and the dash is still being designed, as they could not decide on one that fits the Rally Fighter’s unique design. Thus they are designing their own.

Every Rally Fighter is going to share a number of components, though Jay plans to offer “iPhone-like application customization” when it comes to building your vehicle. Don’t feel like you will do much off-roading? Slam it to the ground, and it still looks good. Want to hook up a half-dozen flood lights for some late night rally racing? You can do that too.

Because you will be building your own Rally Fighter.

If you want to find out how Jay plans to revolutionize the concept of buying a car, come back on Friday to read the final installment of my interview with Jay Rogers.

Christopher DeMorro

A writer and gearhead who loves all things automotive, from hybrids to HEMIs, can be found wrenching or writing- or else, he's running, because he's one of those crazy people who gets enjoyment from running insane distances.