Please Explain Kit Cars to Me

I saw a guy at the gas station today filling up what looked like a 1930’s model Packard (sp?) convertible. I asked him where he got such a sweet ride, and he said “It’s a kit car. Took me about 400 hours to build it.”

I’ve heard of kit cars before, but I’m not clear on the concept. If my understanding is correct, you pay a company some amount of money (say, $30,000) and they send you an original chassis to your ride (let’s stick with the 1931 Packard), and some sheet metal that more or less matches what the exterior of your ride should look like. You also get a few thousand after-market parts that more or less replicate the original parts (say, a 1991 Mazda 323 engine; brake pads & rotors from a 1978 AMC Gremlin, etc.); you painstakingly put it all together and ride around town in your “replicated” 1931 Packard.

In other words - you don’t get a Packard chassis and engine and other parts cobbled together from junked Packards around the world. Rather, you get a Packard chassis and cobble it back together using parts from other junked cars from junkyards around the world.

Is my thinking on this correct? Has anyone on these boards ever built a kit car? Was it worth it? Do you need a degree in auto mechanics to do it?


There are typically lots of different options that usually involve the level of completeness of the kit and what type of drive train.

There is a custom fabricated frame and body - usually fiberglass body that is nearly identical in appearance to the original model. Most common drive options are Chevy 350/THM350 (3-speed automatic)/9" Ford rear.

Then choose how complete the kit is with respect to the interior, wheels, electronics, and gauges.

By the time a $30K kit is painted and on the road, it seems that many claim to have about $55K in’em not including the hours of labor invested in the project.

It takes plenty of mechanical ability and automotive know how to build any car from the ground up.

How cute.

      • You usually don’t get an original frame. There’s two ways it is done: either the kit is a body that you fit onto an existing car after you remove the original body, or you get a new-manufactured frame and running gear, and a (also new-manufactured) body kit that you bolt together onto it. Most of the US ones are “custom” ones, but there’s a few that try to be “high performance”. The Euro three-wheeler kit cars look really odd, but can handle quite well.
  • Also this varies from country to country, but in the US for example you can’t just build a car from scratch because there are safety standards it must meet–so it’s far easier to use an existing frame from an already-street-legal vehicle.
  • Also now–there are emissions concerns; the plain-English rule I have heard is that you can change the engine in a car as long as it meets the emissions requirements that were in place when the car was originally made. So this is the reason why [for example] you see in custom-car magazines like Hot Rod–where they go and find an old rusted-out antique car frame from the 1940’s or 1930’s, and build the entire car on that. Part of the reason is just to total-custom-aspect, but also part of the reason is because that way, they can put any engine on it they want, because back then, there were no emissions inspections or controls on cars at all. You can’t take your 2004 car and put a huge engine in it, and get it declared street-legal & licensed, unless you could get the engine to meet 2004 emissions standards, which you probably couldn’t. You can’t even take the fuel-injection system off and put carburetors on it. But you can take a car made, um, before the early or mid 60’s? -I think, I dunno exactly. But anyway, you can take a really OLD car, and put any engine in it you want, and still get it declared street-legal. And the “frame” counts legally as the “car”. You can put any kind of body on it you want, as long as it has all the required pieces (headlights, turn signals, brake lights, etc. --there’s no rule that syas all that stuff can’t be customized).

I happen to own a kit car. It’s a 1960 VW bug which sometime in the late 70’s was converted to look like a 1929 Mercedes. The kit was called the Gazelle, and it was meant to look something like a Mercedes type S, although it is not identical to the original. If you look at old pics you’ll find there were numerous variations on the type S, so it’s not like there was only one version to compare it to.

Underneath the fiberglass it’s still a VW, so if you open up the mercedes hood there’s a trunk underneath, and if you open up the “trunk” there’s the engine. It has a mercedes type radiator grill on the front, but it’s just for decoration. VWs don’t have radiators.

Here are some pics:
You can see the engine and trunk towards the bottom of the page and I threw in a couple of pics of the original mercedes S type to compare it with.

I happened to buy this kit car complete (although in much need of restoration), but many years ago I had looked into buying one as a kit. You have several options. You can buy just the kit itself, which is just the fiberglass, trim parts, etc. with no frame and no engine (you are expected to provide your own frame and engine from somewhere). You can buy a kit that includes the frame and engine. Or, you could buy the entire thing already built for you.

Volkswagen Beetles were very popular as the frame/engine for kits. You could also get the gazelle kit for a ford pinto, in which case the engine would be in the front. I’ve even seen one gazelle kit built on a mustang frame.

EBAY has a catagory for kit cars under EABY Motors. Most of the time these are cars that are already complete, but sometimes you’ll find unbuilt kits there. If you look there you can at least get an idea of the many different types of kits out there. Kits to make a modern-ish car (typically a Fiero or a Mustang) look like a 1950’s cobra are very popular. There are a lot of kits that allow you to make an expensive looking car out of a relatively cheap car, like Ferrari Diablo clones. There used to be a Hummer clone called the Bummer, but they were forced to stop selling it after they got sued by the Hummer folks. They still make the kit, but it’s no longer called the Bummer and they had to modify it so that it doesn’t look as much like the real Hummer.

Some of the kits require much more mechanical knowledge than others. A lot of the VW kits basically just bolt easily on top of a VW frame (VW’s are about the simplest cars in existance). Other kits have instructions like “cut the frame in half and weld in an extra sixteen inch section” which obviously requires much more skills than simply bolting things together. For the simplest kits you don’t need a degree in auto mechanics, but you do at least need the skills of a decent back yard tinkerer. For the most complex kits, you need to be someone like Jesse James (of Monster Garage fame).

All of the kits I’ve ever seen have been fiberglass. I’ve never seen one that used sheet metal.

For some reason, this subject reminds me of Knight Rider.

That’s a nice ride :cool: !

How do you insure/title it? Does your title/insurance paperwork just say “1960 VW Beetle”? If you got pulled over by The Man and showed him your VW registration and insurance card, would you have some 'splainin to do?

IIRC some States have a special category for kit cars, and kit cars are common enough that the police understand. And the police are generally pretty good at picking out by sight what’s a kit car and what’s not. The easiest way is to hear the sound of the VW “popcorn popper” engine as you walk towards the thing that looks like a Testarossa. :wink:

VW Bug coolant (use straight – do not mix).

It’s insured and titled as a 1960 VW Beetle using the original Beetle’s VIN.

Most of the kit cars I have seen have been titled under the original donor car. Occasionally you’ll see one titled as a HNDMDE (or something like that) for “Hand Made” but those are relatively rare.

The last I heard, you can still get a Mexican/Brazillian Old Beetle shipped to you in kit form.

Apparently, kit cars don’t have the same emissions and NHSB standards as factory assembled autos.

Cool looking car.

Johnny L.A. - that is some funny stuff!

I have known people to have the car titled as what is is made to look like. There are “title specialists” that can get replacement titles.

The Westfield is a popular kit in the UK.

And a slight hijack - I’ve seen a VW Beetle with a functional radiator. It was set up for rallying and had a 2 litre Ford motor stuffed in the back.