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There's only one Seven: The world's most efficient car was built in a barn

A conversation with Kevin Smith of Illuminati Motor Works, which built the world's most efficient car out of other cars.

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Jen Danzinger, courtesy of Illuminati Motor Works

As a general rule, obscenely wealthy people are usually able to come up with something to do with all that money besides giving it away. There is always a sports team or political candidate to buy, a case to be made for a second helipad or an emergency backup yacht. But while the very wealthy people and corporate sponsors behind the X PRIZE are not exactly giving away millions for nothing, they're using that money about as well as it can be used -- by creating an incentive for inventors to compete in the pursuit of things that have never been done.

The awards range from $1 million to $10 million; the competitions involve genomics, space travel, and, in 2010, the creation of a supremely fuel-efficient car. X PRIZE set the ground rules -- the cars in competition would have to be production-capable and pass various driving tests -- and a very ambitious goal. The winning car would need to get the equivalent of 100 miles per gallon, which is more efficient than the 2013 Tesla S roadster and more than twice as efficient as the most efficient sedan currently on the road. And then the X PRIZE turned it over to any inventors brave, crazy, ambitious and bright enough to try to make such a thing.

A detailed look at Seven, video courtesy of MPGomatic

Jason Fagone's fantastic book Ingenious follows several X PRIZE competitors, including a high school engineering class in Philadelphia, an entrepreneur in Virginia, and a furloughed state employee in Illinois who went about trying to build an X PRIZE winner in his barn. That last competitor -- his name is Kevin Smith, he's an engineer, and he called his company Illuminati Motor Works -- in particular stuck with me. Which makes sense, given that he built a car that gets the equivalent of 200 miles per gallon, in a barn, mostly out of parts of other cars that he and his team got at local salvage yards.

The ultra-efficient Frankencar that came out of that barn is called Seven. It has the windshield of a Mazda Miata, the suspension of a Dodge Neon, the four-wheel steering of a Honda Prelude, and looks like none of them; it has freaking gull-wing doors. There is only one Seven in existence, and nothing like it is likely to be sold at a dealership near you anytime soon. Seven's outlandish stats are one thing, and an impressive one. But the sheer and stunning fact of its existence -- the fact that Smith set out to make a car that could do things no car has ever done, with his hands, and then actually did it -- seems most remarkable of all. For all the ways in which we've defined inspiration down -- and if it means what Upworthy says it means, it doesn't mean much -- here was something humbler, harder and more inspiring: a crazy idea taken to its illogical conclusion, a nearly impossible task completed thanks to wild intelligence and wilder stubbornness.

I talked with Smith about making things, imagination, why Seven looks like a car from Sin City, and what it feels like to drive 130 miles per hour in a vehicle you built yourself.

So, you and the Illuminati Motor works team built a car that gets the equivalent of around 200 miles per gallon, and you built it mostly out of parts of other cars, in a barn in Illinois. How does someone wind up doing something like this? There are passion projects, and then there is constructing a car more or less from scratch and having it out perform any other car currently on the road.

I got the bug for working on and modifying cars for efficiency competitions back in college when I was a member of the University of Illinois chapter of the Society of Automotive Engineers. We worked on various projects and competitions ranging from the university's Engineers Week Tinkertoy bridge building contest to building solar, electric and hybrid vehicles for national competitions like the 1996 DOE PNGV challenge. Back then we didn't have a budget to speak of, so to get parts we raided the school's recycled metals bins. These contained choice items, including old lab equipment and discarded experimental apparatuses not usually found in the average garbage can. Along with cannibalizing previous SAE projects and the occasional precious credit card purchase, we built our cars.

Ever since college I wanted to do a couple different projects on my own, but the cost and time always exceeded my vision and pocketbook. Then things changed. The X PRIZE Foundation waved a $10 million dollar prize and the prestige of possibly winning an engineering competition that in my mind rivals that of the Nobel Prize. I was hooked! A competition right up my alley: I had the experience and know-how, but not the money or team needed to pull it off. I knew I'd find it and them, somewhere, somehow. This was the competition I'd been waiting for, which is silly since it hadn't previously existed.

The X PRIZE had just created that extra nudge I needed to get busy. It ends up the team, my friends, family and I, had been designing Seven in the back of our minds for years. The money came a little at a time with each paycheck and what others could donate, and, yes, [through] a bank loan. Taking on the X PRIZE while starting with nothing -- that was just par for the course for us.

There's a throwaway moment in the Simpsons in which Marge says to Homer, "See all that stuff in there, Homer? That's why your robot didn't work," That I think defines what it would be like if 99.9% of humanity set out to make it's own car. You're in that other 0.1%, but this was clearly still a dauntingly difficult thing to do. What goes into making a car like the Seven, and how did you go about making it all work?

I know this sounds a bit cliché but taking on any task like this, it's really a matter of believing in yourself -- not saying you believe, but knowing you can do it. There was never a moment when I doubted that we could build this car.

Once we started down the path it wasn't a matter anymore of if we could build it or if it was possible. We had already done our legwork and crunched the numbers. We knew we could do it and with that knowledge and only a partial grasp of how daunting the task was before us we asked ourselves if we should.

The cost in time and money was extreme, [but] the cost of ignoring a responsibility placed before you, of knowing you gave in before you ever started would be unforgivable and irresponsible. So with the knowledge and commitment to take on the task, armed with the numbers that defined the basic outlines of what was necessary to get there, we choose to act. We felt we had to.

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We're really more hands-on, old school type engineers; sitting in front of a computer or textbook with a calculator is not our idea of a good time, no matter how sexy the thermodynamic flow diagrams may be. We like broad numbers that get you close but leave you some room to work with. We also like looking at what's already been done and not always trusting what others say can or can't be done. If you look to existing real world applications and see what's actually being achieved and how, you are much more likely to reach your goals.

All the numbers we were getting were in some cases hard to achieve but every one of them had already been demonstrated somewhere, in some real world application. So we knew it was just a matter of getting them all to work together in a single car while at the same time meeting all the X PRIZE rules, requirements and deadlines.

In addition to using proven techniques we also relied on existing equipment, parts and tech wherever we could. Why design and fabricate a brake caliper for $50-$100K when you could go to the parts store and pick up a great one for $30? The same is true for suspension and steering, except our parts store in those cases was the local auto salvage yard.

If the goal is to build a street legal car, especially on a deadline, why reinvent the wheel? Do you have any idea how long it would have taken us to make our own tires? If we took that route it would have been a waste of time because somebody's already got that covered. Our job was to show that a full-size, 100MPGe street-legal car could be built.


Which, to be clear, was not a thing anyone had ever done before.

We started by reading the X PRIZE rules, to figure out the basic parameters that the car has to fit into and work from there. We crunched the numbers to give us a good general idea of the frontal area, rolling resistance, aerodynamic drag, and drivetrain efficiency that we needed to aim for. Following that line of thinking throughout the build while keeping the end goal and ‘ideal' numbers in mind allowed us to actually finish. It was important to not let the idea of perfection get in the way of building the car.

Once we knew our design concept was possible we started our search for parts. Early on we considered modifying an existing car where we'd just have to do some basic changes and not build an entire car. But no existing models were designed to achieve 100 MPGe, so our focus changed to designing and building our own using as many existing parts as possible.

Much of our parts search and hands on research was done in the parking lots or car dealerships around my workplace. This meant crawling under cars and taking basic measurements, trying to find something that was simple, preferably in a popular model so there'd be ample available parts that could be easily modified to fit in our car. That is, chopped down to fit within our prescribed frontal area.

So: no wishbone suspension, no torsion suspension. It had to be front wheel drive, and had to have after-market parts available. Combine this with researching parts online and trying to find the extra money to buy them, building and maintaining a team, designing the body, finishing the barn so we'd have a place work ... it kept us busy.

do you want it perfect or do you want it completed? if you worry about all that in the beginning, no one would ever start anything.

We had pretty good luck with salvage parts to start us on our way -- suspension from a Dodge Neon, four-wheel steering from a Honda Prelude. When it came to motors, batteries and internal combustion engines (ICE) that met our efficiency needs, energy density, and emission standards we ran into some difficulties.

For engineers, "Unobtanium" is an item that is reported to exist but can't be bought at any price. Unfortunately there is a lot of unobtanium touted online. The first real problem cropped up in finding an internal combustion engine for our original series hybrid design that would also meet the X PRIZE's grueling emission standards. Conversely, if we couldn't find an efficient ICE that met the emissions standards, we had to change the design to an all-electric car. That would mean we had to use enough batteries to make up for the equivalent energy storage in the gasoline we'd be giving up, and then house those batteries in a car that met all X PRIZE safety standards.

That meant trying to achieve a 200-mile range at highway speeds in an all electric car on a single charge. The only other car to do that so far is the Tesla Model S, and it didn't exist until years after the competition.

Many design changes were required along the way. One required removing the very first part of the car we built: the backbone. And widening it without bending or damaging the rest of the car or intruding on required passenger space so that we could now double our battery capacity. Instead of 100 MPGe we had to aim for 200 MPGe, because no matter what modifications we made we couldn't cram more than a gallon's worth of batteries into Sevens' space frame, but still had to have a minimum 200 mile range on a charge.

As much as anything else, this part seems like a triumph of the imagination nearly as much as engineering. There's no way to know what a car that does these things would look like, let alone drive like, because no such car has ever existed.

It sounds crazy to even try ... but when you've realized your current design isn't going to work you have no choice. You make the decision then move forward and get it done. Again, do you want it perfect or do you want it completed and able to meet the design requirements?

This is just some of what goes on when taking on a project like this, but if you worry about all that in the beginning, no one would ever start anything. I like getting down to business with the general design and building the car. When we run into questions or problems along the way then we pull out the books on aerodynamics, mechanics, dynamics, and do our mathematical legwork. As for the aerodynamics ... well, we fell back on engineering rules of thumb and second-grade lessons about drawing ellipses with string and a couple points on a piece of paper.

Seven doesn't look like any car that exists outside of a storyboard for Sin City -- it's long and unusually shaped and has some supremely non-standard doors. To what extent does the way Seven looks reflect aerodynamic function, and to what extent were these design decisions made because you thought they looked cool?

The overall body design is based on many aspects: aerodynamics, energy storage and consumption, seating, interior room, storage space and other basic requirements of the X PRIZE competition. Starting from the curved front, which is based on the rise and run of a specific aerodynamically shaped ellipse -- a teardrop, basically -- the car's shape flows back to the windshield and passenger compartment. We had to use a DOT approved glass automotive windshield, which limited the design options to what would fit the car. This wound up being a Mazda Miata windshield.

From the windshield we copied the crest of the ellipse from the front of the car for the passenger above-head areas and left open the middle of the car's top to reduce frontal area and give those cool gull wing doors somewhere to open to. The car continues to follow a teardrop as you follow it back with a gradually tapering tail, about a 4:1 taper down and in. There still needed to be room for the rear passengers, rear suspension, rear steering and at least a 10 cubic foot trunk, which was an X PRIZE requirement. So the perfect taper had to be altered a little to meet those basic needs.

Now, no one is really interested in driving something that looks like a completely teardrop-shaped solar car, so we had a challenge. What do you do to give a teardrop a little style without diminishing its CD (coefficient of drag)? Again, looking to what had already been done, cars of the 1930's and '40's were modeled after early aircraft in order to help them achieve higher speeds on the growing US highway system. They did that instead of just putting in bigger engines, because GM didn't introduce its small block line of high horsepower engines until about 1955.


By incorporating aerodynamics into their designs, the auto manufacturers could find power that was otherwise lost to the wind. So we looked at those rounded front ends, big curvy fenders and swooping rear ends and incorporated them into our design. We came up with the one you see and it fit the needs of the competition for which it was built.

The gull wing doors are definitely a design aspect unto themselves. "Cool" is one word for them. You could also call them "difficult to make." Someone told us we couldn't make them, which irked us and egged us on, but the final reason why we used gull wing doors? They are extremely functional and made getting in and out of the car comparatively easy. The maximum distance the outside of the door reaches from the car as it swings open is 16 inches.

If you open a door on a standard car 16 inches, you only have about 8 inches of opening to try to squeeze out of, which means our gull wings doors also work well in tight parking spaces. Additionally, they create the easiest access, ingress and egress of any low riding sports car we've ever seen. To get into the car, since the top is open when the door is open, you merely sit down, and to get out you swing your legs out and stand up. No bending, stooping, hopping, or helping required.

And, did I mention, they're cool as hell.

While Seven's most famous for its MPGe figures, Jason tells me that it also has a good deal of giddy-up. How does it drive, and where have you driven it? How does it feel to go fast around a track in something you made?

Seven's an incredible machine: 0-60 in 6.5 seconds, top speed of 130mph, 48-plus mph in the Consumer Reports accident avoidance maneuver, and achieved 207.5 MPGe on the EPA 74 test cycle at Chrysler.

The ride I would describe as sporty. In the summer it's more ... hot, hard and a bit loud. So, three things you usually aren't looking for in a car. Seven's been compared to a mid-70s Corvette for ride, and a Tesla for speed and handling. Although perfectly quiet on the outside, the solid-mounted motor can make quite a whine in the car that is loud at times. We're working to improve that.

Get behind the wheel of Seven, video footage courtesy of Joel Clemens

As far as driving, it's fun, handles great, turns on a dime - four-wheel steering helps there. Its 200 horsepower motor with 420 ft/lbs of torque responds well to anything you want her to do. Going 130 MPH in something you've built yourself at Michigan International Speedway or Watkins Glen ... well, somebody has to test it, and if you don't trust yourself who can you trust? And offering rides to reporters, authors, and the general public all adds up and generates valuable beta test information.

Entering Seven in competitions like the X Prize and Green Grand Prix has required you to become something of an amateur race car driver, which is kind of a different skill set from engineering and welding. What are the challenges of driving a car this unconventional -- it's both longer and heavier than standard cars, right?

Seven reminds me a lot of my first car, a 1974 [Chevrolet] Caprice. It's big, long, heavy, and has power to spare. Unlike the floating, boat-like ride of the Caprice, Seven is stiffer, making it great on the race course but really hard on the low rolling resistant tires we run. When I first drove Seven it really wasn't too different in size than what I was used to and it handled better.

Much like building the car, I didn't worry about what I ‘couldn't do' or about the other drivers, professional or otherwise, on the track; I just drove my car and she handled great. We received a lot of compliments from other teams and drivers about our driver's skill, to which I just said 'thanks' and didn't tell them it was mostly the car and not me.

I did let some of [the X PRIZE competitors] drive Seven, like Wolfgang from the TW4XP team, and he is a professional driver, way better than me. Wolfgang thought its setup was great, and within a minute of sitting behind the wheel you could see from his relaxed posture and the way he took to the car, driving with one hand at 70 miles per hour, that at that moment he knew my secret. I could drive well, but Seven was doing all the real work.

Where do you go from here? You seem to be in sort of a unique situation, given that you've hand-built a car that would be extremely difficult to mass-produce, but that pretty significantly outperforms every mass-production car in terms of efficiency. What do you want to make next and why?

I want to make the social conversation change. We've all sat around discussing different problems, almost always saying or hearing, "somebody should do something" but not doing anything or supplying real tangible solutions ourselves. I'm just as guilty of this as the next person.

Well, here's a massive problem, the automobile and everything that comes with it, and we need solutions. Today's automobile is either a contributor to or is the cause of many of the problems in society today: pollution, energy shortages, global climate change, dislocation of peoples, political unrest, wars, health issues from pollution and accidents, urban sprawl, infrastructure decay and many more. We need a clean, efficient means of travel that doesn't harm the environment and still allows us the freedom we've become accustomed to.

Seven years ago we were told on numerous occasions that it was impossible to solve, it was too complicated or we were underfunded, that the 100MPGe goal is a myth, impossible to achieve in a real world car. Well, here it is: we did it. Seven is the most fuel efficient, full size street legal car in the world; it outstrips the best production cars' mileage ratings by nearly 200 percent, even years after it was built. This was all accomplished by a group of amateurs, in their free time, in a barn, with no funding, using junkyard parts and obsolete technology. If that doesn't prove it's possible I'm not sure what will.

The cost in time and money was extreme, but the cost of ignoring a responsibility would have been unforgivable and irresponsible.

So the answer to that oft-heard wail of, "Somebody has to do something" has been answered. Somebody is us.

Now we need to get the information out to the public, show them that it's real, that they can have it all, that it's not a scam or a lie to make us look good. I've met a lot of skeptics while working on Seven, and I can't blame them for being skeptical. I meet and talk to the liars, the fakes, the charlatans in this budding industry all the time. Every event we go to is just littered with them. People trying to talk, type, calculate, re-calculate or just plain lie themselves smart, famous, or rich.

We say, 'Here's Seven,' and then we tell anyone who will listen just exactly how we made it. I want everyone talking about their new electric car and battery design like it's their new cell phone. I want the racers to tweak the efficiency putting more power to the wheels. I want an EV future in which the pundits are shamed into insignificance. Where the charlatans are unmasked and disbanded.

That's why we put it all out there, that's why we do all of these events and shows at our own expense. We have nothing to gain! We aren't even selling anything! But because of those that are less than 100 percent honest, who have something to sell or are simply misinformed, we have an uphill battle. We have to prove it to each and every person one at a time. So, I say let's go for a ride, and I take as many people with as I can. Seeing may be believing, but going for a ride -- that's proof!

Now let's experience what's possible and demand more of ourselves, our future and our cars. It's not that hard.

Photos by Jen Danzinger, courtesy of Illuminati Motor Works.