MAX: An almost Lotus that runs on vegetable oil

MAX: An almost Lotus that runs on vegetable oil
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Even before entering the Progressive Automotive X-Prize competition, Jack McCornack had started to pull together all the things needed to knock out a sporty two seater car capable of achieving 100 miles per gallon. Fueled by the desire to make his creation a template for others to repeat and determined to bring it together within a strict budget, the race was on to bring MAX into the world - a Lotus Seven replica which just happens to run on vegetable oil.

McCornack is perhaps better known for his work as an aircraft designer. Projects include the Pterodactyl line of ultralight/microlight aircraft, two recently declassified "black projects" for the US Department of Defense, and some specialized aircraft for the silver screen. Among them is Kinetic Aerospace's Programmable High Altitude Single Soldier Transport - PHASST - gliders, a couple of which were used in the James Bond film Die Another Day. In the film they were known as Switchblades.

And so it begins...

It was back in the Summer 2006 when McCornack first considered building a sports car capable of clocking up a 100 miles per gallon. For his day job he designs, builds and distributes a variety of Locost and Haynes Roadster parts that help people build DIY sports cars under the banner of Kinetic Vehicles so the stage was already pretty much set.

A Locost car is an enthusiast-built vehicle based on the iconic Lotus Seven two seater sports car. In the UK, Locost creation has been going on for a number of years and most enthusiasts stop by the Locost Builders Forum in search of help, inspiration or just to show off their own homage to a legend. And Locost USA is a place where enthusiasts in the US can do the same.

The as yet unnamed project's first purchase was a Kubota industrial diesel engine which was plonked into a Locost book chassis that just happened to be available. At the time McCornack was aware of the Progressive Automotive X-Prize challenge, which is offering a US$10 million prize to the creator of a sedan-type vehicle capable of achieving consistent fuel economy of over 100 miles per gallon equivalent and completing rigorous long distance challenges.

Opportunity knocks

When the X-Prize Foundation announced a category to design and build a practical, fun and affordable two-seat car that also manages over 100 miles per gallon of fuel, a passing interest was replaced by enthusiasm and registration soon followed.

The challenge McCornack set himself was to design a sporty two-seater car that could be built "by a determined and well-equipped scrounger" using off-the-shelf parts or things that could be created with relative ease, to achieve 100 miles per gallon of fuel at freeway cruising speed, and to bring it all together on a budget of around US$10,000.

Back to basics

Back in the halcyon days of the 1960s sports cars were more concerned with streamlining than with downforce because they had much less off-the-mark power to deal with. With this in mind, McCornack's original thoughts leaned towards modeling the vehicle on a Lola MkII, but after writing to Lola to ask if it was OK to copy the design and not getting a reply, a slight rethink was called for. It was then decided to use the existing Locost frame and the new car took on the iconic Lotus Seven as its inspiration.

By August 2007 it was full steam ahead for Mother's Automotive X-prize (MAX for short). A donor car was needed that would happily sacrifice its driveline and suspension and an early 1980s Toyota Corolla rust-bucket headed for the crusher seemed to fit the bill nicely.

The "Corrode Warrior", as it was affectionately coined, became the proof of concept test vehicle for the Kubota engine but its respite from the crusher was to prove a temporary one. With the engine back in the Locost frame, the bare-bones of something loosely resembling a car was ready for its first test drive by April 2008, sporting a rather sexy tractor muffler attached to the exhaust flange and a bucket seat for the driver.

With only a parking break to stop MAX and very few electrics to play with, McCornack says that the first drive was a real seat-of-the-pants experience, especially for the co-pilot since there wasn't yet a passenger seat. The tractor muffler was soon replaced by a less agricultural looking one-piece pipe and after a nose, scuttle and hood were added, MAX started to look like auditioning for vintage stock car races could be on the horizon.

The beginning of the end

Plumbing in brakes and electrics and filling in bodywork blanks saw the car declared road legal in June 2008. Naturally this was soon followed by MAX's first genuine on-the-road test and an opportunity for McCornack to get in some serious driving fun. Sadly, this first test drive was to be MAX's last outing. Stuck behind a van waiting for pedestrians to cross, MAX tried to become close friends with the van in front after being rear ended and its short life came to an end.

Thankfully most of the important stuff could be salvaged and McCornack and team started on (son of) MAX. After a couple of months of endless hard graft and a hastily settled insurance claim, (son of) MAX was treated to a device which would not only allow it to run on straight vegetable oil (reflecting McCornack's interest in reducing our culture's dependence on fossil fuel) as well as diesel and biodiesel but also to enter its first race, sorry rally - the Escape from Berkeley no petroleum rally from California to Nevada.

Given the Locost's more than passing resemblance to the mark II Lotus Seven seen in the opening credits of a certain cult TV series starring Patrick McGoohan, (son of) MAX and team were duly entered as the "Prisoners of Petroleum". Offering a quick "Be seeing you" as the starting gun fired, they were off.

The team stormed into "The Village" of Las Vegas victorious. The New York Times reported that the car could travel at 72 mph and get 70 miles to the gallon, but McCornack reports that (son of) MAX was at that time capable for either 72 mph or 70 miles to the gallon, not both.

Buried in paperwork

McCornack and team spent the next months trying to improve on the miles per gallon efficiency and also got caught up in some rule-changing paperwork showered upon them by the X-Prize Foundation.

According to McCornack, in the early stages of the competition MAX was about the only on-the-road car available but as more entrants emerged the Foundation opted to make the competition about creating fuel efficient cars that can be mass-produced.

After being bogged down with paperwork for a good few months, it became clear that the original drive behind MAX (to create a template for a fuel efficient car that could be built with relative ease on a low budget) and the new direction the competition was taking were not going to be happy bed-fellows.

So, with some regret, McCornack recently withdrew from the competition to concentrate on the further development of MAX. His interest in the X-Prize competition continues but now from the standpoint of a journalist. He's also providing regular updates for Mother Earth News on the MAX project.

The future hasn't been written yet

The overall aim of the MAX project remains the same - to create low budget, high efficiency, fun and practical homebuilt car that can, as McCornack puts it: "be duplicated by a dedicated amateur in 160 hours for US$10,000 - which includes the retail price of any specialized components that have to be bought from us. It's daunting, since about half the budget is the engine, but if it were easy it wouldn't be as much fun."

Anyone interested in building such a vehicle themselves might like to note that the finished product doesn't necessarily need to look exactly like MAX. McCornack has just recently built a computer-controlled 3D router that provides in-house tooling capacity for bodywork that will give DIY enthusiasts the option to submit their own designs and have the body custom-made by Kinetic vehicles.

With the prized 100 miles per gallon marker still to be reached and with the next "Escape from Berkeley" dates just recently being announced, the MAX project is far from over.

(All images courtesy of Jack McCornack)

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