Home-built Clubman - Reader Resto

By: Don Lewis with Guy Allen, Photography by: Alastair Brook & Don Lewis

Presented by

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How many of us find the time or skills or determination to build your own car? Don Lewis did

It started out quite innocently – my kids bought me a book, How to Build Your Own Sports Car for £250. They bought it for father’s day. I looked at it and thought about it and realised I could do that. I’d restored cars over the years, but this was an opportunity to build one – not a kit car – from scratch.

We’re talking about starting with a stack of steel tubing and a donor car and putting it all together as your own version of a Lotus 7 replica. The guy who wrote the book was a trade teacher in England and he wanted to get the kids more interested in what he was teaching, so he would design these cars and the kids would build one a year. In the early days they were scrounging Cortina bits. He wrote a book on it and it’s now become what we call The Bible on what’s called the low cost clubman concept.

clubman build

Now they’re built around the world, and there’s a following around the world. In some respects it’s an impractical vehicle, but I wanted to build it.

I bought square tubing, plus a donor car – a 2006 Mazda MX-5 NC. It was about eight months old at the time, had just on 8000km and was a repairable write-off from the auctions.

written-off Mazda Mx-5

The chassis and front end were built in my garage. I really enjoyed that. It was something I’d never done before – making wishbones and the like – so I really enjoyed it.   

Learning about all the different angles in the steering and how it all comes together.

Fibreglass was something I had done before. My original trade was as a panel-beater.

clubman chassis

The tubing was your normal mild steel square tube. We went for 2mm wall thickness for the strength and it’s easier to weld. You can build it out of 1.6mm, which will make the car lighter, but I wanted a strong long-lasting result. It’s a spaceframe.

The approach we took was a little different to normal for a clubman. Usually the aim is to make them as light as possible, with the inevitable compromises. But I wanted a grand tourer. This was never intended for the racetrack, so I didn’t worry about the weight while it was being built.

clubman chassis

Because I’m in a wheelchair, I needed to be able to put it in the back, so the ‘boot’ is a little bigger than normal. I also made it a little wider than normal because I’m a big guy and need the room and I wanted bigger seats in it. We also made it a little longer in the cabin, so I could have adjustable seats on runners. It also has an adjustable steering column.

The vehicle has to go through engineering, which is becoming increasingly tough. There are regulations for independently constructed vehicles, which excludes things like crash testing. However the chassis itself is tested. The chassis in the original plans won’t meet Australian standards, so you have to put more bracing in them especially around the engine bay.

clubman chassis

This is where it’s smart to start talking to engineers sooner rather than late in the build, so you know you’re heading down the right path. Really, it’s best to get them on board from day one. The interpretations of the regs can vary from state to state, and having an expert on board makes the process a lot smoother.

And you still have to have ADR-approved gear such as lights, seatbelts and so-on. I bought a set of seats which met the regs at the time, built them into the car, then they changed the regulations!

Clubman build

That cabin will take two big people and has adjustable seats

So I had to go and buy a new seat, but initially there were no aftermarket offerings that met the new ADRs. I eventually found a company in Queensland that had just started making seat shells to fit the new regulations – they were the only ones I could get. Even then I ended up modifying and strengthening them before getting them upholstered.

We’ve been able to run the Mazda driveline more or less complete. The advantage of having the donor car sitting in the shed was I had nearly every component you needed to build the car, right down to things like the pedals and steering column.

clubman build

One advantage of the late-model driveline was that it went through the emissions testing fairly easily. That can be a real issue with older drivelines.

Mechanically, from the radiator back to the diff, it’s all MX-5. I was also able to put the ABS brakes into it and the six-speed tiptronic auto. One change I managed was to get a limited-slip diff from a wrecker. In the Mazda, you only got the LSD in a manual and I was working with an auto.

Clubman build

The engine sits behind the axles

The engine is the standard tuning at 118kW, which is not super powerful but it’s light and feels very quick. It handles extremely well, and the brakes are incredible. But I would still consider it a grand tourer.

It’s got four-wheel discs and independent suspension all round, so it has some good specs.

Don Lewis

Though we weren’t worried about the weight because we wanted to build in strength, the car still only weighs 850kg. That compares to around 1200-1300kg for the standard Mazda. That in itself makes it quicker. It drives dead straight and I’m happy with how it drives – it’s better balanced than most cars.

Don’s top tips:
1. Buy the book;
2. Join a builder group and get to know what they’re doing;
3. Get an engineer from day one, before you buy anything!

Engine donor car: 2006 Mazda MX-5

Length of restoration: 8 years

IN THE BUILD:

Mild steel

clubman resto

Believe it or not, this is about to turn into a car. Hard to imagine....

 

Oh dear

written-off Mazda MX-5

A late-model repairable write-off MX-5 was a perfect donor..

 

Space race

clubman chassis

The space frame ended up with extrra bracing to pass local tests

 

Customisation

clubman chassis

Don’s one-off wheelchair tub under construction...

 

Patience

clubman chassis

Just this one panel shows the extraordinary patience required.

 

Spaghetti junction

R:\Web\WebTeam\Mary\Motoring\UC 439\reader resto clubman\clubmanr-esto-14.jpg

Sights like this make you wonder how many car builders take up drinking.

 

Complete unit

clubman resto

Don decided to leave the engine stock, to ease his way through testing.

 

Taking shape

clubman chassis

After years of effort, it’s starting to look recognisable...

 

Glass class

clubman chassis

Don’s previous work in the trade meant he understood finbreglass.

 

Tub time

clubman chassis

Don was not only keen to have something unique, but it had to take his six-foot-plus frame as well.

 

Deceptive

clubman build

All those flat panels look simple, but we suspect appearances are deceptive...

 

Runner

clubman build

Exciting times. It looks a bit like a car, and it runs!

 

Hand control 

clubman build

Note the nicely made hand control.

 

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