SPEX Elf

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How do you become a car designer?

Well, maybe the better question is: what would you design? 

I've said it before, but there are sketches within arm's reach of my dream commuter car: (basically) a Colani 2CV body, Citroën 2CV chassis, and a BMW R-Series motorcycle engine for about 95 horsepower.

Low drag, great power, great looks…I figure that if I eventually have the time and money to build something of my own it should be consistent with the odd vehicles that fill tweets, Facebook statuses, and blog posts I've put everyone through over the last few years…

Making a car from scratch is an incredibly difficult thing to do, and generally basing your creation off of something else just makes sense. 

In the case of the SPEX Elf? The first generation Honda Civic 3-door.

This was a great move, actually. Only a few years after the Toyota Celica Sunchaser and about a decade before the Honda Civic del Sol, the car was an open top design with central roll hoop. 

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For 1985, I suppose it would have been quite hot…but…now? I'm not sure it aged very well. But I'm getting ahead of myself. Whose faul…er…idea was this? (If you're keeping track, yes, the Zimmer Quicksilver gets put into the awesome kit car category because it's a Zimmer Quicksilver. This is not. Don't think about it too much.)

Designed by Canadians Paul Deutchman and Kell Warshaw, the Elf cost $5,995 for the basic kit and $6,995 for the deluxe, which included wheels, tires, seat covers, side mirrors, and steering wheel. Warshaw's credentials are a little hard to track down, but Deutchman went on to style all Callaway Corvettes and the Campagna T-Rex—not a bad résumé.

OK, let's get to it (did you bring the Sawzall?):

Step 1: Buy a 1st gen Honda Civic 3-door. 
Step 2: Cut off everything above the window sills.

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There is a scan online of the complete build process, which looks fairly involved. After removing the doors and other exterior panels, the kit included a weld-in steel frame for strength that essentially slides in (back to front) and sits on the floor, butting up against the firewall. This also tied the sides of the car together behind the seats, a (likely) much-needed modification when cutting the top off of a hatchback!

I won't go through the entire process, but for those of you who enjoy spotting parts—I can't help myself when looking at a motorhome—the headlights are from a Honda Accord and the tail lights are from the (Fox body!) Mercury Capri.

The kit included everything from the floor up: bumpers, 1-piece body, hood, trunk, doors, and 2-piece hard top with a removable targa section.

How long did it take to make? Estimates sat at 200 hours. And if you're already adding everything up in your head, thinking, "Wait a second, wouldn't this car be slow with the standard 52-horsepower Civic engine?"

Yes, yes it would. There's an ad (above) for the Elf H/S, which had high-performance suspension, brakes—and a Honda Prelude engine! Zero to 100 km/h (0-60 mph) came in 8.5 seconds, which was quite good for the time, but I'm not sure many such equipped versions were built after the prototype was completed. 

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An interesting quirk came from that weld-in strengthening frame: the door sills were as high as on a BMW Z1, making it very awkward to get in and out. Still want one? 20 kits were sold in total, and since the photos I've found online show a few in various states of decay.

That said, with a fiberglass body there's no way it would have decayed as quickly as a standard 1st generation Honda Civic…


Sources / Recommended reading