Understanding Kit Cars: From Unconvincing Fieros to Extreme Cobras

Ghost RiderThinking about building your own kit car? Here’s what you need to know when looking for a project.


Types of Kit Cars

There are three major categories of kit cars, each with their advantages and disadvantages.


Motorcycle: If it has less than four wheels, it’s legally considered a motorcycle. This gives a lot more flexibility in design and licensing since the safety and emissions requirements are simpler, but these “cars” keep creature comforts to a minimum.


Donor Kit: The most common type of kit car, these start with an existing production vehicle. Manufacturers usually build kits around common cars with plenty of aftermarket support like the Ford Mustang, Volkswagen Beetle or Pontiac Fiero.


Glider: This is the easiest build since it’s basically a new car minus the engine and transmission. Some companies operate a separate garage that will finish the assembly, effectively making it a turn-key car that skirts by production car rules.



What Does It Take to Build One?

A good kit will come with bagged small parts, a detailed instruction manual and online or phone-based support. Basic hand tools and torque wrenches are a must for any project, and the guide should have a list of specialty equipment that may be needed for assembly. Ideally, you should have enough free space to hold two cars, providing an area for the vehicle, body panels and other major parts.


Gliders can be assembled in a few days, depending on the number of modifications that need to be made to the engine and transmission. Expect to spend at least a couple months of weekends on a simple motorcycle-based car and at least a half year to build a donor-based car.



How Do I License a Kit Car?

Regulations vary from state to state, but there are a few general rules that apply anywhere:


Emissions requirements will be based on the year the vehicle was originally built, whether it’s the donor vehicle or the year the frame was built. State safety requirements will also need to be met, which usually means passing a vehicle inspection. The EPA will approve any motorcycle fitted with a certified design set up using the manufacturer’s instructions.


If the car is built on a pre-existing car or motorcycle chassis, it’s licensed using the original title. A completely new vehicle will require a manufacturer’s statement of origin (MSO) certificate. In some states, a combination of the MSO and engine serial number is needed to generate a Vehicle Identification Number (VIN.) The DMV may ask for receipts for major parts to ensure nothing on the vehicle is stolen. Hawaii’s vehicle laws make getting a VIN almost impossible, making donor-based kit cars the only real option in the state.