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Sneak peek: Rally Fighter before SEMA unveil

Posted by Clifford Atiyeh  November 1, 2009 06:10 PM

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(All photos: Clifford Atiyeh/Boston.com)

Local Motors CEO Jay Rogers makes an adjustment on the trunk of the Rally Fighter.

WAREHAM – Jay Rogers isn’t sleeping until his car is ready.

It’s 8 p.m., less than 24 hours before the dune buggy prototype must ship off to Las Vegas for the country’s biggest aftermarket auto show next week, and the front end isn’t mounted yet. Mechanics scurry around the cramped garage space, revving drill bits and metal grinders as yellow sparks fly off the front bumper. The gutted interior won’t be finished, but Rogers, CEO of Local Motors and charged with refinishing the back bumper, keeps a calm, straight face.

“I’m expecting that we have to do our homework,” Rogers says. “I’m humble about the fact that when you’re a new American car company, [you need to] prove to people that you can do it.”

It has taken just 14 months and about $2 million to transform a sketch – chosen from tens of thousands submitted to his website from across the world – into the Rally Fighter, an extreme off-roader built for high-speed dirt and sand racing. Rogers is targeting race teams that compete in endurance competitions like the Baja 1000 in Mexico, and other lunatics in the western states with $50,000 to spend on a lightweight, street-legal race car.

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“We focus on the fact that the thing needs to be able to jump, it needs to be able to race the desert at a high rate of speed, 50-plus miles an hour on average,” he said.

When the Specialty Equipment Marketers Association show starts Nov. 3, the Rally Fighter will be one of several handcrafted vehicles from small manufacturers, and one of hundreds of tuned production cars, many modified by major manufacturers like Ford and GM. It’s an exuberant display of horsepower, body kits, wild paint jobs, and trick electronics.

For Rogers, it’s just the first stop of a month-long tour through the American Southwest, where he hopes to gain exposure and sales through “tweet-ups” and other informal events. So far, 22 customers have placed $99 deposits.

Rogers said he is confident he can sell the 200 Rally Fighters needed to break even, and will produce as many as 2,000 in total. The company is seeking $25 million in federal loans, and plans to create a “micro factory” – where parts will be shipped in and customers will be on site to complete the production process – in Phoenix.

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Underneath the hand-crafted fiberglass and carbon fiber body, which will be covered in custom, removable vinyl wraps instead of paint, are parts fitted in some of the world’s best-selling production cars. The powertrain – a twin-turbo diesel and six-speed automatic – is straight out of the BMW 335d, as is the fuel tank and instrument panel. Attached to 32-inch knobbed tires is a Ford F-150 rear axle, and the long-travel shocks above it are similar to those on Ford’s own dirt-racing special, the Raptor. At the front of the 3,200-pound Rally Fighter is a crumple system used in Mercedes vehicles.

But even with OEM parts and an exemption from expensive crash testing, Rogers still had to satisfy the 45,000-strong community of Internet designers and car buffs on local-motors.com. When Rogers decided to use taillamps from the Honda Civic coupe instead of a custom set that would have cost the company a staggering $1 million, the fans didn't take it well, Rogers said.

“At times, I went to bed at night and was like, damn it, what have we done?” he said.

Few, if any, vehicles go from concept to production without changes to make them more efficient, less costly, and meet governmental and industry standards. When production begins in early 2010, we'll see how this ultimate dune buggy really performs.

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Clifford Atiyeh is an automotive writer and car enthusiast . He has spent his entire life driving cars he doesn't own.
In the garage: 1995 21-speed Iron Horse, 2002 Jeep Wrangler X (by association)
Bill Griffith is a veteran Boston Globe reporter, having reviewed cars for more than 10 years and serving as assistant sports editor for 25 years. He was also the paper's sports media columnist.
In the garage: 2006 Subaru Baja
AAA's Car Doctor, John Paul John Paul is public affairs manager for AAA Southern New England, a certified mechanic, and a Globe columnist. He hosts a weekly radio show on WROL.
In the garage: Hyundai Sante Fe, Chrysler PT Cruiser convertible
Craig Fitzgerald has been writing about cars, motorcycles, and the automotive industry since 1999. He is the former editor of Hemmings Sports & Exotic Car.
In the garage: 1968 Buick Riviera, 1996 Buick Roadmaster, 1974 Honda CB450
Keith Griffin is president of the New England Motor Press Association and edits the used car section on About.com. He also writes for the Hartford Business Journal and various weekly newspapers in Connecticut.
In the garage: Mazda 5, Dodge Neon
George Kennedy is a senior writer for WheelsTV in Acton, which produces video reviews for Yahoo, MSN, and other auto websites.
In the garage: Lifted 1999 Jeep Cherokee
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