Factory Five Roadster Build Part 1: Project Snake Charmer
We'd like to introduce you to Mustang & Fords' new project
From the June, 2006 issue of Modified Mustangs & Fords
By Mark Houlahan
Photography by Mark Houlahan
We visited Factory Five's...
We visited Factory Five's facility in early February. Surprisingly, while the air was crisp, there was no snow welcoming us when we landed in Boston. Wareham is just an hour and change south, but if you decide to visit the company, do yourself a favor and fly into Providence, Rhode Island, as the drive is shorter and nicer. (FFR is a stone's throw from Martha's Vineyard, so the trip will be a nice getaway for your significant other, as well.) Upon entering FFR's showroom, you'll be greeted by several displays, including Joe Fournier's FE-powered replica in Acapulco Blue, Nate Johnson's supercharged EFI small-block Roadster, Dave Smith's Coupe, a Challenge Series Racer, and a semi-complete chassis. You'll spend plenty of time, just as we did, walking from car to car.
The adage "too much power is just enough" can be attributed to just about any go-fast classic Ford with enough power to go sideways in every gear and melt the tires down to the cords, but there's never been a Ford-powered car that lived up to those words more than the 427-powered Cobra.
A car from which legends-as well as songs and even comedy routines-have been made, the big-block-powered, aluminum-bodied car simply called the "427" was, and still is, a sight to behold. With its long-hood, short-deck look (sound familiar?) and the brutish torque of Ford's FE engine, the 427 became a hit on racetracks everywhere.
Street versions were not so revered at the time, however, with their lack of creature comforts, hot driver compartments, high price tag, and other attributes that kept their street numbers at just 260 units built. The 427-powered Cobra-with its unique shape, power, and sound-has been lusted after by many gearheads, no matter their corporate affiliation. As years go by, the car's ultra-low numbers have done one thing-kept the ability to actually own one out of reach of so many people who hold the car close to their collective automotive hearts.
The Factory Five Racing Tour...
The Factory Five Racing Tour
Right off the showroom floor is FFR's 38,000 square feet of manufacturing and R&D. On the racks are Mk III Roadsters in various phases of completion. As orders are filled, these kits are taken down, given their options, and prepared for shipping. There have been times when the manufacturing floor was so full of kits, you couldn't move. Dave Smith tells us they ship approximately 15-20 Roadsters per week to customers.
Something happened, though, in the decades after the original car was built. It was the kit-car market. Seemingly overnight, companies were popping up and offering fiberglass bodies of classic car shapes for people to purchase and fit to another chassis-usually that of a Volkswagen Beetle. Workmanship was poor, customer service was insufficient (if the company was even able to stay in business), and the "rebodies," as they were called, certainly didn't have the power or sound of the original car the body was molded after. Can you say 45hp Ferrari? The bodies often looked contorted because they were reconfigured to fit the VW wheelbase. All this did nothing for the replica car movement but give it a black eye. Sales fell, companies failed or reorganized under another name, and whenever a car enthusiast heard the term kit car, they shied away. But change was coming.
Enter Mark and David Smith-two brothers who were fans of the original 427 but not fans of the kit car market. In 1995, they started Factory Five Racing (FFR) with their small team of engineers in a shop in Wareham, Massachusetts. Their concept was to build a steel-tube frame akin to the original-only better-that used the suspension and drivetrain of the popular Fox-body 5.0 Mustang ('79-'93), and top it off with a true-to-scale body.
The Smiths pride themselves...
The Smiths pride themselves on using as many American-made products as possible in the kits. While offshore welding, steel, and mold costs are summarily cheaper, they feel it's worth the expense to use American steel and other U.S.-made products in the company's kits. The steel comes to them in precut lengths, ready for the chassis welders.
Why a 5.0 Mustang? As David puts it, "Why reengineer what the factory spent millions perfecting?" If the 5.0 Mustang, with its 225 hp, 300 lb-ft of torque roller cam 5.0 ('87-'91 numbers) was the fastest and best-handling domestic car of the era save for the Corvette, imagine what that drivetrain would do in a car weighing 1,000 pounds less, with a lower center of gravity. Besides, in 1995, a 3- or 4-year-old 5.0 Mustang was just another used car. You could buy them at a cheap price, and even cheaper wrecked. For around $15,000, you could build a nice, small-block-powered replica of the 427.
Today, Factory Five Racing (whose name comes from using the factory five-liter Mustang parts) has delivered over 5,000 kits to customers across the United States and abroad-more than all other Cobra replica manufacturers combined. Customers build everything from exact 427 replicas to wild supercharged and fuel-injected stroker small-blocks with custom interiors and body modifications.
FFR uses frame jigs to ensure...
FFR uses frame jigs to ensure each frame is welded precisely like the last one. The Roadster chassis is similar in design to the original, with 4-inch round tube-frame members that are thicker than the originals, but extra steel is used for triangulation and safety-in the cockpit area, especially. There are more than 900 welds in each frame, taking the welder approximately two hours to complete each frame.
You may wonder how FFR can manufacture and sell a replica of a real car that existed nearly 40 years ago. Many people don't realize the overall design and shape of the Roadster has been in the public domain for decades. What's protected is the name "Cobra," which is still owned by Ford. FFR has spent many years and thousands of dollars in the court systems proving these facts, which allows them to continue to manufacture and sell its Roadster today, albeit without the use of the Cobra name and without any Cobra-specific badging on the car. This certainly hasn't had much of an effect on FFR's sales, as the company ships a mind-boggling 15-20 kits out of its warehouse each week.
We're excited to bring you this new project car, and we have some great ideas for our readers. We're planning monthly editorial on the build itself, along with weekly updates on our Web site and even online video of key build points. While we're still working out the details, we're also looking into using Web cams to bring you instant access to our build process throughout the whole project.
It will be built right in Yours Truly's own garage, just as you would do. No high-end hot rod shops, no 10,000-square-foot workspace-just a typical two-car garage and a decent toolbox full of typical socket sets and handtools. You'll be amazed by how little room and what few tools you'll need to put one of FFR's '65 Roadsters together.
We recently visited FFR to tour the plant and see how the crew produces their '65 Roadster as well as their other vehicles. So follow along to see how they do it.
Besides the main frame component,...
Besides the main frame component, FFR also manufactures its own side exhaust, tubular control arms, and other steel products. To say there's a lot of welding going on here is an understatement.
What Does "Donor Built" Mean Anyway?
When the Smith brothers decided to use donor parts from a single vehicle for their Roadster replica, they were simply looking for an economical way to allow a customer to build a replica with proven parts that would give the car decent performance. There have been thousands of builds in which a customer buys a wrecked 5.0 Mustang, strips it of the necessary parts, resells the parts not needed for the build-often recouping their full purchase price of the donor-and has all of the donor parts cleaned, painted, and ready to go when their kit arrives. These cars are all over the country and can be found road racing, hitting cruise nights, and even winning show trophies. Building with donor parts is often the only way a Roadster will fit into a family's budget. Remember, just like any other classic Ford you'd build, it's your car, and you should build it your way.
Within the last five years, more FFR owners are moving away from the typical donor build, FFR's Mark Dougherty tells us. They're seeing more owners using crate engines, stronger transmissions, aftermarket brakes, and so on. There are a few Mustang-specific parts you'll still need to complete the build, but these are often acquired from the local Ford dealer or from a cottage industry of FFR parts suppliers. Whichever direction you plan to take with your FFR Roadster, start with a build plan and a realistic budget. Then, pick up the phone and talk to FFR about making your dream come true.
Years ago, a fiberglass replica...
Years ago, a fiberglass replica body would be made by using a "chopper gun" to spray fragmented fiberglass cloth into a mold. At FFR, the fiberglass body sections are made by cutting fiberglass cloth with this CNC-composite cutting machine.
FFR has a great customer service crew and will do all they can to help you successfully build your own Roadster. But if you're like me and enjoy talking to other owners for different ideas, or understand an assembly step better by seeing photos or having it explained by someone who has experience, you don't have to look any further than FFR's customer-based Web forum at www.ffcobra.com.
Run by Bill Pierce, this nearly 10,000-member strong forum is a great place to ask questions pre- and post-purchase, and to look for ideas ranging from paint and stripe colors to dash layouts to braking performance.
Many people peruse the forum and read posts for several months before actually purchasing their Roadster kit. Answering all their questions, seeing the other owners' builds, and so forth gives them a sense of comfort, which in turn gives them the confidence to call FFR and order a Roadster. Check out the site, and you'll be looking at your budget and contemplating picking up the phone, too.
Each panel is accurately cut...
Each panel is accurately cut and then handlaid into the body mold. The FFR Roadster molds are housed in a separate location, but one is kept in-house for quality checks and the numerous daily tours that FFR provides.
Counting Your Presidents
Building an FFR Roadster can be an exercise in strict budgeting or a financial black hole. Don't get caught up in having every conceivable option and an 800hp engine with every bell and whistle. Build what you can afford. You can always go back and upgrade later. The Mk III Roadster kit is complete at just $12,990. With the options we chose (powdercoated frame, body cutouts, chrome rollbar, heater, and so on) our order totaled $15,700. That's a lot of new parts ready to bolt on. Sure, we still need an engine, transmission, rearend, and brakes, but we suspect even with all those parts and a paint job, we should be around $30,000, maybe less.
Once cured, the robotic trimming...
Once cured, the robotic trimming machine accurately trims each panel for the proper fit and contour.
If that sounds like a lot of money, think back to the last project you built: $3,000-$5,000, maybe more, for a rusty car. Throw in an engine rebuild or a crate engine, transmission swap, built rearend, four-wheel discs, paint and body repairs, and interior, and you probably spent somewhere in the mid-$20,000 range. So you can see that in the grand scheme of project car costs, the FFR Roadster is quite achievable, and when you're done, you'll be getting all the looks at the next show or cruise night.
Do yourself a favor and at least call Factory Five and order the free informational DVD. It will answer many questions, and the action on film and the responses from the owner interviews will make you take a hard look at your savings account balance, just as it did for us.
Unlike some replicas, which...
Unlike some replicas, which use large amounts of fiberglass as structural members, the FFR Roadster uses only fiberglass for the body, keeping weight down and chassis integrity up. The cockpit and chassis panels are made from 6061-T6 aluminum that is CNC laser cut and shaped and then riveted in place by the end user. This replicates true race car building practices, just like the original.
At the end of our tour with...
At the end of our tour with FFR's Mark Dougherty and Dave Smith, they asked us to return to the manufacturing floor for "one more thing we forgot to show you." When we passed through the double doors, we were surprised with our Project Snake Charmer Mk III Roadster and its pallet of parts ready for shipping-surprised because we had been told our kit wasn't going to be ready for another week or so. Those crafty guys at FFR pulled one over on us! The vertically challenged dude in the middle with the ear-to-ear grin is your lowly scribe, with Mark on my left and Dave on my right. Now we get to go home and wait for delivery. What torture!
Delivery Day Knowing the...
Knowing the Roadster was en route from Massachusetts to Florida, I had a few days to get my act together. First, the garage got cleaned out, which was way overdue anyway. The bicycles, lawn mower, and other items taking squatter's rights next to my '66 Mustang were dragged to the back porch (I'll build a shed this summer). Then I moved the '66 as far as possible to the right for working room.
Cutting after measuring the...
Cutting after measuring the body buck.
With the garage taken care...
With the garage taken care of, I enlisted the help of our Online Editor, Greg Clark, to assist in building the wooden body buck. The body buck will store the fiberglass body while chassis work is completed. Plans for the buck are included in the Roadster manual, though we deviated slightly with optional build plans found on www.ffcobra.com.
When an FFR Roadster is ready...
When an FFR Roadster is ready for shipping, you can take delivery yourself (which many people do), or opt for a shipping company to pick it up for you. If the kit is shipped, you generally have to have it crated, which is an additional $575
Stewart Transport (888/737-4852;...
Stewart Transport (888/737-4852; www.stewarttransport.com) has specially fitted semi-trailers with cranes and winches to safely store and deliver your uncrated Roadster right to your residence or workshop..Check out video of the chassis being unloaded!Windows Media
Stewart Transport will help...
Stewart Transport will help set up the kit in your garage on your jackstands, and will unload the roughly 20 boxes of additional kit parts as well.See video of the chassis being rolled into the garage.Windows Media
Drivers Dennis and Jolene...
Drivers Dennis and Jolene Patterson had the kit unloaded and in my garage in about 20 minutes-well worth the price of admission.Check out video of the chassis being placed on the jackstands.Windows Media
Garage Setup In preparation...
In preparation for delivery day, my two-car garage was outfitted with a workshop computer with wireless Internet capabilities. This greatly enhanced the work area by allowing me to quickly get answers to any build questions on the ffcobra.com forum, view product instructions, and, of course, transmit the ever-important work tunes from the computer inside the house.
I also dropped a few bucks...
I also dropped a few bucks on some shop lighting with pull-string switches. Easily installed with drywall anchors and plugged into an existing outlet, their installation will improve nighttime working conditions.
As previously mentioned, you'll...
As previously mentioned, you'll need four jackstands for the Roadster kit to sit on during the build. I chose these Powerbuilt aluminum jackstands. At 2 tons capacity each, they are more than enough to support this project. The aluminum stands are light and easy to maneuver, and the rubber-coated head prevents scratching the powdercoated Roadster chassis.
Getting Underway With the...
With the project safely tucked away in its work area, it was time to perform a thorough inventory of parts shipped. Remember those 20 or so boxes mentioned earlier? I got real intimate with those over the course of the next three evenings and half of a Saturday. Counting nuts, bolts, washers, brackets, and more takes time, but in the end you know what you have on hand and where it is kept.
It's a good idea to write...
It's a good idea to write on the outside of the box what the major contents are and the original FFR box number. Luckily, I was short only two rod ends and the horn button-not bad for over 1,000 pieces! Notice the shelf Greg and I built into the body buck to store the majority of the boxes.
Before work can commence on...
Before work can commence on the chassis, the fiberglass body needs to be removed and stored. Following the hefty FFR build manual, I fashioned a cockpit brace and duct-taped it into place. This brace prevents the fiberglass body from flexing too much in the weak under-door area (weak only when not fastened to the chassis).
Once the brace was positioned,...
Once the brace was positioned, I enlisted my neighbor Russ Aljoe, his son Brett (Mr. Crazy Shorts), and 5.0 Mustang & Super Fords Associate Editor Michael "All I wear are free T-shirts" Johnson to help lift the body from the chassis and place it on the body buck.
The first time removing the...
The first time removing the body was unsettling, but we'll have to put the body on and off the chassis several times, so I better get used to it.
With the body in place, the...
With the body in place, the body buck rolls nicely over the chassis when I'm not working on it, too.
Over the next several months,...
Over the next several months, this is a scene that will no doubt be repeated dozens of times when I get home from work and want to spend an hour or so on the Roadster build. I will simply roll the body buck (with the body and boxed parts) into the driveway, turn on the overhead light, fire up the computer, and start swinging wrenches.
For the first few nights,...
For the first few nights, we performed our first step in the FFR build manual, which was to mark all of the preinstalled aluminum panels before removing them from the chassis. These panels are installed with just a few tapping screws used strictly for shipping purposes. Some overlap other panels, and it will be difficult to determine their placement without some sort of identification. A Sharpie does the trick and wipes off easily with lacquer thinner during final installation.
In addition to marking the...
In addition to marking the panel locations, determine rivet placement for the aluminum panels. A nifty trick outlined in the manual is to run your Sharpie along the chassis tubes to mark their location on the backside of the aluminum panels.
Once the panels are marked,...
Once the panels are marked, you can remove them and measure the rivet spacing (FFR supplies enough rivets for a 3-inch pattern).
The marked rivet holes.
Then drill the rivet holes...
Then drill the rivet holes with a 1/8-inch bit.
As we complete the rivet-hole...
As we complete the rivet-hole drilling steps, we'll need a place to store the drilled and prepped panels until the time comes to permanently install them. If there's room, they can be placed in a pile somewhere out of harm's way. We thought it would be a good idea to mount the prepped panels to the wooden body buck with the original tapping screws. That's using our heads for a change!
The Mk III chassis is now...
The Mk III chassis is now as bare as they come, and soon Mustang & Fords will begin the suspension installation and plumbing brake and fuel lines. Stay tuned for more on Project Snake Charmer next month. Meanwhile, check out our Web site for weekly updates.