I hate alphanumeric car names. Cadillac is bad. Lexus is worse. Mercedes is abysmal. I can’t remember which random combination of letters and numbers matches up with which car. I don’t know what they stand for. I get the feeling that most of the time they don’t mean anything at all. But there is one car whose alphanumeric name is perfect: the Factory Five 818. It’s neither meaningless nor hard to remember because 818 is the car’s weight in kilograms. Yes, it tips at just 1,800 lbs.
The idea of the 818 is simple. It’s a small, mid-engine, 2-seat track toy you can build yourself for under 15 grand. Factory Five sends you a big box full of a box-tube frame and pre-colored composite body. You take apart a crashed Subaru WRX with its engine, transmission, front drivetrain, and suspension uninjured. Then you put the two together for a RWD beast that usually gets to 60 in under 4 seconds.
There are two versions of the 818: the R and the S. Again with the simple alphanumerics, the R stands for Race and deletes the windshield, adding more of a roll cage and a fuel cell where the passenger seat was. The S is for Street and includes amenities like carpet and doors that swing open.
For Factory Five, keeping the price down was as important as keeping the weight down. Normally a purveyor of pristine, high end Shelby Cobra replicas (even a lovely Cobra Daytona), F5 wanted to reach out to car folks on a budget.
That’s why I get all itchy when I start thinking about building my own 818. It’s not just painfully fast and agile, it’s accessible. And when I actually saw one, a well-worn R model in the F5 blue and white racing livery, at PRI last month, I probably blacked out for a minute. Whoever dragged me out of the aisle to prevent further injury: thank you.
I eventually recovered, cleaned up the drool, and had a word with Tom Studdard, associate editor of Grassroots Motorsports, who built their own 818 recently and put together an entire, awesome, and entirely awesome youtube series about it.
Tom is about my height of 6’3,” so I asked him the most important question I could come up with in my lingering state of shock. “Will I fit?” Tom, who has spent more time in the GRM 818 than any of the other crewmembers, said he had no trouble fitting comfortably in the little beast. This has been my chief qualm about my other fantasy track rocket, the Caterham Seven. Every Seven owner and/or driver I’ve ever talked to has assured me that shortness was required. Barring expensive and dangerous backalley surgeries to me or the Seven, it was becoming less and less of a prospect.
At this point I remembered what else I wanted to ask Tom. Since the RWD 818 only uses the front drivetrain of the AWD WRX, ditching the driveshaft, rear diff, and rear axles for a simple cover plate on the transmission, I’ve always wondered if putting all 225-300+ horses through those standard front CV axles became a problem. “We haven’t heard of any complaints yet,” he said, noting that the 818R on display was tuned to over 300 hp.
The only other shortcoming I’ve ever found with the 818 is its lack of roof and windows. But at SEMA this year, F5 showed up with a brand new soft top by Rod Tops in Michigan. Tom explained that the windows zip in. I later got ahold of Chad at Rod Tops, who let me know that while the 818 doesn’t afford any space for a traditional, fold-down convertible top, the top will fold and stow as a separate piece beneath the rear deck. Yes, you can now drive the 818 in the rain without ruining your perfect fauxhawk.
Next I cornered Factory 5 engineer Colby Whipple (no relation, he assured me), who did some of the tooling design for the 818. I interviewed him, nervously, of course, because I was standing so close to the 818 and I could feel is gamma-level awesome radiation giving me little tumors of awesome.
The entire 818 was designed on a 3D CAD software called SolidWorks. Apparently that’s a program that runs on a computer. They let me use computers during Activity Time here, so I knew exactly what Colby was talking about. SolidWorks allowed them to simulate the actual weight of the whole machine as they adjusted individual elements like tube gauge and body panel thickness.
This saved them the millions that some performance manufacturers spend on R and D, a savings which was transferred to the final kit price tag of just under 10 grand, and allowed them to keep their weight goal throughout the whole project. Thank you, SolidWorks, for nurturing my dreams.
As we wrapped up the interview, my cameraman Danny (actually my boss, but also actually my cameraman, so we’re going with that) mentioned to Colby that he knew of a Cosworth-massaged STi block good for up to 500 hp. Colby’s eyes widened. “Way too much power,” he said. He’s driven the 300+ horse 818 at the booth and said it was more than a handful.
But I rather like the idea of a car that uses 1 horsepower for every 3.6 pounds. Not right now, of course, but eventually, one could learn to master it, like a Noble M600, my very favorite supercar.
And that’s the true genius of Factory Five Racing and their 818. By choosing such a popular doner car, they’ve opened the 818 to vast reserves of tuning possibilities. If you’re just starting out, go with a stock turbo EJ20 like the one in my WRX. If you’re Sebastien Vettel, tune yours to 600 hp, and you’ll be right at home.
Hopefully I’ll have an 818 right in my home someday.
Andy Sheehan is a blogger, aspiring novelist, and relentless hoon. He plans to will his 2002 Subaru WRX Wagon to his firstborn, plans his daily commute around the swoop of its roads, and doesn’t plan to ever buy an automatic. A cool-car omnipath, he loves the common Mustang or Chevelle, but hunts for the weird and wonderful Velorexes and Cosmos of the autoverse. And when he can afford a garage, he’s going to turn an MX-5 into a race car.