Koji — no separate first or last name, just "Koji" — is a man of remarkable skill, talent, and determination who is attempting to build his dream car in a garage somewhere in Washington. He's also a man with a pretty dim view of how most of us spend our time. Mostly because he's simplified his life to one focus — completing his ambitious dream.
I spoke with Koji and the helpers he calls his "minions" about this epic project. He has high hopes for what he can accomplish and a lot of skepticism for everyone else. At one point he threatened me if he didn't like the piece.
I think his dream might be driving him a bit insane.
On one hand, I read about them and get inspired to create better, bigger, grander things. On the other hand, sometimes I just come away feeling like a ham-fisted lazy idiot who's urinated his life away. This is one of those stories, as it's about a guy building a car, almost from scratch, in his garage. And doing a remarkable job of it.
Koji's project is known as the DIY Supercar. Essentially, Koji really wants a modern Toyota MR2 that doesn't exist, so he's setting out to build it himself. His goal is to achieve as close to OEM quality as possible. Koji's not the first person to build an entire car from scratch, but his process and standards are much more exacting than many automotive home builders. Koji is totally dedicated to this project, and after four years, has made great progress, with much work left to go. He's hoping to get a book deal, so he can document the process in full.
What he's doing is a great project. Home-built cars by self-taught people are always amazing. These sorts of large-scale projects, though, can often take on a life of their own, and in listening to Koji talk, I couldn't help but be reminded, just a bit, of Col. Kurtz from Heart of Darkness (or, in the movie version, Apocolypse Now). Koji's clearly gifted and dedicated. I have little doubt that he will eventually finish this, and it will be impressive. But I'm wondering if he's controlling the project or it's controlling him. I'm not entirely sure he's still having fun.
Koji seems driven both by passion for the car and the project, and a sense of disgust at how he perceives the rest of humanity not building their own dream cars. The idea that most people are wasting their lives came up several times, and I got the sense that Koji is frustrated more people don't appreciate what he's doing. I get the sense that he feels like an isolated force of progress in a world of farting, video-game addled layabouts, and I think this contempt drives him as much as anything.
He has some help (whom he calls "minions") including a talented designer who penned the über MR2's sleek lines. Will, the designer, also supports the Col. Kurtz analogy, as his description of Koji borders on the reverential (much like Dennis Hopper's photojournalist in Apocalypse Now). As Will told me:
He's sort of become like a mentor to me. He's unlike anyone I've ever worked with— his brain is always going. The example I use is that I was in Washington, working on the car. He comes downstairs, and says stop what you're doing, I had a different idea about how to do this. And I asked him when did you have time to think about that? And he said "oh, I had a dream about it last night." That's how it is– his brain is always operating.
I can see what Will's talking about. Koji is a very impressive figure, doing a very ambitious thing. After I spoke with him, he called me to see when this interview would run. He also told me he was very nervous about this piece, and if I were to do a hatchet job on him, he'd "spend the rest of his life making me look bad." I think he was joking, but there's a kernel of truth in there. Besides, almost anybody can tell I don't need much help to look bad.
I'm not really sure why Koji is nervous: I can't imagine anyone reading this site not being entirely behind someone building their own dream car. It's a fantasy of almost every gearhead I know, at least to some degree. I'm not sure what's happened to Koji in the past to make him so nervous about the exposure, but I hope he'll find a way to relax and really enjoy the impressive project he's undertaken.
Here's the interview. I didn't want to cut it much, as I think it's an interesting look at a man, his project, and how the two affect one another.
Jalopnik: So, what are you doing exactly?
Koji: I'm basically building a complete car from scratch.
Koji: Because racecar.
Jalopnik: Of course because racecar, and I totally agree, but— why because racecar? Go a little deeper for me.
Koji: Well, there's two reasons. I guess probably the biggest one has to do with the happy horseshit you see in the modifier stupid street community. Some jackass walks into a shop, picks a part, pays a guy to install it, you know, gets a couple of pictures taken, gets a magazine spread out of it. You know, I guess, I'm a car guy, I'm a lifelong grease monkey, I started when I was a teenager, and I don't know why but that shit just bugs me. I respect the guys who work in the shop, who actually know how to do the work, but if all you know how to do is use your credit card, then I don't think you're a car guy. Any hack can do that shit, and many hacks do. It doesn't take any talent or creativity, it takes a sufficient credit line. I'm trying to do something a little bit different.
Jalopnik: There's plenty of things you can do in the car world that require plenty of talent– you could have bought an old vintage car and restored it, or even done a lot of modifications–
Koji: Yeah, but why do that if you can do something different.
Koji: There's really no car out there I really was in love with enough to try and make it whole or new again. My cars growing up were shit. I didn't grow up with much money. My first car was a carbureted 1983 Honda Civic with rusted out 3/4 panels. It was a shitbox. So I didn't have emotional connection to any of those things, which is what I think a lot of that is about. You're not restoring a vintage car you don't love.
Jalopnik: That's true.
Koji: MR2s are the first car I fell in love with in high school. I liked Ferraris and Lamborghinis as much as the next kid but they're like supermodels– they're unobtainable. I guess I fell for the MR2 because she was like the hot girl next door. The motor was in the right place, and you know, everything works, and it's fast and good looking and attainable. The story for me was I was riding around in my parent's minivan when they first came out, and I saw one fly by on the freeway and I was like "Holy shit. What was that? I want that." This is pre-internet, so finding out anything was hard.
Jalopnik: I remember. We were no better than animals, back then.
Koji: No we weren't! I went to the library and got a copy of Car And Driver or something, looked up everything I could about them. It's funny, I hate most things about the internet, but what I've done wouldn't have been possible without it. I'm self-taught, so everything I've learned I've had to reach out or find out on my own.
Jalopnik: So, speaking of that, do you have any background in this? Any training or work experience? What is your day job, anyway?
Koji: Well, the only thing I'll say is I would prefer not to put in too much detail about my personal life or demographics, because I've had weird stuff happen in the past. Dudes, like, stopping by. Koji is not my real name— for all practical purposes, it is my real name, because anyone I actually give a shit about knows the name, but it's not my legal name. If you know my real name, I'm finable, I've had guys stop by the house randomly over the years. I appreciate that, but it's not something I'm totally cool with.
I can answer the question, though– I'm a software consultant, I have an MBA, I'm not exactly a normal dude. I'm an MBA but I'd rather spend my day in Dickies than a Hugo Boss suit.
Jalopnik: That's fine– you can have secrets. Do you have any help or partners in your project?
Koji: I have, uh, well, I don't know what you'd call them other than "minions." I have a few of them.
Jalopnik: What about a life partner or something like that? Wife? Girlfriend, etc? I ask because I imagine the time commitment issues with building your own car would require a very understanding partner. Are you in that situation?
Koji: Uh, sure, yeah. I have a personal life. The reason you're asking me that— I can give you the reposte— is because guys are always asking me "how do you have time to do this?" I can give you the reality of that statement. The answer is I don't sit around twiddle-fucking my life away, playing video games, watching TV or movies, which is what a lot of those guys waste their time doing. You know, I find it kind of funny and sad that in a day and age where people spend 12-14 hours in front of a TV screen, people ask me how you have time. Well the answer is I don't do any of those things. I wake up, I do a little work, I do my day job consulting for a software company, I eat, I sleep, I work, that's it. Very simple life. I had to simplify my life a lot in order to do this. It's interesting, because at the end of the day, I'm actually happier this way. Which is odd, because I was a nerd before this. I beat all three Halos, and then four years ago, I decided I wanted to make something with my hands and the rest is history.
Jalopnik: So the car itself: Tell me a bit about it. Where's the engine sourced from?
Koji: It's a J32A V6 out of an Acura 3.2 TL Type S. They've got a long history, they're pretty cheap to find, they're a pretty practical option if you're looking for a good motor. It's relatively light, and it's OHD so it's narrow, so if you're looking to put two turbos into a tiny engine bay, that matters.
Jalopnik: It's mid-engine, of course.
Koji: It wouldn't be an MR-2 it wasn't.
Jalopnik: Now, the chassis— did you fabricate that all yourself, or is it a modification of something existing?
Koji: I started with the SW-20 MR-2. That was the first car I fell in love with. I'm sort of doing what they did with the Camaro and Mustang but for Japanese classics.
Jalopnik: The body design– did you do that yourself?
Koji: No, I had a partner for that. This is what I was talking about with the minions. I'm more interested in doing than I am in deciding. What I'm good at is the how– I prefer someone else to figure out the what. The truth is I don't really give a shit what the car looks like— I just want it to look like a modern Toyota. I don't care all that much. I care that it works— I guess I'm that kind of car guy. I had a contest on one of the internet forums. I said "here's the deal— want to do something crazy? Problem is I can't draw. I can do a lot of things, but I can't draw. and if you're building a full-size car, drawing's kind of required.
Jalopnik: It would help.
Koji: Right. You're an artist, so it's a no-brainer for you, but I can't do that. Will won the contest. The guy in first place actually tried to cheat, so the second place won.
Jalopnik: So, conceptually, with the MR2 as the car you had the most fondness for, is this your idea of an idealized MR2?
Koji: That's it, in a nutshell. The design concept I put out there when I did the contest was if the SW20 MR2 had evolved to today, what would it look like? I didn't fall in love with the first generation MR2— that thing was kind of a brick. And the Spyder was a styling disaster– God, that thing was ugly– when I heard the MR2 was coming back I rushed out to buy a couple of car magazines, and I was like, "Oh God!" Not just no, but fuck no.
Jalopnik: So, for making the car, it's fiberglass bodied-–
Koji: Right now. That's the thing that's hard to explain. I have no idea how to make this real for people. What I'm doing is just what real car companies would be doing. You make a model, then you make molds, then you make panels.
Jalopnik: So the fiberglass panels you have now aren't final?
Koji: No. It's a buck. It's a mockup. They're molds. All the molds I've been making will allow me to make the final panels. Guys have made bodies out of foam and fiberglass and driven them around like that. Well, I actually care about how the car works, so I personally think that's fucking retarded.
Jalopnik: There's certainly been plenty of viable fiberglass cars, though. I even own one.
Koji: Oh, absolutely. It's actually more viable than most people give it credible. The actual real panels will be composite. That's the part that I'm going to do next. The doors will be steel, everything else will be composite. I was going to at least try to make the rear quarter panels out of steel, but I'm not the greatest metal shaper in the world. Doors I know I can make— I've practiced those shapes three or four times. When I've needed breaks, I've gone and shaped steel. But the three-quarter panels are really complicated, there's lots of compound curves. While you can make compound curves by hand, I'm not driving around a car that has a shit-ton of bondo. That would be just soul-destroying. If I can get away with it, I want no filler. I built the model out of filler, and guys were like "you're going to drive this around? It weighs like 3000 lbs!" It doesn't matter what it weighs. It's a model, it's irrelevant. I'm trying to do this right. I blame all the guys who did this wrong for all the questions I'm getting.
Jalopnik: What's proven the most difficult part so far?
Koji: Figuring out the geometry. I got through it, but it was hard. And the hardest actual shape to make on the car were the wheelarches. I wouldn't have thought that going in. The problem is that wheelarches aren't real circles. So you don't have a template, you have to figure out a way to make four of them the same shape.
When I started out doing this I looked at what the preestablished ways there were for doing this. You can have it CNC cut, which is prohibitively expensive, you can make it out of clay, like real car companies do, but that's also ridiculously expensive, or you can do what the Bailey Blade guys did which is to draw it all out in CAD and then have a bunch of lateral sections cut, and connect them with fiberglass. I didn't like any of those. The Bailey Blade guys did it "right" but it didn't allow for creative interpretation at all. They're trying to start a car company, I'm just doing it to do it.
Jalopnik: What about interior fittings and seats and all that?
Koji: I have some sources I like for gauges and HVAC systems- everything else is pretty much one off. I don't like where cars are going. There's too much ridiculous shit hard-wires into cars now. It's all dead weight, and that's because you can get everything and more on your phone. If you have a phone that doesn't suck. You don't need an FM radio. My phone has an FM radio. You don't need GPS– my phone has GPS. Why do you need all this redundant shit built into your car costing you 50 lbs? The answer is I don't. What I'm going to do is make a fairly intricate phone dock. You'll start the car and then plug your phone into this aluminum apparatus that closes around it on the dash. Bingo, there's your radio, your GPS, real time traffic, clock, stereo. I don't want a CD player or tape deck or any of that. I want the phone to do it all.
Jalopnik: What about an 8-track?
Koji: Uh, I thought about that, but this is based on a car from the 90s, not the 70s.
Jalopnik: How much longer before you think this will be drivable and done?
Koji: That depends, and that's partially why I contacted Jalopnik in the first place. The hard shit's done. What would be nice is if I could find a literary agent and get an advance, take a sabbatical from work so I can knock out both the car and the book. But you can't do that as a first-time author, and even finding a literary agent if the book isn't finished sucks. I need the most help now. I have a hard time making this project real for people, but once it's driving up their ass I don't think you can deny it's real anymore. In order to do that, I need to work pretty hard to get this on the road, and I've reached the point of maximum saturation. I can't look for a literary agent, write a book, do my day job, build a damn car, and everything else in my life. I mean I've been trying for a while now and it's been like ffaaaahhh. Give me a break.
Jalopnik: What about Kickstarter or something similar?
Koji: Here's the thing. I need money, but I'm not that interested in it, and I'm not planning on turning this into a kit or something. I'm altering the underlying sheet metal, so I don't think you can do it as a kit. I'm doing it to do it, and to let other guys see how to do it. At the end of the day, the reason I started doing this, I saw Tim, the guy building the Batberry. And at the point I was looking for a project, I saw tim making a set of headlights, and I thought screw it, let's start there. At the time I was miserable and now, four years later, look what's sitting in my garage. There are guys that will see this, and it'll just nuke their skull, and maybe they'll go off and try something, instead of spending and hour and a half fixing their hair. Those are the guys I'm doing this for. Someone helped me once, and I'm giving it back.
Jalopnik: I think maybe anyone spending an hour and a half fixing their hair has other issues, anyway.
Koji: There's a preponderance of form over substance in our culture, and it drives me insane. That's why I get pissy when people ask me if I'm going to drive it around like this. No. Actually, I'm not, because I actually care if this thing works.
At the end of the day, I'll be interested to see what you write. I have a hard time explaining this to normal people. I'm doing it because I want the experience of doing it. I don't care how long this takes. My goal is a near OEM fit and finish. And that's going to take a long time. Realistically, I'm not going to get it, but I want to see how close I can get.