If imitation is the ultimate form of flattery, does that make Factory Five Racing cars the ultimate in performance vehicles? After visiting their factory in Wareham, Massachusetts, I can answer that question with a resounding yes! Celebrating fifteen years in the kit car business, Factory Five has produced over 7,000 Shelby Cobra replica kit cars that are purpose built to drive, race, and push the very limits of engineering. The timeless design, coupled with state-of-the-art precision manufacturing techniques, has led to a car that is in many ways superior to the original, while still instantly recognizable as a classic shape.
For a long time, kit cars got a bum rap. They were either expensive and complicated to complete, or hack job kits that more often than not came with poorly cut and welded pieces, fiberglass bodies that easily cracked, or were missing important components. Dave Smith and his brother Mark set about to change all of that when they founded Factory Five in 1995, with the idea of building a car kit that was precision engineered, yet used a donor car to offset the cost and complication of assembly. The result was the MK III Roadster, licensed and based off of the classic Shelby Cobra design, and it met with immediate success.
Factory Five soon moved from the small start-up garage to a purpose built factory showroom, and the kit car lineup has expanded to five other models. Among the offerings are the GTM, originally designed around the idea of a user-friendly GT-40 based on a C5 Corvette donor, and the ultra-rare ’65 Daytona Coupe (of which only six real ones were ever built). Their latest offering is a ’33 Ford Coupe that is completely customizable – from the fenders, to the steering wheel, to the fiberglass hardtop. But the MK III Roadster, designed to use a 1987-2004 Mustang as a donor vehicle, remains by far the most popular kit.
The newest member of the Factory Five family, the ’33 Coupe, with the patriarch Roadsters.
With a base kit costing just $12,990, it includes all the important bits and pieces like frame, body, steering, and even the gauge cluster. All you need to supply is the engine, transmission, rear end, brake assemblies, fuel system, front spindles, and the radiator. With a decent used Mustang costing around $3,000, you can have a fully functional race car weighing in at just 2,300 pounds on the road for about the same cost as a Ford Focus. Is it any wonder that these cars have exploded in popularity?
Precision Engineering Is Where It’s At
Cost is only half the formula for the success of Factory Five. While these cars represent a great bargain (especially compared to the cost of a true Cobra), it wouldn’t be worth much if it was too complicated for the average Joe to assemble. Yet the average Factory Five racer takes just 253 hours to complete, according to internal surveys. To better understand how Factory Five manages to build such a high quality, do-it-yourself car, Jason Lavigne took me on a tour of their factory. I left with a much better appreciation for the quality that Factory Five prides itself in.
The warehouse, where dreams are just a shipping crate away…
The tour began with the warehouse, where whole kits and chassis sat awaiting delivery. It is amazing to consider that almost an entire car fits on a single pallet and freight crate, and even more impressive that this small company can put out anywhere from ten to twenty cars per week. The usual turn around from order to delivery is four to six weeks, and there were at least a dozen cars waiting to be shipped out when I visited.
This is the jig where frame assembly begins.
The assembly process begins in the welding room next door, where components are brought together on a jig and held in place by tack welds and clamps. From there they are carried over to one of six rotating rotisseries, where they can weld together the laser-cut pieces. They even have a fully actuated robotic welding arm that can deliver the same exact weld all the time, though Lavigne admits, “We aren’t even using it to its full potential yet.”
The next room on the tour was the fiberglass forms, where Factory Five makes many of the smaller components such as hoods, trunks, and fenders. Due to strict air quality laws in Massachusetts, the bodies are assembled in nearby Rhode Island, which has a large shipbuilding industry and thus looser standards regarding the use of fiberglass. “Factory Five sets the standard for these bodies,” states Lavigne. “If there is ever a problem, we send it back.”
Laser cut metal means consistency – important in something as delicate as kit cars.
Part of what makes a Factory Five is the pride in pleasing their customer base, and a rabid cult has popped up around the popular kit cars. “For a lot of people, these cars represent a dream,” says Lavigne. “They spend their whole lives wanting a Cobra, and everybody knew somebody who used to own one, but to buy a real Cobra these days is too expensive. But when they finally get in a Factory Five, they are blown away by the performance.” That is because Factory Five racers are built to a higher standard than the original Shelby Cobra.
In the five decades since the original Cobra debuted, technology has come a long way. Factory Five cars are built to perform without sacrificing safety, so extra rigidity for safety and a thicker roll bar than the original come standard. “If you’re not taking it out on the track, you’re missing the point,” Lavigne tells us. How many people lucky enough to own one of the handful of original Cobras ever takes it out on the track? Not many, I’d wager.
A completed chassis sans the body.
The final stop on the tour is the assembly room, where aluminum components are added to the frame, and the body is bolted to it. Here is where I was truly able to appreciate the precision of the laser cutting. Dozens of aluminum pieces hung from the wall, all cut to the exact same specifications. Little tabs cut into the aluminum place exactly where the bends need to occur, and many of the employees already have experience assembling hundreds of these cars, so it comes almost like second nature to them.
Have It Your Way
Factory Five is nothing if not flexible, and many customers order custom parts for their kits with a special project in mind. “When most people think Cobra, they think 426 big block with 15-inch wingnut wheels and an independent rear suspension,” Lavigne says as we stand in a showroom full of cars that look much more expensive than they actually are. “It is a well-know, well-loved car that doesn’t seem to get old. But a lot of people like to do something different.”
Owner David Smith’s 200mph GTM, a car that uses a Corvette as a donor but was initially based on the Ford GT-40.
For example, he cites one owner who posts on an independently operated and owned Factory Five fan forum who recently dropped a twin-turbo BMW V12 into their roadster. There are talks of another getting an all-electric roadster together, though several are already on the road. One of the owner’s personal supercharged LS-7 GTM models sits in the showroom with the license plate “200MPH.” The fan club for these cars is huge and growing bigger every day, while driving up the value of real Cobras the world over. Even though the automotive hobby prizes individuality, many of the best cars sample the past while promoting the future, a lot like rap music (and not the garbage you hear on the radio).
So you lucky few who own real Cobras should feel flattered. For the rest of us, there is Factory Five.