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A Car Was Made! - A Story from the Garage

by Joderber, January 5, 2019

Courtesy: Alyssia Wong

Can you imagine how two seventeen-year old high school kids spent two years building a car that can be driven around like a real car?

It was not for any homework assignment, nor for any science project.  They love cars, had the idea of designing and building a car, and indeed gave it a try.  They dreamed someday they’d have their own car company, and sell their cars all over the world.

It was very challenging as none of them had any experience building a real car.  Starting in 2007 they used SketchUp, a 3D modeling software, to work on the design. The finalized design was a single-seater car 9 feet long and 50 inches wide with automatic shift.  The 250-cc ICE (International Combustion Engine) with CVT (Continuously Variable Transmission) using regular fuel was ordered online.  It was of a single cylinder with an 8 horsepower rating and 11.5 foot-pounds of torque. The brake system was attached to the rear axle where the wheels were powered.
Courtesy: Irving Chao
Decision making/inspiration
A lot of decisions were made based on radio controlled cars Alyssia had while growing up since age 12.  Unlike the typical Toys R Us cars, these RC cars were expensive with miniature gas engines. They were targeted at adults who could spend hundreds of dollars for semi-realistic miniature representations of real cars.  “More often than not, I would imagine myself, sitting in miniature car as it sped down our neighborhood, making a ton of noise going 50 miles per hour!”

Cost-based materials
Both of them were very involved in the choice of the material.  They wanted something that resembled a miniature car more than anything else, but they were very limited in knowledge about what can be done with what’s out there.  Not being equipped enough to integrate full sized automotive parts into the design, they ended up using a fair amount of materials governed by the cost of the material.  That’s why, for example, wheels designed for golf carts rather than for real cars were used.

With Alyssia’s previous knowledge gained from building RC cars, they felt their ways around and reacted to what they were building.  There was a lot of push back from material learning and construction through the process that drove changes in the design.
Courtesy: Irving Chao
Courtesy: Irving Chao
How did they come up with the idea of using steel pipes for the “frame”?  It was a combination of growing to TV shows with monster trucks and NASCAR, paired with the love of high-powered racing go karts.  While building something like that was thousands of dollars out of their price range, fueled with very vivid imagination, they felt the need to recreate the things they could not afford.  Even to this day they still have visions of the things they want to have but unable to afford. What they created, as a result, was one of a kind.

Besides materials needed, they also bought the power tools, drill bits, and other equipment necessary for drilling, cutting, and welding from Harbor Freight Tools, the discount tool heaven for those who are handy.

Sharing responsibilities
When it came to building the car, the two agreed to share responsibilities.  Irving did a lot of the metalworking, while Alyssia did all the welding. Irving also checked every bit of the welding to ensure its build-ability and if it was structurally sound and looked “safe”.  They sized material based on both of their judgment.

Courtesy: Irving Chao

In such partnership, Alyssia admits the most frustrating part was to understand how to work with someone else, especially with a best friend.  It was challenging to figure out and pair up individual strengths. Translation and communication of ideas were critical in moving the project forward.  Luckily both of them were open-minded, sharing together a “psychologically safe space” along with trust in each other.

Carry on!
For Irving the most difficult and time-consuming part was to measure  precisely, and to cut the cylindrical steel pipes with the right curvature and angles so that pipes from various directions can conform and weld seamlessly.  As it became messy and dangerous, it was necessary to put on protection for the eyes and the ears. Cutting and welding the pipes definitely demanded utmost attention and patience.

Friendship and fun
They had the most fun spending many late nights together working through problem solving and picking up new skills.  Alyssia gained a lot of work ethic and began to understand a little about the process that she personally went through by making things.  “This exposure and autonomy at such a young age is something that a lot of adults pay a lot of money to find out in life,” said Alyssia.

It was also great fun seeing a dream become reality.  Imagine driving down the street in a car they built; something very few have ever done!

While building the car, they still hung out with friends, watched movies, and played video games.  Close relationships were developed doing other things they enjoyed. “It was just as important to live a normal life as finishing the project.”

Family Support
Irving grew up in a loving, supportive family.  He is kind, gentle, calm, smart, and very handy.  He always offers help to fix things, such as cell phones, washing machine…  His family is very proud of him, and always supports him in whatever he does.

Alyssia grew up developing a habit of always getting what she wants: answers.  She always questioned the world that she lived in and has made a lot of discoveries by taking things apart to find answers.  Her parents were always hesitant to buy her new things because she would take it apart and break it! They knew they couldn't stop her from getting her answer.

She grew up with a fair amount of Lego kits at her disposal.  As she grew older, so did her hobbies. They were just bigger versions of Lego kits, such as this car they built.  

Not surprisingly her parents’ response to the car building was neither positive nor negative.  “They just accepted this and trusted me that I wasn't going to waste time or money. NOTHING I WANTED WAS A DEAD END PATH THAT DIDN’T BUILD UPON SOMETHING ELSE IN THE FUTURE and I believe they understood that. They mostly let me do whatever I wanted as long as it's within a reasonable budget.”  

This car building would not happen if her parents were helicopter parents.  “My parents always ALLOWED ME THE FREEDOM TO FAIL and discover on my own how to solve a problem.  It isn't until I failed a few times that I go back to them and usually they would have some sort of solution for me.”

Technical support
During the time they built the car, it was far more advanced than what their resources, including what’s learned from the school, could support.  They didn't have any role models or help in guiding them through. The best they had was the internet. “Even then the 'maker' scene hadn't yet exploded, and the network of help that is out there now wasn't available to us,” said Alyssia.

But that's not to say they got zero help.  They got technical answers through the people who sold them what they needed.  Even now while Youtube can more or less help anyone, “When it comes down to who always has the absolute right answer to your specific problem, it’s the store owners where you purchase your parts.  They know their product the best, and know exactly how to help you.”

A good example is when they ran into a problem with drilling steel and ruining the drill bits very quickly, they looked through the internet and phone book to find a local industrial drill bit supplier.  They went there and explained their problems, and learned that they needed to slow down the speed of the drill and add lubricant to complete the cut.

Courtesy: Alyssia Wong

Courtesy: Alyssia Wong

They made it!
After two years , the project finally came to an end in 2009.  The car without a real “body” looks fascinating—like a skeletal car becoming transparent, or a diagram in a car manual.  All the mechanical devices within are visible without the need of opening a hood or a door.

When it was time to test the car, a trailer was used to transport the car to a huge parking lot on a weekend.  The test drive went well. The car reached its maximum speed of 40 mph.

In retrospect, Irving thought it was really a great hands-on experience.  He realized he was no longer restricted to certain materials, as he figured out how to work with steel.  He also learned a lot about time management and planning.

Alyssia said it’s hard to take on responsibility and to do something great.  But nothing worth-doing in life is ever easy. There were many late nights problem solving, pulling out hairs working within the constraint of a budget and compromising.  “This project taught me how to weld, design, and the work ethic to bring it to life.” Above all else it taught me how to work closely with someone else.”

For Alyssia, through her current graduate study in architecture; the idea of an “architect” is to bring together different professions and concepts to create a space, building, or an experiences.  Much of the education she went through, however, is traditional and not that different for all majors most of the time. It was hard to introduce new ways of thinking and concepts. “The car we made is an experience which adds to the richness and skill set required to create something entirely new.”

Never give up
For a project that took two years for two high school students, the key ingredient is perseverance.  A lot of time was indeed spent in trial and error, mistakes were made, and bruises and scars were here and there.  Sometimes they were just downright discouraged. They, however, learned from mistakes, persevered through, and eventually completed the project.

As is advised by Irving: “Don’t give up!  Whatever creation we are building likely takes careful design and caution.  Even then, the outcome might not be as expected. We may have left out some key component, or made some simple design error.  As a result, most projects require multiple design iterations before we can proudly call it our masterpiece.”

Just dream and go for it
“Just dream and go for it,” Alyssia says.  Often in life, we were told what we can't do as kids, and unfortunately that extends to adulthood.  “There's never a good time to do something; we’re never going to be prepared enough — so just start!”

“For the adults out there — there's always an excuse not to do something.  No one's going to someday come into our life and change that for us. If we’re not satisfied by just dreaming, then do something about it no matter how much or little we do.”

About education
For Alyssia, education hasn't caught up dealing with kids who have all the answers they can ever need in their pockets through a google search away.  The education that should be given now isn't necessarily memorizing ways and methods to arrive at a solution. It should teach children how to ask a question.  It's useless to have all the answers in the world available when we are unable to ask the right question to find the answer to our problem.

The car was meant to be finished with an outer body made of fiberglass and equipped with a radio, door panels, and floor board, but It has not happened as the two graduated from high school and began studying in different universities.

For some years, they kept on visiting car shows, scheduled meetings for car design, and laid out corporate plans for Aevis Motors — their own car company that aims at scaled down, lightweight, affordable, and low maintenance car.

The first dream car draft designed by Aevis

Currently Irving finished his Bachelor of Science in Civil Engineering from UC Davis, while Alyssia finished her Bachelor of Design Architecture and minored in Landscape Architecture at the University of Minnesota and is now in graduate school studying in a Master of Architecture degree program.  She dreams of being able to help others through designed solutions while realizing her own dreams. Irving dreams of keeping up with technology, gaining experience daily by building new things, and traveling as much as possible.

This car attracted a fair amount of attention from everyone who passes by and sees it.  Now ten years had gone by. With a few things in mind, Alyssia plans to work on more projects with Irving when she’s done with her education.  It's likely not the last you'll hear of them both!
Courtesy: Alyssia Wong
Courtesy: Irving Chao