Illinois innovation

Co-op member proves high mileage possible

Many times innovation comes out of a backyard garage, not a big company. That’s the story of “Seven,” an electric 207 MPGe dream car that was born in an Illinois co-op member’s pole barn.

Much has happened in the three years since Illinois Country Living last interviewed Illuminati Motor Works (IMW), the team that built an electric car from scratch and nearly won the Progressive Insurance Automotive XPRIZE. Their prototype, Seven, achieved 207 MPGe when tested at Chrysler’s Chelsea, Mich. proving grounds. It also sports a new look and continues to have many adventures.

“The material used on the original body, although stated to be stable, apparently was not suitable for automotive purposes,” says Kevin Smith, IMW Team Leader and Rural Electric Convenience Cooperative member. “To our horror, we discovered the spray foam would expand and contract in the sun, causing the fiberglass to flex and warp. This left us with two options – park the car and let it sit in the garage forever or build a new body and continue to drive it.”

In 2012, Smith hired composites specialist Reg Schmeiss of Motorvation, Inc. to teach the team how to recreate the body using molds and vacuum-forming carbon fiber and Kevlar to make new body panels. The composites are lighter and incredibly durable. Seven still has its iconic gull-wing doors, but the body has been streamlined with more aggressive body lines. Overall, it more closely resembles the team’s early concept sketches.

During the XPRIZE competition, IMW learned the hard way that the torque from electric motors is extremely rough on transmissions. John Frana of Frana Vehicles in Rockford, Ill. created a custom one-speed transmission with a race differential strong enough to handle the power of Seven’s 200 horsepower motor.

Education is IMW’s mission. When giving a talk to a room of high school students, Smith invited the teenagers to come to the workshop and learn how to build cars. Sixteen year old Matthew Yochim of Springfield, Ill. became the team’s intern. Yochim’s first task was to disassemble a broken transmission. He continued to work long hours to help create Seven’s new body. After graduation, Yochim was accepted into Purdue University’s College of Engineering and as a freshman taught his fellow Formula SAE (Society of Automotive Engineers) teammates how to create composite body parts for their project car.

Seven’s social calendar has been busy. Adler Planetarium invited the team to display Seven at its July 18, 2013 Adler After Dark: Future Tech event. IMW drove their electric car from Divernon, Ill. to downtown Chicago and joined industry leaders to tell the audience about next-generation technologies such as EVs, 3D printing and green skyscrapers.

In August, Seven participated in the annual Electric Vehicle Conversion Convention in Cape Girardeau, Mo. Smith and team member Nathan Knappenburger shared ideas and brainstormed solutions to problems do-it-yourself EV creators encounter. While there, Seven placed third in EVCCON’s 1/8 mile drag race and set a National Electric Drag Racing Association (NEDRA) record.

Recently, Seven was awarded first place in its class at the International Route 66 Mother Road Festival car show in downtown Springfield. A constant crowd surrounded the car and it took three-to-five team members to help field all of the questions.

Smith uses public events to spread his message. “Higher mileage cars are possible. We should expect more,” he explains. “Electric cars are the future – one you can build yourself.”

“It’s not just us. There is a large range of people working on this, from wealthy people to high school students, building high efficiency cars that get hundreds of miles per gallon. The only people I don’t see aggressively working to address this are the big automotive manufacturers,” Smith adds.

IMW’s story is included in a new book by Jason Fagone. Ingenious: A True Story of Invention, Automotive Daring, and the Race to Revive America follows four XPRIZE teams that attempted to do what the major automotive manufacturers would not – create an affordable, safe, 100+ mile-per-gallon vehicle.

While IMW is only a small part of the overall book, Fagone has found his audiences respond the most to Seven’s story. “People love the handmade nature of the Illuminati car. The steel that was forged in the wood-burning stove. The welds and the foam and the custom fiberglass body,” says Fagone. “It kind of blows their mind, like it blew my mind when I first saw the car back in 2010. They’re surprised that, one, you can actually make a car this way, completely from scratch, and two, that the car performed as well as it did. And when I explain how little money it cost, and how much of it was scavenged from scrap yards, people wonder – why isn’t this a real car? They’re frustrated, I think, but also inspired, because they see what’s possible.”

Smith, his father Nick and Seven will be joining Fagone on his east coast book tour this December. “I appreciate Fagone’s effort to get the word out,” says Smith. “The real heroes of this story are not the government or the manufacturers, but ordinary people.”

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