Fast learners

29th November 1996 at 00:00
Stephen Swain visits a school where pupils are queuing up to learn how to build sports cars.

Ron Champion designed and built a sports car for his son using scrapyard components for only Pounds 250. Now it seems the world wants one.

Since completing the first Escort-based Locost with his son, James, Mr Champion, a teacher at Oundle School in Northamptonshire, has:

Introduced pupils as young as 11 to building their own car;

Written a how-to book on building the nippy roadster, sales of which have "exceeded the most optimistic expectations", according to its publisher, Haynes;

Been approached by a northern local authority to help set up a scheme for disaffected youngsters so they can build their own cars rather than wreck other people's by joy-riding;

Been contacted by education officials in Ontario, where youngsters who do not go on to higher education are offered skill-related training in their last school year. Mr Champion plans to take a car - and some pupils - to Canada to set up a pilot scheme.

The car will be different, being a 1940s MG lookalike built around a pair of original doors, and is currently taking shape in the Oundle workshops.

"Patience and determination," says Mr Champion, are what teachers and pupils need to follow the Locost car through from chassis blueprint to roadworthy two-seater. And time. Lots of it.

The first car took 450 hours to build, with almost the same again needed for searching out a donor vehicle and visiting scrapyards and motor factories for parts. Pupils' projects - there are 18 in progress, not all of them involving construction of Locosts - typically take six months to two years.

"We like to say that the most important product that leaves here is the pupil, not the car," says Mr Champion. He and his pupils take recycling and resourcefulness to new heights - for example, the sheet aluminium bodywork of the first car was cut by hand from the side of a scrapped van. And the steel floor is the roof of the Escort that provided most of the mechanical parts.

The competition-style seats in a later car are from an old Renault which a pupil cut down and re-welded. Then they were clad in material found at Oundle market.

Similarly, the windscreen surround - enclosing laminated safety glass - is made from aluminium shower cubicle framing, while authentic-looking badges can be made from old key fobs.

Pupils who often have never wielded a spanner, let alone used welding gear, visit scrapyards with their tutor: "We try to make a day of it, take a picnic and a Thermos," Mr Champion says.

Haggling for parts is all part of the educational mix at the 1,042-pupil independent boarding school, which has an associated junior day school. "It's very instructive; you get pupils from privileged backgrounds faced with a chap in a string vest and tattoos standing in a muddy field. They ask, 'What shall I say?' and I say 'Just don't call him Sir'," says Mr Champion.

One parent, a commodity broker, says the scrapyard experience had made him confident that his son would never be intimidated or bullied in future negotiations in "the real world".

Mr Champion has also forged a good relationship with Oundle's 11-18 state school, Prince William Upper. "We teach a group of their pupils every week, and they allow us to use equipment they have but we don't," he says.

"We encourage pupils all the time to use other subject areas - choosing a gearbox to suit an engine, for instance, involves mathematical calculations. In physics, you can talk about the size of the air intake for the radiator, and airflow through the cooling system; you can have all the air you want coming in at the front, but if it's got nowhere to go, it's no good."

The car's electrical system, aerodynamics, suspension, even its centre of gravity, all provide valuable pointers in physics, while fuels and engine compression ratios can spark discussions in chemistry.

The beauty of this, points out Mr Champion, is that it is not simply theoretical - one pupil went on to design and build independent rear suspension for his Locost, rather than use the standard Ford axle.

"You must constantly monitor the work, but sometimes making a mistake is the best way to learn," he adds. "If pupils encounter a problem here in hobby time, they're encouraged to take it up with their teachers in the relevant subjects.

"They're not just following a plan; every car is different. I try to get pupils to use their imaginations, ask them 'Do you want it to look like a Lotus or a Morgan?', then point up there (the workshop roof, where steel tubes are stored) and say 'Those tubes are a Lotus, and those are a Morgan'. We try to make them see there are no restrictions."

Mr Champion, who ran automotive Youth Training Schemes and Youth Opportunities Programmes for several years before coming to Oundle five years ago, operates an "apprenticeship" scheme. Under this, older pupils - both boys and girls - work with, and instruct, younger ones. Each sixth-former is partnered with a fourth-former, which eventually earns the younger pupil a coveted place in the queue to build a Locost.

"I teach them to cut and weld their own chassis tubes, using one-to-one tuition, and only when the work is satisfactory can they proceed," says Mr Champion, who stresses that safety is paramount.

Good workshop practice is followed at all times, and although the small industrial unit behind the school is packed with pupils' projects, there is not an oily rag or dangerously discarded spanner in sight.

Mr Champion's hero is Colin Chapman, designer of the legendary Lotus Seven, which the Locost resembles - even down to the prototype's green and gold livery, the original Lotus racing colours.

Every vehicle - and so far there have been more than 30 - is inspected by an independent engineer before being taken for an MoT test.

Other Oundle construction projects carried out in "hobby time" include a Triumph Spitfire rescued from a scrapyard - here the pupil made several new body panels and refurbished almost all the others, to produce a useable convertible for an outlay of Pounds 100.

Another pupil plans to go drag-racing with an early perpendicular 1950s Standard Eight saloon, kitted out with a three-litre Austin-Healey engine.

The Locost's performance is less blood-curdling, hitting a modest 85mph and doing 50 miles to the gallon, using the basic Ford engine. However, Mr Champion believes 130 mph could be reached using a two-litre Fiat or Alfa powerpack.

And that's about the speed of his next project: a Volkswagen-powered light aircraft. But this time Mr Champion, who recently renewed his private pilot's licence, will leave the designing to someone else, and use a Civil Aviation Authority-approved kit.


Oundle's headteacher, David McMurray, who has been in post since 1984, is keen to emphasise that the Locost is part of a distinguished automotive tradition at Oundle.

This dates back to 1892, when Frederick William Sanderson, a former physics master at Dulwich College, was appointed head by the Grocers' Company.

His first innovation was to build mechanical workshops, and later he introduced Workshop Weeks, when pupils gained hands-on experience of manufacturing - there was even a school forge and foundry. Sanderson owned the second car in Oundle, and the garage that serviced it was acquired years later as a car workshop for the school.

Beneficiaries of Sanderson's radical approach to education, which stressed creativity and co-operation between pupils rather than competition, include Raymond Mays, the racing driver. Mays founded BRM, which won a Formula One world championship in 1962 with Graham Hill at the wheel.

A schoolfriend of Mays, Amherst Villiers, built the supercharger for the first "blower" Bentley, and designed the chassis for Malcolm Campbell's fearsome 22.3-litre Bluebird, which set the land speed record in 1926. Today's Old Oundelians have a car club which meets each June.


A rusted-out Escort Mk I or II will do nicely. An MoT testing centre could suggest a suitable test failure, or look around locally, in the classifieds or your neighbourhood freesheet.

Offer Pounds 25, which is more than a scrap dealer would pay. You can use the donor car's left-overs to sell or barter with your chosen scrapyard for other necessary bits: Mini wipers, Allegro steering column, Cortina front hubs and discs, for instance.

Scrapyards now litter the landscape and Yellow Pages; choose one recommended by your local small garage - main dealers will only want to sell you new parts. Look for a member of the Motor Vehicle Dismantlers' Association if you want the parts removed.

Alternatively, check out the specialist magazines such as Kit Cars International - also handy for details of insurers.

Affordable Parts, of Unit 1, Green Lane Trading Estate, Codford, Warminster, Wilts, tel: 01985 850912, offers donor packages for Ford-based kit cars from Pounds 250, and can arrange delivery.

For those lacking the patience of the Oundle team, the specialist press is full of ads for "unfinished projects", some under Pounds 1,000. Names to consider include Dutton, Dax, Pilgrim, Sylva, and the Metro-based Midas.

How to Build a Sports Car for as Little as Pounds 250, Haynes Publishing, Pounds 14.99. ISBN 0-85429-976-9.

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