The Lone Gun

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Ask people what they think about the term “kit car” and they usually conjure up images of rebodied Fieros with their ill proportioned, poorly fitted replica body panels, and anemic engines shrouded under a plastic cover with “V12” stamped onto it.  They’re little more than phony show pieces, and even then they’re not going to be winning many shows anytime soon.  This is certainly not the case with ALL kit cars, but there are plenty. With such stigma surrounding the term I hesitate to call the Grabercars La Bala a “kit car” despite it currently being on the market in both turnkey and kit form.  Maybe we should call it a “Component” car. No matter the wording, building a component car wasn’t the original intent of Cave Creek local Steve Graber back in fall of 2000 when this project began.

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Steve had built several replicas in the past, of which one received a number of accolades, including First in Class at Knott’s Berry Farm AHA Concourse and a cover feature in the April ’99 Kit Car Builder magazine.  However, he was acutely aware that such cars were riddled with compromises; compromises that weren’t his.  So, he set out to find a car that had everything he wanted: high performance, low weight and good looks, all at a reasonable price.  That was easier said than done. Steve is a fairly tall guy and many of the cars he tried were simply too small for him to fit comfortably. Instead of giving up and making more compromises, he decided to do what many have dreamt of but few have done; he built a car of his own design from the ground up.  Fast forward six years later and witness the result.

The La Bala prototype seen here has undergone a number of significant revisions and improvements over the 10,000 miles since it first saw the road in 2007, but the core has remained the same.  The shapely lightweight fiberglass body rests over a triangulated tubular steel space frame that also supports its transverse mounted mid-engine Toyota inline four power plant. Steve’s prototype uses a high output 20 valve JDM engine, however the chassis is designed to accept virtually any FWD drivetrain, so if Toyota isn’t your flavor of choice, that isn’t an issue. A majority of the mechanical components are sourced from various production donor cars, ranging from the Toyota MR2 to AMC Eagle, but the bodywork, the chassis, suspension, body interior and other special components were all built from scratch by Steve in his home garage with little more than the tools you’d find in any garage on your block. All of those original parts Steve built by hand for the prototype are now being manufactured right here in the Valley of the Sun by experts in fiberglass, machining and steel fabrication. Steve and his team do the final assembly of the turnkey version.

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Climbing into the cockpitand I do mean “climbing” it’s immediately apparent what this car was built to do.  Everything has a purpose and anything that isn’t necessary simply isn’t there.  Entering the car involves a process of sitting on the windowsill, swinging your legs into the foot well and then lowering yourself into the deep Sparco buckets.  Doors and a removable 3-piece targa top are currently in the works; something the less limber are sure to appreciate.  Once positioned snuggly into the seats, the view across the dash and onto the road is yet another reminder of this machine’s intent.  The tiny, contoured MOMO steering wheel nicely frames the AIM digital race dash with datalogging and track timing features. The front fenders jut up into view at the front corners, as if the car is ready to pounce and devour whatever you throw in front of it.

With a flip of the ignition switch and a push of the starter button, the motor springs to life mere inches behind your head.  With little to no sound deadening, a short wheelbase (just 98″) and a free breathing, high strung engine, the sound is more than you’d expect from only 1.6 liters of displacement.  Everything, from the steering to the shifting is firm and direct.  There are no electronic assists, hydraulic steering or even power-assisted brakes, and that’s a good thing.  With many of today’s cars, even high-end sports cars, there’s a constant feeling of disconnect.  These cars may perform beautifully and react to your every move with great precision, but there’s still a feeling that you’re telling the car what to do, then after a moment it does something close to what you asked of it.  With the La Bala, there’s no middleman. The steering is direct and it feels like your brain is connected directly to the road. A press of the brake pedal isn’t a whole lot different than sticking your foot out like Fred Flintstone.  The results, on the other hand, are significantly different.  With its sticky Azenis RT-615s and 1,500lb curb weight, it sheds speed in a hurry, going from 60-0 in just 110ft.

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The same elements are key factors to it doing just the opposite just as well.  The car reaches 60 in around 4.2 seconds and then goes on to a top speed of nearly 155 mph.  But the La Bala certainly isn’t just about the numbers.  The entire driving experience is visceral.

With most lightweight sports cars, handling is one of the primary areas of focus and the La Bala is no exception.  With computer designed unequal length A-arms with pull-rod actuated coil-over dampers in the front and a deDion axle, pushrod actuated setup in the rear, the design is meant to strike an important balance between precise tire articulation and straight line grip.  And it works.  It may not have the scalpel like precision of a modern Ferrari, but with its manual rack and low curb weight, the line between you and the car starts to fade, and putting the car exactly where you want it comes naturally.  The suspension is also fully adjustable, including camber, caster, toe, ride height, bump and rebound, and even the more esoteric KPI, allowing the driver an even more tailored feel.

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As of the writing of this article, there are more than six La Balas currently at various stages of construction.  Steve has begun construction on a second track-prepped car, which will feature the aforementioned doors and targa top and a race-only 220Hp naturally aspirated Honda B16 engine.  Other La Balas in the works include a 1.6L Toyota 4AGZE Supercharged and a 2.0L Ecotec Supercharged (245HP stock with 300HP easily attainable) powered car, one of several La Balas near completion. In addition to doors and a targa top, full roll bar protection for track use and an EV option are just some of the options and improvements in the works.

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A very wise man once said, “Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.”  A phrase I feel rings true when talking about sports cars.  While modern electronics and driving aides may impress the masses, shave a few tenths of a second off a quarter mile, add a couple tenths of a g around a skid pad or allow a car to reach speeds you’ll never see on a track, let alone the street, those things aren’t what makes driving a sports car a thrilling experience.  As this and that get tacked on, and the pounds pile up, the connection between the driver and car becomes blurred.  Numbed.  With cars like La Bala, you get exactly what you should and nothing more.  A pure driving experience.

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