MAX Update No. 40: Is MAX Safe? Is MAX Safe Enough?

Reader Contribution by Staff

Awhile back, MOTHER EARTH NEWS got a terrific letter from a man in Michigan with 20 years experience as a powertrain engineer at one of the major automakers. He pointed out that MAX, as it stands now, could not be sold in the United States as a production car, and he sure is right. One reason is safety.

If homebuilt and experimental cars had to pass the same standards as mass production cars, the MAX project would’ve never left the drawing board. Of course that’s true of Detroit’s projects as well — the big guys typically have test “mules” on the road before they’ve done their crash testing for that model.

With MAX, well, I’ve already done more crash testing that I’ve wanted to. And although MAX squeaked by with a D-, and although MAX has been improved since then, and although other improvements are in the works, I doubt I’ll ever call MAX a “safe” car.

Colin Chapman, who designed the Lotus Seven (which was the structural inspiration for MAX), called it a “four wheeled motorcycle” and I think that’s just about right. And yet 50 years of racing experience have shown this style of car to be reasonably safe on the racetrack, where high-speed, multi-car accidents are commonplace. Check out the video below of a Caterham 7 (the successor to the Lotus) leaping and tumbling in a race at Castle Combe (“the prettiest village in England”).

Okay, that’s a racing accident, and nothing MAX is likely to experience. Racecars have full roll cages and are considerably more robust on top than street cars, and the driver might not have survived the final topside-first impact with the wall without that roll cage. As it was, he got a broken arm out of the deal. The point is, these cars are pretty strong, and I would rather go through a crash like that in MAX than in many mass-produced, federally approved automobiles — like the Cadillac XLR Roadster, for example.

The Cadillac XLR, like MAX, is a two-seat sports car, but the XLR has 10 times more power is three times heavier (with only 19 mpg). There is one situation in which the XLR has a safety advantage over MAX: If MAX and an XLR crashed into each other, the Cadillac would probably win.

And here we come to a question of personal preference, and perhaps personal ethics. In MAX, we have a car that plays well with other kids its own size, and is safer than most when it’s on its own (in my opinion). But it’s a jungle out there and the water is full of sharks. How much bigger and heavier and thirstier should our cars be, if all it gains us is a higher ranking in the car-to-car impact wars?

I doubt I’ll solve the problem of road rage, or the my-car-can-beat-up-your-car mentality so common on the streets today. But by withdrawing myself from the alpha car competition, I am toning things down a bit. As I do when riding a motorcycle, I pay more attention to the cars around me when I drive MAX than when I drive a big car, and I never squabble over who has the right of way. I’m glad to live in a country in which I’m allowed to make my “small is beautiful” statement by building and driving my own car. However, I wouldn’t mind if the rules required a written warning on the right side of the dashboard, like the one the FAA requires on homebuilt experimental aircraft. Here it is, word for word, but with “aircraft” replaced by “automobile.”