Home » Someone Built An Absurd 4×4 Smart Car With An LS1 V8 Engine And A Corvette Suspension, And That’s Just The Beginning

Someone Built An Absurd 4×4 Smart Car With An LS1 V8 Engine And A Corvette Suspension, And That’s Just The Beginning

Smart Fourtwo Ls1 Corvette Ts2
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Sometimes you find something online that sends you down a rabbit hole. That happens way too often with me and it’s how I end up writing ridiculously detailed Holy Grails entries. This Smart Fortwo also sent me deep into a hole. At first glance, it’s just one of many custom Smart builds for sale on Facebook. But hold on, the seller is saying something about a proprietary 4×4 system, an LS1 V8 from a Corvette, a differential from a Corvette, and a Corvette suspension. This absolutely bonkers little car was supposed to be the prototype to showcase a modular platform for sub-$10,000 hyper-efficient cars built in America. Oh yeah, that’s just the beginning.

This car comes to us from Nick H on the Autopian‘s Discord server. Over there, Nick runs a fun game where Autopians guess the list price of a car for sale online. Of course, anything Smart gets me tagged in it. I did some digging and the more I found out, the more I fell. This is way bigger than just a silly 2,500-pound Smart with AWD and a Corvette C5’s 345 HP LS1 V8 in it. This was supposed to be an entirely new car platform.

Vidframe Min Top
Vidframe Min Bottom

Sadly, the builder ran out of money to finish the project, so now someone gets to own a one-off for something that could have been.

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The Builder

The doors of the car calls out the name of the shop that built this car and it’s called Hearn Automotive Re-Design (H.A.R.D.). It’s a shop run by New Yorker Travis Hearn as owner and lead engineer.

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Hearn says he’s self-taught in drawing and computer-aided design. He has a passion for cars and used what he learned to develop what he believes is the modular car architecture of the future. Hearn also built two SEMA show cars to showcase the development he was able to do thus far. Backing Hearn up is engineer Richard Valentine, who brings experience from Lockheed Martin, General Electric, and his own firm.

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In 2023, Hearn explained why he was designing his own modular car platform. He believes that automakers aren’t pushing the envelope of technology as much as they could be. But that’s not all, as Hearn believes modern cars are both too large and too expensive.

In January 2024, the average transaction price of a new vehicle in America was $47,401. As of this year, the average car loan spans 5.6 years and the payments are heavy. As of January, the average new car payment is $726 while the average used car payment is $533. Of course, median numbers would likely be more useful, but averages are what gets reported. One report notes that as of Q4 2023, the national average salary was $59,384. The national median income for 2024 is $69,243. In other words, the average person might make decent money, but a car could eat up a chunk of their income.

These aren’t perfect numbers, but I think you could see where Hearn is coming from. That’s part of what makes inexpensive, frugal vehicles like the Ford Maverick so appealing. Yet, the cheapest new car in America right now is the $16,390 Nissan Versa.

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The sad thing is that in 2009, you were able to get a Nissan Versa for just $9,990 and a Smart Fortwo Pure was just $12,635. Hearn wants to bring back the sub-$10,000 car and he wants it to be cooler than what some might call a “penalty box.”

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Tft Pitch Deck 2 0 5

According to his H.A.R.D. website, Hearn believes that cars are too expensive to purchase, too difficult to maintain and modify, and rely too much on computers. Further, Hearn believes cleaner vehicles like hybrids and EVs are too expensive and performance vehicles are both too expensive and not practical enough. Hearn also notes how the vast majority of people commute to work alone in vehicles that might average 25 to 30 mpg. He believes America is ready for a car that costs under $10,000, can drive like a sports car, and has the fuel efficiency of a hybrid.

Hearn’s idea of the car of the future utilizes what he calls a modular repairable chassis. This chassis could support a dazzling array of engine options from the economical to the beastly powerful and could also support electrified powertrains as well. This chassis would also support a drivetrain architecture that allowed for two-wheel-drive, all-wheel-drive, and four-wheel-drive applications. All of this would be in a sub-1,000-pound vehicle without complex computers and with an adjustable hydraulic suspension system allowing up to 7 to 9 inches of ground clearance. Oh yeah, all of it would cost under $10,000.

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Hearn provides a picture of what one of his hydraulic shocks looks like inside of a coil:

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All of this sounds super ambitious. What’s less so is the sales expectation. Hearn conducted some market research and believes that in a worst-case scenario, a vehicle like this might sell 3,000 units a year. In a best-case scenario, Hearn thinks he could sell 18,300 modular cars in the first year of production. That’s a huge prediction, but isn’t as unrealistic as promising to unseat the Ford F-Series or something like that.

Of course, the big part about this is turning the dream platform into a reality, plus getting the necessary funding to put it into production.

Hearn says that all of this started in 2017 after he built a custom reverse trike for his first customer. Hearn used some of the proceeds from the trike to go on a business trip to California, and then to the SEMA show. At SEMA, Hearn would learn all he could from industry experts on how he could use his fabrication skills and his ideas to create a successful business. Later, Hearn found himself chatting about his dream car with his cousin, and his cousin, an artist, grabbed a pen and drew a sketch for what would become the inspiration for the V8 Smart build.

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Hearn says he later engineered a hydraulic suspension system and a proprietary drivetrain system, we’ll get to that drivetrain in a moment. This suspension system consists of height-adjustable cylinders that are designed to thread into aftermarket coilovers. When installed, the hydraulic suspension system can raise a car seven inches high. Hearn tested this suspension by building an off-road Chrysler Crossfire (above). This car made its show debut at the 2019 SEMA show. When testing was complete, Hearn began selling the hydraulic suspension kit as an aftermarket modification to most coilovers.

During the prototyping stages of the hydraulic suspension kit, Hearn ran into a problem. He didn’t have the cash for a daily driver, so he was dailying the Chrysler Crossfire show car. This was a headache because the show car’s suspension was still unfinished and was still raw, untreated steel. That definitely wasn’t going to work driving around New York.

The Smart

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As luck would have it, Hearn found a deal. Two Smarts came up for sale. One ran and drove while the other had a blown engine. Both were for the princely sum of just $1,000. Hearn scooped up the Smarts, started daily driving the one that ran, and decided to use the broken one as the donor body for the dream V8 build. Now, V8 Smarts aren’t a new thing – for example, click here to see a drag car with the body of a Smart. What’s new is what Hearn did with the body.

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Hearn says the Smart was a great choice for this build because he wanted a small unibody car with a strong structure. Well, Smarts are known for their strength thanks to their ‘Tridion’ safety cells. These cars are built with a high-tensile steel safety cage designed to withstand impacts from much larger vehicles. Back in the day, the Smart safety cell used to be compared to the safety cage of a racecar. This was perfect for Hearn because his custom Corvette C5 drivetrain and suspension system already weighed 1,600 pounds on its own, and he needed the vehicle’s body to be as light and as strong as possible.

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A 4L60E In A Smart!

Using the Smart’s body was a good way to do that and not have to build a rollcage inside. Of course, a Smart wasn’t built to handle the ponies and twist of a LS1 V8, but Hearn says that wasn’t a problem because the drivetrain uses a torque tube instead of a driveshaft. Thus, the twist goes into the differential and half shafts rather than into the Smart chassis.

What would go into the Smart is Hearn’s drivetrain system, which he describes as an All Wheel Drive Modular Transaxle System:

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The Jeep NP242HD transfer case.
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Underside Of The Smart

Billet drive-train adapters & transfer case main shaft to mate an NP242HD transfer case between a transmission and the stock differential found in a C5 Corvette.
Creates a modular transaxle attachment with multiple drive modes (rear wheel drive, all wheel drive, & 4X4)capable of mating to many popular transmissions.
C5 Corvette auto or manual transmission to transfer case adapter optional (please call or email for help sourcing other transmission adapter options). Custom torque tube lengths made to order can be configured to accommodate almost any wheelbase. This kit can be paired with the trailblazer front differential and oil pan assembly, connected to the NP242HD transfer case front output yoke.

Check out this rear photo. You can see how Hearn mounted the body of the Smart to the custom aluminum frame. Look close enough and you can see the back of the Corvette’s drivetrain:

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Hearn says he placed all of this into the body of a Smart. The idea slowly evolved into making a prototype car with handling inspired by the likes of an Audi Group B rally car. One problem was with the base car’s 73.5-inch wheelbase. Hearn added a custom frame to the Smart’s cage that kicked out the wheelbase to 84 inches.

As stated above, Hearn’s kit uses adapters to mate a Jeep transfer case to the Corvette’s transaxle. For a front differential, he nabbed one from a Chevy Trailblazer SS, which connects to the oil pan on the V8. The result is essentially a Corvette drivetrain with a 345 HP 5.7-liter V8, but now with part-time four-wheel-drive. Hearn says the low range still works, as well.

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Hearn says the C5 Corvette drivetrain came from Cleveland Power & Performance and the donor car had 29,000 miles. Meanwhile, the billet adaptor and custom main shaft came from Novak Conversions. The rest of the build was stripping the Smart down and filling it up with all of the components.

The vehicle uses aluminum C5 Corvette suspension components and the Corvette leaf spring has been ditched for QA1 coilovers. Hearn did this just for this first prototype. His idea was that the production version of his modular car platform would use a symmetrical all-aluminum custom suspension of his own design. This suspension would be teased in 2023.

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Screenshot (934)

The Smart made its debut at that same 2019 SEMA show and by 2021, Hearn finally got it running and driving. It was a real working proof of concept for the non-hybrid version of his car platform. Though, it should be noted that based on the quoted paragraph above, this was all still very custom and took years of time. Still, Hearn was confident in building the platform and making that Smart look fierce. According to his Facebook posts, he planned on making this a kit for other Smart owners to replicate.

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Sadly, Hearn’s dream has been put on hold. The Smart wasn’t able to be finished because Hearn ran out of money to turn his platform into a reality. That’s a shame, because it looks like Hearn was working with some mechanical art. It would have been interesting to see how Hearn could have made this platform into something that could be produced in large numbers.

So, what we’re left with here is the mostly-finished prototype Smart Fortwo Group B rally car thing. It runs and drives with that lumpy LS1 engine, but the bodywork isn’t there. I suppose you could try to fabricate your own body or try to finish the design Hearn started. Or, maybe you leave it as-is and enjoy the car as a sort of Mad Max creation. If you’re interested, Hearn will sell it to you for $25,000. Then, pick it up in Ballston Spa, New York.

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One thing I will say is that based on the pictures, this isn’t really a Smart anymore. Hearn gutted the vehicle’s body and interior. What’s left is basically a shell of it’s former self. Hearn’s plan also called for a very basic interior with hard-wearing vinyl seats, so don’t expect much in the way of features.

Still, this might be the second-wildest Smart build I’ve ever seen in my life. It’s bested only by the Paul Barnes wheelie-poppin’ Smart build with a supercharged Toyota Paseo engine. That one was still a Smart whereas this one is more custom. Either way, driving this thing is probably a total riot and I wish I lived closer to New York.

(Images: Hearn Automotive Re-Design)

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Zepharious
Zepharious
2 months ago

Awesome project, but a prototype for a mass-produced vehicle? Nope. I don’t see how this would meet any safety standards. Wait, I know! Remove 1 wheel and you’re set.

StillNotATony
StillNotATony
2 months ago

Kinda getting Powell Sport Wagon vibes from this whole enterprise.

Toecutter
Toecutter
2 months ago

This build is a good illustration of what people can do when they have adequate money to build a prototype, aren’t bound by government regulation n their design, and aren’t tied down working 2 jobs to make ends meet.

I don’t think Hearn’s dream build could be mass produced for under $10k, at least not with 1st world labor, BUT $20k or less should be in the ballpark. I think his proposed specs are overly conservative regarding efficiency. Casey Putsch’s Omega sports car using a 1.9L TDI engine gets over 100 mpg at 70 mph cruising speeds, and can out-accelerate the Dodge Viper in his possession.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zPz6gQZDwbo

The fact is, the modern auto industry makes their money off of forcing excess onto the population. Even the Mitsubishi Mirage is an extremely wasteful vehicle from an aerodynamic standpoint, and a similar car getting close to double its fuel economy was possible a half century ago. The automakers want everyone indebted to the finance portions of their industry paying interest on massive CUVs/SUVs/trucks they don’t need, with designs that are unnecessarily ornate at the expense of fuel economy, and if one doesn’t make enough money to stupidly waste resources, these industries would rather one do without altogether. These same corporations have made sure that there is no mass transit infrastructure in the USA or long-distance bike infrastructure in the USA on purpose, because they feel entitled to everyone’s money.

The inexpensive EVs from the Chinese manufacturers are a massive threat to the existing paradigm, and that is why there’s a push to keep them out of the USA. Cash-strapped Americans would probably flock to EVs if their overall operating expenses were reduced vs a used ICE clunker, something the Chinese are offering in their home country but which are entirely unavailable in the USA. The US automakers could have been doing in the 1990s/2000s what the Chinese are doing today. They chose not to. They want to maximize their profit margins. Guess where/who those profit margins come from?

For further perspective, listen to what this man has to say:

https://heritageproject.caltech.edu/interviews-updates/alan-cocconi

The modern EV industry as we know it today would not exist without the man in the link above. We owe it all to him.

Last edited 2 months ago by Toecutter
Rust Buckets
Rust Buckets
2 months ago
Reply to  Toecutter

Ahh yes, Casey Putsch. Interesting guy. He’s pretty terrible at being a YouTuber, but he’s got some cool ideas, and some good Vinwiki stories.

That omega car is cool, and I like it, but it’s hilarious because he repeatedly says that its unibody structure is made of a “secret biodegradable yet lightweight composite material”. It’s made of paper mache. Which is a great idea, and an uncommon one, but it’s funny every time he calls it anything other than paper mache.

Austin Vail
Austin Vail
2 months ago
Reply to  Rust Buckets

I’ve always wondered about using paper mache in car construction (mostly as a dirt cheap/crappy/temporary alternative to fiberglass bodywork) but assumed it’s just too fragile.

Rust Buckets
Rust Buckets
2 months ago
Reply to  Austin Vail

Yeah, I wouldn’t use it for a chassis/unibody, but absolutely for body panels. Paper mache can be quite strong and light, its kind of an awesome material.

I did a couple experiments in pursuit of making a boat out of paper mache(which I still want to do), and I concluded that it would be very practical. It’s strong, hard, rigid, and lightweight, and normal house paint makes it exceedingly waterproof.

Austin Vail
Austin Vail
2 months ago
Reply to  Rust Buckets

If only we still read the newspaper, I could build so many crappy paper mache cars…

ClutchAbuse
ClutchAbuse
2 months ago

I vote crack pipe

Alec Weinstein
Alec Weinstein
2 months ago

Shoutout to Nick for running the discord and ShiroiJenkins for coming up with the game! If you’re not on there yet, you’re missing out!

Angrycat Meowmeow
Angrycat Meowmeow
2 months ago

Hearn sounds like every commenter on this site. Car too big. Car too heavy. Car too many computers. Car too expensive! All valid points, but I’m failing to see how this smart could possibly be a path to anything better..

Cayde-6
Cayde-6
2 months ago

Agreed. I would say that he must have been smoking something to think that you could make a cheaper, more efficient car using fewer computers and more modular parts, but I’m pretty sure he’d have be smoking several somethings.

Computerization has made cars more efficient, and modular parts complicates manufacturing, inventory, and logistics.

Rust Buckets
Rust Buckets
2 months ago
Reply to  Cayde-6

If you think that modular design is always bad and computers are always good, then those are some impressive generalizations.

Computers on things that count(engines, transmissions) can be a very good thing. Computers for door sensors, dome lights, thermometers……(Aka the BCM that all newer cars use) Just complicates the car and makes it more expensive and failure prone.

Although it’s worth noting that computerized engine controls have not universally made cars more efficient. Many of the most fuel efficient cars ever sold in the US are mechanical diesels with no computer control.

Cerberus
Cerberus
2 months ago

Yeah, it’s neat and I agree with the general idea and even designed a few cars with a very similar brief, but there’s no business case and he’s childishly delusional if he thinks there’s any way to make such a thing as cheap, light, safe, etc. as he claims he can do (couldn’t even finish the prototype), especially at those volumes and that’s assuming selling these as kits, not fully built cars (this isn’t 1965). FFR doesn’t even get chassis kits of pretty conventional design out the door that cheap, never mind all the expensive outside-sourced parts, construction, and so on.

Toecutter
Toecutter
2 months ago

If this thing was built as a streamliner with a CdA value comparable to a VW XL1, a mass of around 2,500 lbs, using that LS1 engine, it would probably exceed 50 mpg highway and 30 mpg city. With a V8. In an era where everyone is telling us we have to give up V8s to save the planet…

Alternatively, such a thing could have Aptera-like levels of efficiency as an EV, allowing a long range on a small, lightweight battery, allowing an EV to weigh less than almost any ICE car you could buy, and charge in mere minutes. If BYD built something like this, we could have a sub-$20,000 EV that had a real-world 250+ mile range cruising at 70 mph. And if BYD is ever allowed into the U.S., there’s a good chance they will. It’s obvious low-hanging fruit ripe for the picking, ready to be plucked decades ago.

Hearn has the right idea. The people with all of the money making bank financing $100,000 trucks that the buyers are enslaved making interest payments on do not want anything like this to be available. And the biggest players in the auto industry have purchased all of the regulations and hired all of the lobbyists necessary to make sure that this sort of vehicle never comes to fruition, outside of a multi-billion-dollar corporation that won’t rock the boat because they’re making money off of the same automotive zeitgeist.

If it weren’t for Tesla, we probably wouldn’t have ANY EVs on the market to this day. What Tesla was doing in the 2010s, the Big 3 could have been doing in the 1990s, but they chose to force the SUV/CUV/pickup paradigm on consumers instead, and they don’t want to let it go. When the current paradigm inevitably fails, the established industry will seek government bailouts at the expense of working people too poor to afford new cars, bailouts that these companies won’t deserve and should never have.

Last edited 2 months ago by Toecutter
Collegiate Autodidact
Collegiate Autodidact
2 months ago
Reply to  Toecutter

What you said, “The people with all of the money making bank financing $100,000 trucks that the buyers are enslaved making interest payments on do not want anything like this to be available,” reminded me of an old book, that I read back in the pre-internet days, about the Citroën DS where the author mentioned that when Citroën first introduced the DS at the Paris Motor Show in October 1955 many bankers were upset and got together to tell Citroën to never do anything like that again, putting something so utterly revolutionary on the automotive market. Good grief.

Toecutter
Toecutter
2 months ago

What is the title of that book? I’d like to read it.

There are many hundreds of such instances scattered throught the history of the automotive industry. Like most large entrenched corporate behemoths, it is thoroughly corrupted and a net parasite on working people. The entirety of modern society is a giant grift top to bottom, and that is why so many people have a degree of frustration that they don’t even have the vocabulary to express.

I recommend the following:

-“Taken for a Ride: Detroit’s Big 3 and the Politics of Pollution” by Jack Doyle
-“The Role of the Automobile: Future transportation, Environmental and Energy Needs” by Deborah Bleviss
…and put them into context with some more technical reading:

-“Aerodynamics of Road Vehicles” by Wolf Heinrich-Hucho

Collegiate Autodidact
Collegiate Autodidact
2 months ago
Reply to  Toecutter

Alas, I do not remember the title; it was an old and pretty obscure little book, almost like a pamphlet, about the Citroën DS which might actually have been published when the DS was still in production (the last DS was produced in 1975.) However, I do think I recall a similar comment being made in a book from 1995 by Jonathan Mantle titled Car Wars : Fifty Years of Greed, Treachery, and Skulduggery in the Global Marketplace. It’s been some 29 (!!) years since I read that particular book but what little I do recall seems pretty prescient about the current state of events. I see that my local public library still has a copy so I’ll check it out. And thanks for the titles you recommended; given that my library still has that book from 1995, suggesting there’s enough local interest to warrant keeping it on the shelves and not weeding it, it’s possible they might have at least some of those titles.

CarSick
CarSick
2 months ago

Try searching in worldcat.org. I did a test on “citroen DS”, limited by English language, and there was quite the selection. Your local library can interlibrary loan from almost anywhere, cheap or free.
Good luck.

Eric Peterson
Eric Peterson
2 months ago
Reply to  Toecutter

“The entirety of modern society is a giant grift top to bottom, and that is why so many people have a degree of frustration that they don’t even have the vocabulary to express.”

Very well put. Just curious, since you’re clearly much more aware than the general public, are you familiar with Miles Mathis and his body of work exposing this grift and much more?

Toecutter
Toecutter
2 months ago

To get that in this day and age, you have to be handy with a wrench. An LS1-swap into a Miata NA/NB in rough shape, with a custom-designed body, would probably be the most expedient route, although you better know how to design for low drag coefficient to make it all work. I think it could be done for under $10,000 and about 500-1,000 hours of work, if the builder knows what they are doing and sources good used chassis/parts for cheap. They won’t be able to buy a car with that set of features at any price point because nothing like it is available.

If such a thing were available at the price point of an entry-level car, I can guarantee you people will want it. Even if it didn’t have air conditioning(which wouldn’t be difficult or expensive to implement).

Want to make penalty boxes cool? Give the buyer something in return for their sacrifices. Let them accelerate and corner like a hypercar while having something that’s beautiful to look at like a hypercar, but in a package that saves them money like an economy car. All of the marketing surveys in the world would never be able to tell you how it would fare, because nothing like it has ever been mass produced. The closest analogue would be the little British sports cars of the mid 20th century, which sold quite well, except with today’s tech, they’d be a lot more reliable, a lot safer, and able to compete with cars costing 10x as much on the race track because they aren’t lugging 1 or more tons of extraneous crap through the corners.

Last edited 2 months ago by Toecutter
Acid Tonic
Acid Tonic
2 months ago
Reply to  Toecutter

You get it, but almost nobody else does.

Phuzz
Phuzz
2 months ago

To his credit, instead of just complaining about modern cars, he did build several of his own design.

Bison78
Bison78
2 months ago

How about a Hayabusa powered Bond Bug?
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1tUy78T8Euo

Toecutter
Toecutter
2 months ago
Reply to  Bison78

Delightfully batshit. I’d hoon it.

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