Photography by Sinh Nguyen
Most things in life happen for a reason, and usually they pay some kind of dividend. Like, maybe you lost your job, but ended up finding a new one that you like better and pays more, or you missed your bus, but ended up talking shop with someone at the station and now you’ve got a new buddy. For Sinh Nguyen, life had to rear-end him three times before he got the hint that he should build something radical and unique. That’s not a euphemism either.
“At the start of 2017, I was rear-ended in my drift G35,” Nguyen begins, cringing. “Two weeks later, I was rear-ended again in my rental car that I received from the G35 accident. Then, two weeks after the second accident, my NA Miata was hit in my own parking lot while I was recovering from my second accident.”
Of course, the jokes about bubble-wrapping himself and his cars were started after that. Nguyen’s buddy, JD Durham of Krowrx, even dropped a joke that he should just build an exo car like his Integra. Then it wouldn’t matter if it got hit, since the whole thing is pretty much a giant tube frame. Nguyen quipped back that he’d have a car to him within a week, and to Durham’s surprise, he wasn’t joking.
Let’s back up a second here. Some of you may be asking, “What is an exo car?” Great question! Exo cars are usually two door cars that are stripped of their body panels and even some bits of their chassis, which is then replaced with bash bars, roll caging, and tube chassis – all welded at specific points with maximum safety in mind. Think of it like a super-lightweight sport compact hot rod. Durham’s company, Krowrx, actually specializes in fabricating these exo cars and offers them in different trim levels.
K1: Utilizes a basic cage, but still retains some body panels.
K2: Stripped and made into a cage car, but keeps some streetcar luxuries (power steering, air conditioning, etc.).
K3: Completely stripped and made into a cage car with a basic wire tuck.
So, Nguyen went on the hunt for an ideal chassis to turn into a bare bones street racer. Already being familiar with the chassis on his NA Miata and how fun that is to drive around, he decided that having a raw NB MX-5 would be an absolute blast. A week after speaking to Durham, he had picked up his own 2003 MX-5, and three days after that, it was at Krowrx for teardown.
“It’s a Miata, so it’s got the best bang for buck performance,” Nguyen explains of his choice. “I decided to make a light and nimble car even lighter and nimbler.”
Nguyen’s M-EXO-5 (amazing name) would get the K2 treatment and be turned into a complete cage car, but retain its power steering, heat, and air conditioning, and gain a purple paintjob. Not much is going on under the hood, not that it has one anymore. The only addition made to the 1.8-liter BP-ZE Mazda inline-four is an HPS short ram intake, which leaves power levels right around the stock 146 horse and 124 lb-ft digits. Some may turn their noses up at those power levels, but when it’s coming out of an MX-5 that has shed anywhere from 700 to 900 pounds, leaving the car right around 1,500 pounds soaking wet, that power-to-weight ratio makes things feel twice as quick!
While they do make great show cars, Nguyen wanted something he could compete with in time attack and even drift, so he made sure the M-EXO-5 was equipped with what he’d need to be competitive. Bilstein HD shocks and MazdaSpeed springs provide the road feedback that Nguyen is looking for, and he even upgraded the brakes to the MazdaSpeed Sport package for a little extra insurance. Transferring power is a Flyin’ Miata “Happy Meal” clutch kit through a Torsen LSD, and spinning that power to the ground is a square set of MST Time Attack 15x8-inch wheels in Nitto Neo Gen 205/50 cladding.
Headlights and taillights have been replaced by LED offerings, with a six-bulb pod for each side up front, and a set of strips shining red out back. A GT wing with custom brackets that cling to the bracing in the rear hints at the performance potential of the exo car, while a Lexan plexiglass windshield allows Nguyen to cruise without a helmet or goggles. Inside, are two bright red Sparco Sprint racing seats with Takata Drift II four-point harnesses, because when you have no body panels, staying safe inside the car is pretty important in case things go south – plus, Nguyen has that nasty habit of getting hit.
The M-EXO-5 was the second exo car built by Krowrx, with the first being the one that started it all – Durham’s Xtegra (another great name). Starting with a ’98 Acura Integra, Durham stripped it down to the bare necessities, K3-style, and wire-tucked the nest around the Honda B18B1 engine, leaving an absolutely spartan frame to build on.
The teal cage car, with its red-topped B-series being the only indicator left that it’s still an Integra, proudly shows off its PLM Tri-Y header just behind its front bash bar, right where the radiator should be. The Mishimoto radiator is custom rear-mounted just below the GT wing, which when paired with the splitter up front and 15x10-inch GP steelies in meaty Nitto NT-01s all around, gives off a total racecar feel. Similar to Nguyen’s car, LED pods and strips take up headlight and taillight duties.
Durham pilots from a Kirkey Drag Series racing seat, strapped in by way of G-Force racing harnesses. In front of him are a Lion Racing steering wheel, pedals, a relocated battery, and the factory gauge cluster. What else do you need, really?
The two exo cars made their debut at Gridlife South this year, and Nguyen says that their welcome was as expected: dropped jaws and broken necks. Being Gridlife, there are a ton of little events you can register your car for, so the two got into autocross and had a blast, saying that the cars performed much better than expected.
“The best example I could give would be going to work and out clubbing without any clothes on,” Nguyen says of the driving experience. “Everybody stares at you like you’re crazy, but secretly, they want to do it themselves.”
Miraculously, these exo cars are plated and legal in Alabama, and haven’t gotten either owner in any trouble with the local authorities. Krowrx builds their exo cars to the customer’s state laws for a “streetable” car, so depending on where you live, things could be a little different. If you’re interested in building a skeleton-mobile like these guys, we’d suggest doing some research on what your state allows.
As for what’s next, Nguyen tells us there’s whispers of turbos on the horizon, but time will only tell there. In the meantime, we’re sure these two will be having an (just like Nguyen’s vanity plate) EXOLNT time regardless.