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The Cars that Dreams Are Made Of

Why do specialty automakers keep diving into a high-stakes, low-production market? To save the world, beat the racing field or something in between?
Paul A. Eisenstein
From the Print Edition:
Sopranos, Mar/Apr 2007

By some estimates, as much as a quarter-billion dollars' worth of sheet metal is down on the 18th fairway. In less crass terms, the annual Pebble Beach Concours d'Elegance is a celebration of the most beautiful automobiles ever built. And sure, a few of the better known, mass-market names, such as Cadillac, Lincoln and Mercedes-Benz, are among them, but for the most part, the cars that draw the largest crowds, and win the top honors, are the products of specialty manufacturers like Bugatti, Voisin or Delahaye, marques that, in a busy year, have produced no more than what a typical automotive assembly line turns out in an hour.

So it is, perhaps, fitting that a steady stream of natty Concours-goers wends its way off the green, up the hill and onto the well-tended field where Tesla Motors has set up shop. The two-seat sports car on display is distinctly modern—futuristic, in fact. But it's also decidedly rare. Production isn't set to begin for at least another year, and if you're lucky, you might get on the waiting list for one of just several hundred the start-up automaker intends to build.

Though it's clearly not your typical car company, Tesla does join a long and proud tradition of specialty auto manufacturers, some run by entrepreneurs, others by enthusiasts pursuing their dreams. The cars they roll out may serve as a paean to another era, like the retro roadsters of Excalibur. Some are just plain quirky, like Rinspeed's car/boat hybrid, while others may push the technological envelope, like Tesla's two-seat sports car. Some specialty manufacturers start from the ground up, producing just about everything but the raw rubber, glass and sheet metal. Others, like Callaway, begin with an existing, mass-market product, such as a Chevrolet Corvette, and by the time they're done, they have crafted a work of automotive art all their own. Whether a specialty automaker will ever share honors at Pebble's vaunted Concours remains to be seen, but, collectively, they feed a hungry and growing niche market for cars—even some light trucks—that aren't just more of the same old, same old.

Charged up over tesla
Elon Musk, Tesla's chairman, would certainly like to think his little roadster might someday be considered a classic. But his long-term goal is a little less modest. He's hoping to change the automotive world.

Musk, one of the founders of PayPal, has put up much of the $60 million so far raised by Tesla, a start-up based in the San Francisco suburb of San Carlos. (Other investors include Larry Page and Sergey Brin, the Google founders, while many high-profile customers have already plunked down large deposits for a two-seater that's still months away from production.) Investing in the automotive world is certainly a high-stakes game. Just ask Kirk Kerkorian, who recently bailed out from General Motors. So why are these high-tech visionaries moving their digital cash into the rust-belt world of autos?

Tesla's prototype roadster certainly has all the numbers that set an automotive aficionado's heart aflutter. The company claims 0-to-60 times of just under 4.0 seconds and a top speed in excess of 130 miles an hour. Another number appeals even more to geek gearheads: the little roadster's projected range of 250 miles on a single charge. The Tesla roadster, you see, is an electric vehicle. A very fast one, but it runs solely on battery power.

The company's chief executive officer, Martin Eberhard, is quick to tout the Tesla's advantages. "We need to break our addiction to oil," Eberhard declares. But he quickly concedes that not everyone shares his sociopolitical convictions. So, to connect with consumers, Tesla "can't [just] ask Americans to behave like better people. We have to build a better car."

"These vehicles," asserts Musk, "will compete on performance."

They certainly won't on price. The Roadster makes use of the latest lithium-ion technology, in a pack with 6,831 individual cells. Anyone who has replaced a single laptop computer battery knows that what Tesla is doing isn't cheap. Now add the cost of lightweight, space-age materials like the carbon-fiber body that such performance and range rely on and you've got a price tag of around $90,000.

How much demand exists for an electric sports car is anyone's guess, though one skeptical analyst suggests that in such a rarefied atmosphere the answer is "not much." Yet Tesla's dreams are nothing if not big. The company is setting up a small studio in the Detroit suburbs and hopes to have a team of as many as 60 engineers and designers in place by year's end. They'll work on creating a more mainstream sedan or crossover vehicle, one that would yield even greater range, but with a more affordable price of $40,000 or so. Sales could push into the tens of thousands.

At least that's the goal, though it's hard to find many examples of specialty makers who've made the transition from niche to mainstream—with the exception, perhaps, of Carroll Shelby.

The man in the black hat
The line snakes through the vast Las Vegas Convention Center. And the charmer at the end wears a big smile under an even bigger, black cowboy hat. Carroll Shelby is a man with an improbable career. Or careers, if you prefer. Texas-bred, he served as a test pilot and instructor during the Second World War, then tried his hand at chicken farming. It was quickly apparent that that wasn't his calling—all his chickens died. So, at a friend's urging, Shelby tried his hand at amateur auto racing.

It didn't take long for Shelby to land a "ride" with a professional team, his career reaching its peak in 1959, when he won the 24 Hours at Le Mans behind the wheel of an Aston Martin. There was just one problem: Shelby was born with a congenital heart defect. He had to keep popping nitroglycerine tablets as he raced around the track.

After the victory at Le Mans, Shelby shifted gears, trying his hand at building custom cars of his own design, starting with the legendary Cobra, which was based on a chassis from the British specialist AC and powered by a Ford engine. Today, Cobras remain incredibly popular collector cars, and probably no design has been more copied by automotive knockoff artists. But Shelby's biggest fame has come through his association with two of Detroit's Big Three automakers.

Through the '60s, the good ol' boy from Dallas worked closely with Ford Motor Co., lending his name to a number of special-edition vehicles, like the legendary Shelby GT500. In the early 1980s, Shelby followed his longtime friend Lee Iacocca, who had been fired by Ford, and landed at the then-near-bankrupt Chrysler Corp. Again, the collaboration yielded an assortment of Shelby-badged models, including the 1983 Shelby Dodge Charger and the '87 Shelby GLH-S (short for "Goes Like Hell Some [more]"). He also played a critical role in the development of the original Viper sports car.

A few years ago, Shelby and Ford made up, and he returned to work for the Blue Oval, developing the Ford GT super car and lending his name to a number of other models. These include an all-new, 500-horsepower version of the Mustang GT500 and, in an unusual collaboration, the limited-edition Shelby GT-H—as in Hertz, the rental car company. Born a standard Mustang GT, it gets shipped to the Shelby plant in Las Vegas for customization. A retail version, dubbed the Shelby GT, recently went on sale.

Shelby has continued to market several of his own products, including the quirky Simply Shelby Series 1 sports car. It was loosely based on the Oldsmobile Aurora, a poor choice, considering General Motors' decision to kill off that ailing division. More recently, Shelby claims to have "found" leftover components from the original Cobra, and has begun producing the classic all over again. He has, meanwhile, hired former Mattel executive Amy Boylan, who intends to produce some full-size "hot wheels" for licensed drivers, so stay tuned for a promised new line from the Shelby plant.

Streaking with saleen
The sun is barely rising out of the east, and at this early hour, most California commuters—and the dread Highway Patrol—are still asleep. It's the only time one can really push the Saleen S7 to its limits. The driver pops the clutch and with a menacing roar, the angular exotic launches into motion. Thirty, 60, 90, 120...it seems to have only started to gain momentum. For a few seconds the driver holds steady at 180, before backing it down toward 100.

In fact, plenty of room remains. Though the factory doesn't give out hard numbers, founder Steve Saleen estimates the angular S7 can easily hit a top speed of 250 mph, after bolting from 0 to 60 in a bit under three seconds. And, no, that's not a typo. Too bad the Air Force doesn't make G suits for automobiles.

Like so many of his colleagues and competitors, Saleen began his career as a professional racer and was looking for something to do off the track. He started making cars in 1983 and quickly formed a partnership with Ford. It didn't take long for word to get around: Saleen's customized Mustangs, available through a select group of Ford dealers, blew away the factory stock.

Twenty-four years later, Saleen is still making modified Mustangs, with four models this year, including the 550-horsepower S281 Extreme and the newest one, the Parnelli Jones Limited Edition, which went on sale last November. Recognizing the realities of today's automotive market, Saleen added light trucks to his lineup several years ago, with two high-performance versions of the big F-Series pickup in his catalogue.

The S7 is what the company is becoming best known for. While it can cost a major automaker a billion dollars to pull together a super car, Saleen did it on a shoestring, with a small band of renegade designers and engineers. And his version dominates its class, both on and off-track. First shown at the Monterey Historic Races in August 2000, the original 550-hp, normally aspirated S7 went on sale at its debut, with the first cars being delivered to customers in early 2001. It was upgraded in 2005, with sequential twin turbochargers that boosted the pony count to a jaw-dropping 750 horsepower.

Adding a little twist to the niche, Steve Saleen recently opened his own store in the Los Angeles suburb of Irvine. He boasts that it serves up "the total Saleen experience," which, along with cars and trucks, means selling everything from aftermarket accessories to clothing and souvenirs, and even includes a nitrous oxide bar. Before you get that glint in your eye, sorry—they serve up coffee and lattes for people, Saleen is quick to point out. "The nitrous is for your car."

No golf for this callaway
The name may be familiar to anyone who's into golf, but Reeves Callaway is a very different type of driver. His sport of choice is racing and, over the years, he's turned out a procession of high-demand "tuner" cars, like his latest, the C16.

Callaway entered the business by simple necessity. Back in the early 1970s, when he was showing consistent promise on the racetrack, he was being compared with other emerging stars, such as Rick Mears. But unless you've lined up a major sponsor, racing is a costly habit, and Reeves was running out of money. So to raise some much-needed extra cash, he tried his hand at tweaking a couple of cars, starting with the then-new BMW 3 Series. In the process, he found his true calling. Over the years, his company has worked with a range of manufacturers, from Mazda to Aston Martin, but Callaway's longest-running tie-up has been with Chevrolet.

As Yogi Berra might have said, the look is déjà vu all over again. And that's how it should be. The two-seat C16 starts out as a relatively mainstream Chevrolet Corvette but, by the time Callaway's team gets done with it, it's anything but mundane.

The transformation process begins with a complete redesign of the factory-standard C6 body, penned by Canadian stylist Paul Deutschman. Under the sleek new skin, Callaway supercharges the base 6.0-liter LS2 V-8—incidentally, the first time the tuner has used a blower rather than a turbocharger. The result is an engine making an impressive 616 horsepower and 582 pound-feet of torque, more than enough to take the C16 from 0 to 60 in just 3.3 seconds and to hit a rated top speed of 206 mph, which is a wee bit faster than the new Ferrari F599 FTB Fiorano. Surprisingly, the C16 still gets a rating of 18 mpg in city driving, 28 on the highway.

Big risk for fisker
Can a Danish designer and a German businessman launch a new American car company—and in the process, revive the lost art of custom coach building? That's the ambitious goal of Henrik Fisker and Bernard Koehler, two former colleagues at BMW and the founders of Fisker Coachbuild LLC. They've set up shop in the trendy Southern California community of Irvine, and laid out admittedly "high-risk" plans to produce a new line of ultra-luxury cars.

More precisely, they're remaking several existing luxury cars, including the BMW 6 Series Coupe and Mercedes-Benz SL, by prying off the factory bodies and replacing them with sheet metal shaped by Fisker—who was the designer behind the highly successful Aston Martin Vantage. Significant changes are made, both inside and out, as well as under the hood, and the renamed Latigo CS and Tramonto models churn out performance numbers the cars' original German parents can only envy. The already powerful AMG V-8 in the SL55/Tramonto jumps from 510 to a jaw-dropping 610 horsepower, yielding neck-snapping 0-to-60 times of around 3.6 seconds. The Latigo CS is just as quick.

Fisker and Koehler intend to limit production both in time and volume and, after a few years, they mean to move on to a pair of new models. They're also looking at developing their own specialty car, and may make an announcement within the year, industry sources hint. One of the company's customer-friendly touches is that a member of senior management personally delivers each new car to its buyer.

Specialty cars around the world
The U.S. market is actually a tough place for specialty manufacturers. Far more can be found in Europe. For those who visit the annual Salon International de l'Auto et accessoires in Geneva: you might be in for a pleasant shock. Sure, all the usual suspects—the Fords and BMWs, the VWs and Toyotas—are on display, but so are as many specialty brands. And the products these makers churn out often push the extremes, with six-wheel sports cars and quirky SUVs that look as though they'd be more at home in a scene from Star Wars.

One of the regulars at the auto show is Rinspeed, an eccentric Swiss maker that has turned out some incredibly quick sports cars (as well as flying and even swimming cars, one of which set a speed record crossing the English Channel last year). To celebrate its 30th anniversary, Rinspeed will be back in Geneva this year with eXasis, a tandem two-seater with a transparent body. In keeping with the growing interest in environmentally friendly automobiles, eXasis is fueled with bioethanol. It's just a concept car, for now anyway. But maybe not for long.

If anything, there's a growing demand for automotive customization. For some, that means nothing more than a British flag on the roof of a Mini. But there are plenty of others who're willing to pay a premium for a car no one else has—or, at least, not many others.

Paul A. Eisenstein, a Cigar Aficionado contributing editor, also publishes the Internet magazine www.TheCarConnection.com.

 


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