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Car Firm Is Ready to Hit the Road : Business: Emerging sports car company is starting delivery on $250,000 super sports car, the 200-m.p.h. Vector.

October 04, 1990|GREG KRIKORIAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The world's oil prices are in flux. America's economy is sputtering. And Jerry Wiegert is just starting deliveries on a 200-m.p.h. car priced at $250,000.

Not to worry, says Wiegert, president of Vector Aeromotive Corp. in Wilmington and designer of its pricey super-car, the Vector W8.

"Even during the Depression," he said, "there was a certain segment of the population that could afford the Duesenbergs and the Packards and the Bugattis."

Wiegert, who has spent 14 years designing and building the Vector, says the market has never been better for his dream car--a sturdy, sleek vehicle built with technology and employees drawn from the area's aerospace industry.

Despite the recession, Wiegert says, car investors are still paying more than $1 million for other speedy, limited-production super cars built by Ferrari, Lamborghini and Porsche. He says the Vector will find its place among them.

Early last month, Wiegert's company shipped the first Vector to Switzerland from his cramped plant in a Wilmington warehouse district. The car, purchased by a Saudi Arabian prince, is the first of three Vector W8s built after years of testing and promotion with two pre-production Vector cars.

Eighteen Vector W8s have been sold, and if all goes as planned, the company will have sold 25 by year's end. At that point, Wiegert says, the production schedule calls for building four cars a month and selling 48 Vectors in 1991.

That is the rosy hope, although things have not always gone as planned for Wiegert, whose odyssey with the Vector has predictably hit a lot of bumps.

Beginning with his own and friends' money, Wiegert completed the first Vector in 1980. But over the next seven years, raising additional money was a constant struggle. In 1987, Wiegert's venture bottomed out when the Vector Car limited partnership went out of business.

Later that same year, Vector Aeromotive was formed. It bought the assets of Vector Car, and the search for capital led in November, 1988, to a public stock offering that helped give the company a stronger financial base. To date, about $16 million has been spent designing, marketing and building the Vector and its plant.

Today, with the handmade cars coming slowly but steadily out of the shop, Vector Aeromotive's future is undeniably tied to his ability to quickly produce and sell cars that match the quality promised in slick promotional ads and detailed specifications.

As the company's history shows, it will be a challenge.

Some of yesterday's cynics have become today's believers in the Vector W8. "If you had asked me nine months ago, I would have said there's no way this is going to happen," said John Dinkel, editor-in-chief of Road & Track magazine.

But after visiting Vector Aeromotive recently, Dinkel says the company can succeed. "Because of the progress with the car, its manufacturing and its employees, I think they can make a go of it," he said.

Even if the car does not sell and riches do not come, Wiegert, a 45-year-old native of Detroit, says he and his 67 employees have created something that recalls the glory days of his hometown and America's once-thriving automobile industry.

The Vector, more a plane with tires than a car, already has drawn worldwide attention in an exotic-car market long dominated by Italy and Germany. And it has done so, Wiegert says, by drawing ideas and employees from the U.S. aerospace industry.

Its body is a hybrid of composite material that Wiegert describes as dent-proof and durable, with strong but flexible carbon fibers at stress points. And the Vector's other features and components are common to aircraft assembly lines: steel-braided fuel and cooling lines; a chassis with 6,000-plus aircraft rivets and fasteners, and a dashboard, designed by three local aerospace engineers, that has the look and features of a cockpit, right down to the $50 switches and digital instrumentation.

"I've had people who are in the aerospace industry come to the plant and ask, 'Where did you get this stuff?,' " joked Robert Braner, director of sales and marketing for Vector Aeromotive.

With its aluminum V8 engine producing as much as 700 horsepower in testing, Wiegert says the Vector has all the power of a Ferrari F40, Lamborghini Diablo or Porsche 959, accelerating from zero to 60 m.p.h. in less than four seconds.

The car owes more than its components to the aerospace industry. Indeed, many of the company's employees formerly worked for Northrop, McDonnell Douglas and other aerospace corporations and contractors.

"We have tried to find the best people around because you can't build a car like this with people who don't understand aircraft production, with people who don't care," said Mark Bailey, the 34-year-old vice president of manufacturing who joined Vector Aeromotive after 10 years with Northrop.

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