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Concept Behind the Cars

Craftsmanship Melds With Technology in Family's Business

April 17, 1998|JOHN O'DELL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

In a nondescript industrial park on the edge of Fountain Valley, John Gaffoglio and his three sons oversee one of the automobile industry's best-kept secrets: Metalcrafters Inc.

Using a mix of modern technology and Old World craftsmanship, the company's 170 workers hand-build jewel-like concept cars that draw crowds of admirers at car shows from Frankfurt to Detroit.

"They create works of art," says veteran auto industry observer Tom Bryant, editor of Road & Track magazine. "They do it because they are artisans themselves."

Concept cars are one-of-a-kind vehicles built to see if ideas sketched on paper in design studios around the world can be translated into sheet metal and glass.

Some concepts make it to full production: the Dodge Viper and the Plymouth Prowler are recent examples.

More often, pieces of the concept cars show up on the production line. Power windows, curved windshields and concealed headlights--all taken for granted by car buyers today--were seen first on concept cars.

While a number of European coach builders build fine, metal-bodied prototypes by hand, Metalcrafters is the only U.S. company building concept cars in sheet metal. And the effort demands highly skilled craftsmen, helping to dispel the notion that the Southland's shifting economy has left a gap between burger-flipping and silicon-chip-designing.

George Gaffoglio, Metalcrafters' chief executive, even downplays the artistic, saying that the company's biggest challenge is figuring out working versions of designers' ideas for things like convertible tops and hideaway headlights.

"We're not designers; we manufacture," he says. "We also do a lot of engineering and redesigning out there on the floor. It's the combined experience of everyone who works here that lets us do what we do."

Metalcrafters makes about 15 concept cars a year at an average price of about $1 million per vehicle. The cars usually are assembled only after each of their several hundred unique parts first have been created in Metalcrafters' workshops, often without the help of engineering drawings or even accurate dimensions from the factory.

"The unique thing about them is that they can do anything in metal, plastic or glass, and do it with extraordinary craftsmanship," says Ronald Hill, chairman of the transportation design school at Art Center College of Design in Pasadena.

While renowned in the industry for its handcrafted work, Metalcrafters isn't a throwback. The company embraces technology,

and its tools include huge metal-stamping presses, a $1.5-million computerized milling machine, digital laser scanners and a bank of computers that run sophisticated three-dimensional design software.

But there often is no substitute for a skilled pair of hands. The metal skins of the cars the company builds usually are pounded out by craftsmen who form the complex shapes by hammering sheets of steel over leather-covered sandbags, eyeballing the shape as they bang away.

While some of the company's talent is imported, other key craftsmen learn their trade at Metalcrafters.

For the Gaffoglios, keeping the craft of fine coach building alive by training workers in the various skills is part of their job. The sons learned from their father and from other craftsmen. Part of their role now is teaching others, says George Gaffoglio.

But they also are canny businessmen.

In 1979, six years after emigrating from Argentina, John and George Gaffoglio pooled their resources--$18,000--and opened a small auto body shop in Santa Ana.

The two other Gaffoglio sons subsequently joined the company, and now, two decades later, John, 62, George, 41, Reuben, 40, and Marcelo, 33, run a multimillion-dollar enterprise.

They have branched into accessory manufacturing with a line of dress-up parts for the $70,000 Dodge Viper, which came off the drawing board in 1989 as a concept car and went into production in 1992.

The Gaffoglios also have moved into Hollywood with a subsidiary--Camera Ready Cars--that prepares and customizes cars for television, advertising and the movie industry. Those spacey Mercedes-Benz-based sport-utility vehicles in the movie "The Lost World: Jurassic Park" were built by Metalcrafters.'

But the concept-car business is its bread and butter. Metalcrafters has worked for Mazda, Daimler-Benz, Nissan, Isuzu, Malaysian national car builder Proton Ltd. and Chrysler Corp., its biggest and steadiest client.

An Argentine of Italian descent, the senior Gaffoglio learned to shape metal as a boy growing up in the country outside of Buenos Aires.

In 1940s Argentina, people couldn't afford to throw cars away, so they hired metalworkers to straighten out the wrinkles or fabricate a new piece from scrap.

John Gaffoglio's uncle had a body shop, and a neighbor was famed race driver Juan Fangio, who was always in need of new pieces for his cars. Gaffoglio learned how to make them.

He later opened his own auto body shop in a town about three hours south of Buenos Aires, but never lost his love of racing cars.

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