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SPECIAL REPORT: DREAM MACHINES

Reinventing the Wheel

Independent Car Builders Turn Visions Into Reality

October 29, 1998|JOHN O'DELL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

In an amalgam of aluminum, alloy steel, composite plastics and imagination--lots of imagination--Nick Pugh is making a car. It's not a car that will ever accelerate onto bestseller lists, but Pugh doesn't care. It's his car.

Like scores of men and women across the country, the movie effects designer is a car dreamer. Unlike most, though, he's been willing to put countless hours of time and more money than is decent into actually building his dream.

In that, he joins a select cadre of people driven enough to tackle a task that most often ends up creating nightmares.

For every success, there are scores of John DeLoreans and Preston Tuckers, dreamers who saw their hopes dashed, the cars they knew were the world's best piled up alongside the other wreckage in history's junkyard.

"Detroit had such a grip in the 1960s and '70s, and modern safety and emissions requirements are so demanding today, that it has been virtually impossible for one person to create anything different enough to compete," says historian Leslie Mark Kendall, curator of the Petersen Automotive Museum in Los Angeles.

But the dreamers keep coming, helped now by a robust economy and easy access to off-the-shelf parts.

Some, like bond trader Warren Mosler, who builds incredibly fast, street-legal racing machines with names like Raptor and Intruder, are consumed with a hunt for power. Others, like Corbin Sparrow designer and manufacturer Mike Corbin, seek practical transportation that is environmentally friendly as well as fun to drive and neat to look at.

They exist because some people cannot sit back and accept what others hand out.

"Some just have the constitution that makes them strike out on their own," says Safwat Moustafa, chairman of the mechanical engineering department at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. "We recognize from Day One that there are those individuals who will never be satisfied working for others, who will break away. They are the mavericks--they like to tinker and be in the lab getting their hands dirty."

Or, as roadster builder Dan Panoz says from his small factory in Georgia: "You have to have a great love, a huge amount of stubbornness and belief in your plans. It also really helps if you're not fully aware of how difficult it is going to be."

The numbers are small--digits on a couple of hands and one foot could tally them all--but there probably are more independent car builders in the U.S. today than at any time since the 1920s.

"The whole car industry started with backyard tinkerers because, back then, if you wanted a motor vehicle, you had to make it yourself," Kendall says.

"But the Depression killed off most of the independents," and material and worker shortages during and just after World War II made it difficult for any but the major auto makers to function competitively.

There were a number of attempts by independent dreamers to break into the industry: Tucker with his streamlined, rear-engine car; millionaire shipbuilder Henry J. Kaiser with his Kaiser-Frazer sedans, and even Los Angeles promoter Gary Davis with his three-wheel, three-passenger Davis car, built in Van Nuys. But all failed to gain a foothold.

Still, while the postwar years were dominated by General Motors, Ford, Chrysler and their brands, car enthusiasts in garages and small shops across the country were experimenting with ways to improve on mass-produced vehicles.

It might not have been possible to create a whole new car back then, but a generation of hot rodders and car customizers was born. And as the postwar economy improved and as the tinkerers honed skills learned as military mechanics and backyard hobbyists, some managed to make the leap into commercial production.

Carroll Shelby, a Texan then building a reputation as an international racing driver, was one of the pioneers. In 1962 he began importing a sexy roadster from England's AC Cars and stuffing it with a Ford V-8 engine and transmission. Through the years, the AC Cobra, later called the Shelby Cobra, became an American icon and proof that the giant car factories in and around Detroit didn't have all the answers.

The U.S. didn't lay claim to all the dreamers, either.

Race driver Colin Chapman started Lotus Cars Ltd. in England in the early 1950s to realize his dream of a better sports car. Enzo Ferrari, a mechanic who headed Alfa Romeo's racing team, struck out on his own in 1947, building chassis and engines and shipping them to custom coach builders like Pininfarina and Scaglietti for bodies that in combination with Ferrari's engineering, balance and power created some of the world's most sought-after automobiles.

More recently, a wealthy Italian farm equipment manufacturer disgusted with what he saw as poor service from Ferrari set out in 1963 to do the master one better. His name? Ferruccio Lamborghini.

Car dreamers all have one thing in common, says Cal Poly's Moustafa: "They all want to build a better machine."

As illustrated in the following decade of stories:

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