Gatsby-Style Clenet Rides Again : Investors' Exotic Car Will Buck the Market Trend

Times Staff Writer

Roy Judd has big problems with his car. And it doesn't bother him a bit.

Little kids ogle as he glides down the street. Single women leave their business cards on his front seat. And more than once, he has been blocked in his driveway because other motorists screech to a stop while driving by.

Part of it may be Judd's "BACHELR" license plate. But most of the attention is focused on the TV and movie producer's "wild-cherry red" Series IV Clenet, a one-of-a-kind, Gatsby-style car that its backers hope to take out of the graveyard and into the gravy.

The Clenet is for rich folks who want to be seen a block away. One of a rare breed of handmade, specialty cars, it has a sleek, sexy body, cut-glass ashtrays and loads of pure snob appeal.

It was reintroduced Thursday night at an Orange County hotel by Minter Mark Ltd., a Costa Mesa-based investor group that plans to rescue the Clenet from bankruptcy.

Minter Mark, which hopes to produce about 150 Clenets this year and sell them for $65,000 to $98,000 each, staged the display to drum up investors and to show off the new Series IV model.

Clenet first hit exhibition halls in 1976 as a pioneer neo-classic--an exotic car that combines the looks of a 1930s classic sports car and the price tag of a brand new Porsche 928SL.

Industry experts cautioned that the Clenet could very well be doomed. They cite its sky-high sticker price and a sociological swing away from ostentatious wheels.

"Who's putting up the money? General Electric?," asked Bob Wallach, a Lynbrook, N.Y., product designer and former marketing consultant for Clenet. "It had better be someone with an awful lot of money to lose (because) that market is gone."

But financial backers--definitely not General Electric--believe the time is right. And they claim to have the know-how to put the Clenet's limited editions back in the showroom.

The first Clenet was built by a Frenchman, Alain Clenet, who helped design the sporty Javelin for American Motors. Clenet took a Lincoln Continental Mark IV and stripped it to the undercarriage and drive train. He encased it in a classic body with flowing fiberglass and custom trim.

The car has a long hood, running boards, swooping fenders and exposed, chrome exhaust pipes stretching along the body. Inside, it's got Tiffany-style luxury, with etched crystal vent windows, English lamb's-wool carpeting and a hand-inlaid dash of walnut, ebony or mahogany.

Each car takes about 2,000 employee-hours to build, according to the company's new owners.

Clenet started building cars in Santa Barbara and did well, introducing the 1976 Series I at $27,500. Wayne Newton and Rod Stewart were among the car's owners, and Neiman-Marcus bought one for use in delivering packages in the Beverly Hills area. In all, 483 Clenets have been built since 1976.

But sales sputtered.

First came the gasoline crunch, then a recession. Alain Clenet got into a bitter legal battle with his partner, S. Prestley Blake, an East Coast founder of Friendly Ice Cream Corp. The Clenet's price soared.

By 1982, the price of a Series III convertible had inflated to $84,500. Clenet's sales plunged from $12 million in 1980 to $6 million in 1981. The privately owned company eventually filed for protection from creditors under Chapter 11 of federal bankruptcy laws.

In December, 1982, the company was sold to an investor group led by Alfred Di Mora and John George. In April, 1987, the company entered into a Chapter 7 bankruptcy liquidation.

Minter Mark, a group of investors led by Donald Dyer, plans to take control of the company by Monday, pay about $2.5 million to satisfy all of Clenet's obligations and then begin production of the brand-new Series IV.

The Clenet has the guts of a Lincoln-Mercury with a Marquis chassis, engine, transmission and other drive-train components, Judd said.

If all goes as planned, Minter Mark said it will make about 1,500 Series IVs over the next few years, priced at $60,000 to $65,000. The company also can make as many as 419 Series II models and 450 Series IIIs under the original limited-edition arrangements. The Series II sells for about $98,000.

Minter Mark expects no shortage of customers willing to wait four months for delivery of the cars, which will be made in Carpinteria.

"The market is there," said Judd, who has a 13% interest in production of Series IV models. "Who'd want to spend $65,000 (for a major manufacturer's luxury car) and have 43 others of the same color running around the block? I'd rather spend the money on a Clenet or an Excalibur that has some distinction."

But industry experts say that the big guys are the Clenet's biggest problem.

Competition from the Porsche 928SL and its 911 series, the BMW 750, Jaguar's SJS convertible, the Lotus Turbo Esprit and similar sports cars will make the Clenet a tough sell, industry experts predicted.

"In the '70s and early '80s, cars from (major) manufacturers were very blah. But in the last five years, the auto industry has relearned that performance and style are an integral part of selling cars," said Chris Denove, an industry analyst with JD Power & Associates in Westlake Village. "Now a lot of manufacturers are producing their own high-style cars, and with Clenet, you're dealing purely in external style."

"You can't create a class with the intent of creating a classic unless you're Ferrari," Wallach agreed. "America's priorities have changed, and the glory of being stared at is not as desirable. . . . People are putting more money in houses."

With a car, Wallach added, "you lose half your money the minute you drive out the door."

Clenet's grandiose styling could also be a problem. "There's nothing subtle or low-key about it. That gives (the Clenet) a very, very narrowly defined marketplace," said George Peterson, an analyst with Auto Pacific Group in Newport Beach.

The car has little advertising support and a limited dealer network. The Clenet will be sold through existing luxury car dealerships, and that could mean trouble if the car needs body work.

Judd said he has "never had a body problem" with his Clenet, but would take it to a fiberglass expert if he did.

Still, some of the Clenet's apparent problems can be a blessing--to some.

"It's pretty awesome. When I go out on a date, girls have to be used to me being stopped for 5 to 10 minutes and answering questions," Judd said. "And it's a heck of a lot easier to spot in a parking lot."

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