Those slippery and sensual Ferrari Daytonas of the ‘70s, the grunting Ford Cobras of the ‘60s and infant Porsches of the ‘50s are a dwindling population. Yet they’re also, paradoxically, a growing constituency in Southern California.
But look very closely. These are wannabee Ferraris, covert Cobras, pastiche Porsches and other crafty replicars manufactured by a California cottage industry that is selling the looks and elitism of classic sports cars at a fragment of their cost.
For example, the Arizona owner of a genuine, Italian-built, 1973 Ferrari Daytona Spyder recently advertised his car for sale in Autoweek magazine and said he would “respectfully consider offers over $2 million.” But a replica assembled in El Cajon can be had for $50,000.
$265,000 for the Original
A 1964 Shelby-Cobra powered by a Ford 427 engine recently sold at auction for $265,000. A copy manufactured in Goleta can be bought for $45,000.
“Nationally, there are about three companies seriously involved in producing replicas of the Ferrari Daytona,” explained Cecil Gold, president of California Custom Coach of Irwindale. His company duplicates the Daytona (Gold’s is coyly called the Daytona America) around the engine, chassis, transmission and running gear of a Chevrolet Corvette.
“I’d have to say, conservatively, there are 10 companies remanufacturing the Ford Cobra, one company doing the Austin-Heal ey 3000, and maybe three doing other Ferrari types. In Canada and Florida you’ve got people doing the Porsche Speedster, in England you’ve got someone putting out the Ford GT40, the C-type Jaguar. . . . “
The simple aphorism, Gold says, is cubic-inch exoticism at cubic-zircon prices. Yet, he adds, what once was a world of ill-fitted, fiberglass body-snatching has developed “its own niche as a custom car industry supplying excellent, modern, hand-crafted quality with all the mystique of the classics.”
But why spend $40,000 or more on ersatz wheels when that same amount will buy a new, genuine BMW or Cadillac? Or a year-old Porsche, Mercedes or Jaguar?
“Uniqueness,” Gold answered. “Buy any modern car and everywhere you drive, you’ll see yourself coming and going.”
Yesterday, they were kit cars.
Today, to California builders such as Keith Knapp of Modena Design & Development Inc. of El Cajon, kit car is a pejorative suggestive of a Taiwan Rolex. Knapp’s entry in the rebirth stakes is the Classic GT250 that is so close to the 1957-63 Ferrari 250 GT California it starred as such in the movie “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.”
Sonny Crockett’s upmarket wheels in the early seasons of “Miami Vice” may have looked like a Ferrari Daytona--yet it too was a California-created replicar.
But, Knapp insists, imitation is not his company’s intention; high quality is and “you know, until November, I’d never even seen a Ferrari California.
“We’re trying to develop a car that will stand on its own merits. I would think of us as being the next generation of Aston Martin, Maserati, and, dare I say, Ferrari, as a very limited production, hand-built manufacturer.”
Whether that limited production is the corollary of a small and cautious clientele remains to be seen.
Clearly visible, however, are positive market movements and several significant accolades earned by those California recreator-manufacturers who have survived the scars and scandals of the kit-car years.
--Ron Butler, 54, New Zealand-born president of Ron Butler Racing of Goleta, has been building Ford-powered Cobra replicas for 10 years and has sold 60. Butler is former crew chief on the racing team of designer-driver Carroll Shelby who built the original Cobras.
“I’ve counted the number of companies (worldwide) making the Cobra and there are 87,” said Shelby, now head of Shelby Automobiles Inc. of Whittier, a high-performance consultant for Dodge. “But his (Butler’s) Cobra is a good one. Ron doesn’t do anything that isn’t first class and he is one of the few Old World craftsmen left.”
--The Brillante, manufactured by Classic International of Fountain Valley and styled after the Ferrari Testarossa, performs close to the Ferrari Testarossa--but at $70,000 costs half as much and comes with a 6-year, 60,000-mile General Motors warranty. Because underneath that Italian exterior there’s a brand-new Chevrolet Corvette.
“I wanted an exotic car that was driveable, peppy, with automatic transmission and a convertible,” explained Nick Giacobone, who conceived and built the Brillante. “So we took the best of both worlds . . . we took the best American sports car in terms of high technology, the Corvette; we took the best European styling, the Testarossa, and blended them together.
Giacobone said he has sold seven cars and has 10 on order. The buyers’ common denominator: They are all people who have owned exotic, high-end performance cars.
--In five years of production, Chuck Beck, president of Beck Development of Upland, has sold 200 kits and assembled versions of his Vintage 550 Spyder. It is a $16,000 clone ($5,995 for the kit to mate to your own engine and chassis) of the Porsche 550 Spyder that actor James Dean was driving when he was killed near Paso Robles in 1955.
Shaky and Shabby
It also is a fiberglass shell covering a Volkswagen engine and, to many, that could be far too reminiscent of early kit cars, their shaky construction and shabby performance.
“But we duplicate the chassis exactly as Porsche did it,” said Beck, 51, a former Air Force mechanic. “Our shop car runs with a 2160-cc (cubic-centimeters) Volkswagen engine good for a 0-60-miles-per-hour time of 4.4 seconds with 151-miles-per-hour up top. That’s better than the original . . . but an original, with about 90 built and probably 65 still existing, sells for $200,000 today.”
--And an important testimonial to the industry’s ability to satisfy automotive purists came with two recent sales of Modena’s Classic GT 250. One was purchased by Fred Torch of Los Angeles--who until recently owned a genuine Ferrari 308GTS. The other was delivered to Bill Richling of Montecito--who still owns a real Ferrari Daytona.
“The truth of the matter is,” said Richling, a home developer, “I’ve always loved the body style of the (Ferrari) California and I don’t want to spend between $650,000 and $1 million to be able to drive one.
“You can’t drive a vintage Ferrari every day and have it stand up. I own a $300,000 Ferrari and I just don’t want to keep wearing the car. So I wanted to get a car that had the feel and the look, but one I could kick around and have fun. Every day.”
But would the man who drives a replica Ferrari be comfortable wearing a knock-off gold Rolex?
“I probably would if I couldn’t afford the real thing and it looked good,” Richling said. In this instance, however, he can afford the real thing. “I do wear a real Rolex.”
So does Bruce Zeigler, president of Zeigler Coach Works, an exotic car dealership in Simi Valley. He also owns a cherry 1972 Ferrari Daytona currently on the market for $895,000.
“I’m not bothered by the Ferrari replicas,” Zeigler said. “Some have evolved into expensive, quality automobiles that stand up to normal road wear . . . and they do have a definite place in the exotic car market.”
Not that any of this really matters. For with replicars, reality clearly is in the eyes of the beholder. Added Richling: “Ninety percent of the people who see me driving my real Daytona think it’s a rebodied Chevy anyway.”
Torch is owner of the Exotic Warehouse, a classic car dealership in Burbank, and says: “If you can get past the point of going to a cocktail party and not saying you own a Ferrari, there’s no problem to owning a replica.
“And you’ll still have the input from owning a car that’s hand-built to your specifications from color to transmission to engine size . . . one to take out on the highway where you’re going to eat everything alive.”
Another Ferrari owner (“Please don’t mention my name because I still broker Ferraris and it wouldn’t look good to talk down my own product”) says cost of maintenance is the weightiest argument between real and replica classics.
“The Ferrari is a beautiful car . . . but I spent $13,000 on maintenance last year,” he explained. “They need a minor service every 6,000 miles. That costs $1,000. And a major service every 15,000 miles. For $3,500.
“But my replica can be fixed at Pep Boys.”
In his brochure marketing the Brillante, Giacobone cannily points up other comparisons between the majestic and the mock. Insuring his Brillante--presuming a Clorox-clean driving record--costs $2,298 versus $6,800 for the Lamborghini Countach. The Brillante’s 30,000-mile drive cost is $2,344 compared to $10,600 for the Aston-Martin Volante.
“You also have to remember that our car is based on a 1989 Chevrolet Corvette,” Giacobone said. “That gives you not only a full General Motors warranty but 4,250 servicing dealers (compared to) only 43 for the Ferrari.”
The replicar business is far from being a blue-chip enterprise. Most firms are tucked into suburban industrial parks. Payrolls are rarely more than a dozen employees. Butler builds his Cobra largely as a labor of love away from his main source of income--manufacturing molds for wind sailers and surfboards.
Common to the trade, however, is a dedication to exclusivity and personal attention to customers escaping the sameness of showrooms, predictable options and limited performance packages on cars popped out by the thousands.
“We are able to offer everything from a $7,995 starting kit that you fit to your existing Corvette chassis, engine, transmission and seats to a fully assembled ‘turn key’ car with us supplying the Corvette for $44,500,” Gold continued.
“But the cost could go up to the $80,000s depending on what you want. We did one for a prince of Brunei that was right-hand drive, four-speed with a special motor and high end wire wheels that cost in the low $70,000s.”
Mechanical or Mental?
Gold likes to quiz and counsel his customers. Why do they think they want a 180-m.p.h. car? Is the difference between a four- or five-speed mechanical or mental?
“When it’s all said and done, nobody drives at 180 m.p.h. anywhere,” Gold said. “What they want is automatic transmission in a car that looks good at a light, can win from signal to signal and give a Porsche a run up to 80 or 100 m.p.h.
“And the cars are close enough in looks that unless you really know your car stuff, you can’t tell the difference.”
Some builders--Knapp of Modena, Butler and Beck--cut, bend and weld their own chassis. Given advances in the mechanical arts of the past 30 years, they claim, their frames are superior in strength and rigidity than those engineered for the original cars.
Knapp and Butler prefer to use rebuilt Ford engines due to the flexibility of their horsepower and potential for finer tuning and performance add-ons.
The nub of their power plants is always a 1965 block. With that vintage, they say, the car can be legally marketed and registered without any anti-pollution plumbing beyond installation of a crankcase ventilation valve.
Beck uses the same ploy with the Volkswagen engines in his Vintage 550 Spyder that is distinctive more for what it comes without--without heater, radio, glove box, armrests, side windows or ashtray.
“They are not very comfortable cars,” Beck agreed. “This definitely is bare-bones motoring as it was with the old MGs. It’s an occasional drive, a fifth or sixth car, a Sunday toy.”
By their new chassis and hybrid building, the Knapp, Butler and Beck cars are registered as “Special Construction Vehicles.” That means buyers must go through California DMV and the Highway Patrol to obtain the necessary VIN (Vehicle Identification Number) for their cars. But, Butler said, “we’ll help you through the process.”
Similarly, buyers are responsible for smog-checking their vehicles before registration. Therein, the builders say, could lurk a cruel lesson.
“Before you buy,” Gold warned, “make sure that your car can be registered. I had one guy come to me who had bought a replica out-of-state and ran into difficulties getting California registration. It cost him $1,200 in tests and equipment before we got it smogged.”
Gold’s car and Classic International’s Brillante, come with a simple guarantee against such bureaucratic potholes. For they are skinned and re-covered Chevrolet Corvettes that remain Chevrolet Corvettes for the registration process.
Still, the builders say, “There are a lot of problems out there.”
So before buying, Gold suggested, “get to know the people you are dealing with. Visit their facility, check their reputation in the trade, make sure you’ll be getting what you want when you sit down with these people . . . and know that they’re are going to be there tomorrow in case problems develop with the car.”
Despite manufacturers’ claims that they are not pirating the identity, reputations and designs of automotive doyens, their close impersonations have not been lost on one noble parent-- Societa Esercizio Fabbriche Automobilil e Corse Ferrari Maranello of Modena, Italy.
The company has exchanged legal protests and correspondence with several builders of Ferrari lookalikes, especially those whose cars have appeared in movies or on television--including Modena Development.
As part of his recent settlement, reported Knapp, Modena will no longer be using the words Modena, Spyder or California, in the company’s title or product. He also agreed not to use the Ferrari logo, decal or cutouts on its replicar.
So the Modena California Spyder has become the Classic GT250. The company’s new name has still to be decided.
Despite all this nimble footwork, automotive purists continue to protest replicars as a vulgar invasion of the Philistines.
Fit and finish of a replicar, they complain, fall far short of the most battered original. Convertible tops leak air and rain. Exotic cars appreciate in value, replicars do not. Fiberglass bodies, they claim, have a nasty habit of rattling themselves free of chassis thrown together by shade tree engineers.