The Wild, Wacky and Just Plain Weird

TIMES STAFF WRITER

In the grand salons of the Greater Los Angeles Auto Show, it's billion-dollar business as usual: hectares of cars waxed to look richer beneath lasers and strobes, never to be made poorer by rain and incontinent pigeons.

Then there's North Hall, where the real car guys go.

It's smaller, untidier and a 10-day town meeting for idealists and charlatans, nutty inventors, shade-tree designers and dreamers of better mousetraps who will succeed because they all know precisely where General Motors failed.

First, meet the vendors.

At this annual and ultimate garage sale, they'll buff bug stains and tree sap from oxidized paint, sell a $1,000 set of alloy wheels for your Corolla canyon racer, put profanity on a license plate frame ("Romeo, Romeo. Where The Hell Art Thou?") and print your angelic kid on a T-shirt, improve horsepower with a chemical sausage slipped into an air filter, give away cell phones and sell you the service, tempt you with trick cylinder heads and manifolds to make all cars go faster, then recruit you to join the LAPD Reserves and catch speeders. Then sell you more wheels. Or maybe an all-American studded-leather saddle for your Japanese motorcycle.

"These vendors certainly are characters unto themselves, and I don't think I'd want to keep them out," says Andy Fuzesi, general manager of the show, which continues through this weekend. Although at one time, after presuming easier profits from selling $100,000 worth of display space to Porsche than braving problems of setting up dozens of 10-by-10-foot booths for $500 apiece, he did try darkening North Hall. "People came to me demanding, 'Where are the weird guys? . . . Where's the T-shirt stand?'

"That's when I knew North Hall was part of the allure, California car guys doing it their way and following the trends. Sometimes even starting the trends."

But North Hall is mostly car builders, automobile improvers and truck converters for whom outrageous is normal and the unthinkable well thought out. They stretch perfectly good trucks into limousines, add 100-speaker audio systems that should offer insurance for hearing loss, and will install flames and low-rider wheels on a Rolls-Royce.

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From one imagination came the speedy, long-loping electric car GM could have built if they had listened to this man they hired for five years to develop their electric car. Or would you prefer a battery-powered one-seater from Castroville that by dimensions and occupancy can be parked in motorcycle slots or driven in carpool lanes?

The canary-yellow Corbin Sparrow--"it's a little bird that does real well in its own neighborhood," chirps developer Mike Corbin--is not expected to threaten the artichoke as Castroville's primary export.

One company takes Jeep Grand Cherokees seemingly perfect for polo practice, and Humvees uglier than a pair of Bruno Magli shoes, then boosts their pulling power with bolt-on superchargers. That's rather like grafting extra legs on a cart horse. Another Frankenstein crams a supercharged V-8 into an innocent Mazda Miata and creates the 400-horsepower Mega Monster. It accelerates fast enough to rip out neck muscles.

That's also quicker than any Dodge Viper, Chevrolet Corvette, Ford Mustang or Turbo Porsche. Dave Hops, founder of Monster Motorsports of Escondido, says he has sold almost two dozen Mega Monsters at $50,000 per fright, and they are beating up everything that moves on roads in the United States, Canada, Japan, Germany and Belgium.

"But getting big is not fun, nor my ambition," Hops says. "I want this to remain a hobby that's a business."

And a business that survives despite a ridiculously small customer base, because it functions with few employees, low overhead and an underpaid executive structure.

Few, of course, get wealthy by indulging visions. That's not the point. A North Haller's satisfaction is sniffing a niche and creating a vehicle that serves a minority ignored by the multinational, publicly owned, Armani-suited Big Three and Asian Four.

And small-business men don't have to learn golf, says Alan Cocconi, which leaves more midweek afternoons for hiking and bike riding. But he admits that dumping GM for self-employment certainly meant "my bank account stopped going up and started going down."

When income was on the rise, Cocconi was working with GM's electric vehicle program and a nub of 20 electrical engineers that grew into a cast of hundreds. They developed the Impact prototype that became the EV1 currently being leased by Saturn dealers.

Cocconi says he left GM when his electric baby was betrayed and General Motorized by sound systems, power steering, air conditioning and other drains on Impact's range and efficiency. In four years since, he has relied on grants, personal savings and small investments to fund AC Propulsion of San Dimas and production of the tZero electric sports car--without air conditioning or power windows.

It's what Impact used to be, Cocconi claims, and that's lighter, quicker and able to travel farther than the EV1. Yet without megabudgets to swallow production costs and wobbly estimates, he certainly has failed where GM has succeeded: The EV1 leases for $35,000, while a tZero costs $80,000.

"But we're selling it as a collector item--not leasing it, which makes you an EV guinea pig," Cocconi adds. "And this is my life. It's great fun creating a new product so that other people can have fun. . . . That's what it's all about."

Who would pay $80,000 for what is essentially the world's slowest and least practical sports car? Probably the same person who recently purchased a $60,000 Humvee sport utility vehicle, then thumbed-out $25,000 more for Beverly Hills Motoring Accessories to equip it with a supercharger, leather upholstery, nonmilitary interior, a coliseum sound system, and even a sprinkling of airplane instruments.

"The buyer just wanted to have the coolest vehicle in Aspen," explains Andy Cohen, founder and president of Beverly Hills Motoring Accessories.

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Andrew Mauck, a self-taught engineer and car racer who once designed and built firetrucks, hopes such hunger for ultimate vehicles is contagious.

Mauck, of Columbus, Ohio, is projecting into the next millennium with a limousine-cum-condominium that he, reaching far with mixed icons, sees as "transportation combining the luxury and image of a Lear Jet with the aura and feel of a Ferrari."

Eight feet wide and 25 feet long, his MSV (for Mauck Special Vehicle) is more of a one-vehicle SigAlert. It weighs almost 7 tons, has gull-wing doors for no apparent reason, a GM truck engine, headroom for 6-footers, and it can be stuffed with more corporate electronics than Sanyo's boardroom. It also costs $150,000.

The upside is that Mauck has sold eight of these rolling barns. Three have gone to nursing homes. Another has been shipped to Brunei and, of course, the royal family. The Columbus Zoo has bought an MSV and equipped it with cages for hauling animals to television appearances.

Mauck sees it as a movie director's command post while on location. Maybe a racing team headquarters. Or a mobile newsroom with computer, sleeping, eating and photo facilities for newspaper teams covering breaking stories.

"We have discussed its possibilities with [race team owner] Roger Penske and [driver] Bobby Rahal," he says. "Stay tuned."

Has he heard from Stallone, Spielberg or Schwarzenegger?

"No," Mauck says. "But we'd probably take their call."

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