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Feature Story


by Bob Hagin

July 26, 1996

Like most auto enthusiasts, I'm sure that you've all reflected on how much fun it would be to own a business that sells new cars - but not one of those mega-dealerships, of course. In the big ones, ownership shares of the company are traded on the stock exchange and 500 new cars get rolled out of the showroom every month. Those places are structured like appliance chains and the top executives are more likely to be attorneys and accountants who formed a marketing conglomerate than "car guys."

On the other hand, the ideal operation for an enthusiast would be small (only room for two new cars on the floor), have under-cover storage for half a dozen more new cars, and a lot in front that carried about 15 used but immaculate specialty cars that would attract other enthusiasts from all over the country. In an air-conditioned shop in the rear would be two or three ex-factory racing mechanics who were trained in "the old country" and could make their own replacement parts if necessary in the well-equipped in-house machine shop.

But it's impossible to open a small new car operation and sell Toyotas, Fords or Volkswagens in our superheated economy. Today the enthusiast will have to choice from a group of small production autos that don't lend themselves to dynamic sales promotions or factory rebate plans. The following are vehicles I've chosen as suitable for a low-volume, laid-back operation:

RINSPEED YELLO TALBO - Who can forget those pre-World War II Talbot Lago coupes with their swoopy and curvaceous Figoni et Falachi custom bodies. Apparently Chrysler couldn't either and its current concept car, the Chrysler Atlantic, shares a lot of the Lago's styling panache. You can't get into a Chrysler dealership without flashing a high-seven figure bank account, but you might be able to swing a small Rinspeed franchise for considerable less. The Rinspeed Yello Talbo is a modern V8-powered knock-off of that famous French coupe built in 1938 and the . American distributor is TLC Carrossiers In Riviera Beach, Florida.

AM GENERAL - I haven't seen any Hummer dealerships along the auto rows of any of the major cities I've visited but there's one in conjunction with a Ford dealership some distance from my home. In view of this spotty coverage, it's possible that AM General is looking to set up franchises for this gigantic automotive hero of Desert Storm. The Hummer is the ultimate sports/utility vehicle and your exclusive clientele won't misplace theirs in any parking lot outside of an Army motor pool. It comes in six different body configurations (ambulance, personnel carrier, rocket launcher, etc.) and you'd be able to offer Hummers in colors other than khaki or camouflage. The factory is in South Bend, Indiana and you can call the sales office there.

WARNES INTERNATIONAL - Maybe you'd like to handle a sports utility vehicle than is somewhat smaller than the 6000 pound Hummer. If so, get in line to handle the Warner Stinger, an built-from-scratch small SUV. The maker, Ken Warnes, is planning to offer a 30 year guarantee against rust on the Stinger since the little 75 horsepower off-roader is made of almost entirely of aluminum. Its headquarters is in Virginia and most of its parts will be made here - except for its Spanish-built Ford engine. The first Warnes sales organization will concentrate on the islands of the Caribbean (perfect for a rust-free vehicle) and then the plan is to offer it in this country sometime next year, according to reports.

LAFORZA - On the other hand, if you'd prefer to handle a sports/utility vehicle that's not as overbearing as the Hummer nor as "funky" as the minuscule Stinger, there's a name from the past that's making a comeback and it may be in search of retail outlets. The Laforza started life in 1989 as an Italian/American hybrid that was built at the Pininfarina plant in Turin and shipped to Hayward, California. There, the importer installed Ford V8 running gear. It was a high-class unit, very much on the order of the illustrious British Range Rover but in short order the company went belly-up leaving 300 unfinished vehicles in a warehouse. A Middle-Eastern investment group bought them and has been selling them off to Monster Motorsports of Escondido, California. Monster Motorsports installs updated Ford mechanicals and has sold off 50 of the machines. A call to Monster Motorsports president David Hops might result in a Laforza franchise for your home town.

Getting into the new car business is fraught with peril but not impossible. There are still lots of small-time operations in this country and yours may be the next on to sprout and succeed. All you need is an abandoned supermarket, a small amount of capital, and most important, a great deal of luck.