The small companies behind these bewitching motorcycles and sports cars are a bright spot in the American auto industry.
By most accounts, it's not a great time to be an American car company. The woes of the Big Three are well known: an overdependence on gas-guzzling SUVs, massive pension obligations, and a dearth of good design. But a group of small American companies has sprung up, reviving a dormant tradition of small-volume vehicle manufacturing in the U.S. The cars and motorcycles these companies produce inspire lust not only from hard-core gearheads but also from folks who hardly know what a carburetor is. Most of these babies run $100,000 and up, yet they're in high demand. Some have one- to two-year waiting lists.
Confederate Motor About $55,000
Take one look at the Wraith B120 and it's clear that this is no Harley. And that's just how Matt Chambers, who founded Confederate in 1991, wants it. Chambers--who says the name of his Birmingham, Alabama, company is meant to evoke a spirit of rebellion, not the Civil War--calls Harley-Davidsons "conformist." He limits quantities of Confederate's eclectic bikes to several hundred per model. The Wraith B120, with its carbon fiber and aircraft-grade aluminum chassis and oversize girder-shaped fork, clocks a top speed of 150 miles per hour. Its shape was inspired by board track motorcycle racing, an indoor competition waged on banked wooden tracks that had its heyday in the 1910s.
Fisker Coachbuild $234,000 and up
If you think a $130,000 Mercedes SL55 AMG just isn't flashy enough, try a Tramonto (previous page). It's the first car from Fisker Coachbuild, which was co-founded last year by Henrik Fisker, the former head of design at Aston Martin. Fisker, based in Irvine, California, begins with a stock Benz, strips it down, and then rebuilds it on a small production line in Italy. The cars are made to order with options such as 13 shades of hand-stitched Italian leather upholstery and three engine sizes, the largest being a 604-horsepower V-12 twin turbo. So far, Fisker has sold 75 of a planned run of 150 Tramontos.
Saleen $585,000 and up
Powered by a 750-horsepower midmounted V-8 engine, the Saleen S7 is widely regarded as the fastest production car in the world. It goes 0 to 60 in 2.8 seconds and tops out at a preposterous 240 miles per hour. Somehow it's street legal. And it somehow gets 19 miles to the gallon on the highway.
Steve Saleen, the man behind the car, is a former professional racecar driver who has been modifying Mustangs for competition since 1983. The S7, which was introduced in 2002, is the first car his company, based in Irvine, California, has built from scratch.
Panoz Auto Development $121,326 and up
The Panoz Esperante was born of an orphan chassis that Dan Panoz snagged from the bankrupt Thompson Motor Co. in 1988. The GTLM, with a hand-assembled 420-horsepower V-8 engine under the hood, is one of three street-legal Esperante models. (Panoz also builds racecars.) The GTLM makes the most of that power with a lightweight aluminum body. It rockets from 0 to 62 miles per hour in 4.2 seconds, and hits a top speed of 180 miles per hour. Panoz's factory in Hoschton, Georgia, cranks out some 300 hand-built cars per year.
Unique Performance $124,000 and up
"There's a thirst for vintage cars, but there's also a thirst for dependability," says Douglas Hasty, co-founder of Unique Performance in Farmer's Branch, Texas. Playing the part of thirst-quencher is the Foose 69, a 1969 Camaro that Unique retrofits with luxury amenities dreamed up by hot rod designer Chip Foose. It's equipped with modern suspension and brakes, chrome wheels, a GPS navigator, leather seating, and a modern sound system. Hasty founded a concrete company and an insurance business before starting Unique in 2001 as a hobby project for his car collection.
Cobra 427 SC
Shelby Automobiles About $130,000
The Shelby Cobra may be the most knocked-off classic car in history. In 1962, Carroll Shelby, a former Le Mans winner, outfitted a refined English roadster with a big American engine. He stopped production in 1967, and hot rod shops ripped off Shelby's design for 30 years while he worked with Ford and Chrysler. In 2003, at age 80, Shelby founded Shelby Automobiles in Las Vegas to make authentic Cobras. The car is bare bones, with a 550-horsepower V-8, two seats, and not much else. Since the Cobra doesn't meet crash test requirements, the engine must be shipped separately.
Tesla Motors About $100,000
Not every sports car has to be Al Gore's nightmare. The Tesla Roadster, due out next year, will accelerate like a Ferrari F430 and look about as slick. Its 248-horsepower electric motor will take the car from 0 to 60 in four seconds, with a top speed of 130 miles per hour. Martin Eberhard, who founded the San Carlos, California-based company in 2003, decided to power the car with the same lithium ion batteries that run cell phones--about 7,000 of them. It can go 250 miles before you have to plug it in for a three-and-a-half-hour charge. (For more about Tesla Motors, see our cover story.)
Orange County Choppers About $50,000
The OCC Splitback made its televised debut this year on the Discovery Channel's American Chopper series. The show documents the profanity-laced rants of Paul Teutul Sr., who started OCC with his slightly less profane son, Paul Teutul Jr. The company, based in Montgomery, New York, has built made-to-order bikes since 1999; the Splitback is its first production chopper. The parts, except for the 140-horsepower V-twin engine and the flame-covered gas tank, are fabricated in-house. Next year, the Teutuls expect to sell 250 of the tough-looking bikes.
Last updated: Nov 1, 2006
Senior contributing writer MAX CHAFKIN has profiled companies such as Yelp, Zappos, Twitter,
Threadless, and Tesla for the magazine. He lives in Brooklyn, New York. @chafkin