DESIGN

Specialty-car maker has bright design ideas

Fred Kanter, left, and Gene Langmesser with an in-production 789. The 789 combines what the men say are the best styling elements of the 1957, '58 and '59 Chevys. Kanter and Langmesser have sold 18 copies of the $75,000 car.
LOS ANGELES — Fred Kanter and Gene Langmesser are in the business of making dream cars come true.

The two men cut their teeth as vehicle fabricators, building Hyundai's HCD-8 show car, the Lexus Minority Report movie car and the Panoz Esperanto. Their company, N2A, is the retail front for the design shop Kanter Concepts, which also fabricates aerospace parts for military contractors such as Lockheed Martin Corp. And the Southern California company is not above building prototype vacuum cleaners or smoke detectors.

Now N2A is taking the next step — producing one-off cars for rich people. It's a rutted road, filled with idealistic folks who thought they could create the cars Detroit couldn't.

"We want to model our company after (famed independent studio) Carrozzeria Ghia in Turin," said Kanter, 63. "We want to design cars, build concepts and fulfill the dreams of others."

The company name, N2A, stands for "No Two Alike."

Unstable market

Of course, with a staff numbering in the teens, N2A can't do the cars from scratch. Because of its flexibility as a platform, the bones of all N2A creations is the 2007 Corvette C6.

"We can only work from spaceframes, and the Corvette is the best one," said Langmesser, 50.

Making new cars from old ones is nothing new. Entrepreneurs from Steve Saleen to Dick Guldstrand have done pretty well taking Detroit iron and fabricating their own designs on top. Much of their work involved tuning the mechanicals of the car. The exterior tweaks were mostly minor.

In the case of N2A, the mechanical changes are minor. The bodywork is the main change. In this way, N2A is more like Fisker Coachbuild, the company started by former Aston Martin designer Henrik Fisker to put personalized new shells on top of the proven Mercedes-Benz SL and BMW 6-series platforms.

But Fisker's dream — like those of others who thought they could design a better car — clashed with market realities. Fisker's asking price for his custom-made cars was $128,000 over and above the cost of the donor car. He had hoped to sell 150 copies apiece of his two coupes every year. The idea fizzled.

"It's a very small and unstable market," Fisker said recently. "It's hard to estimate the market and create a long-term business case around it."

Kanter said 60 percent of N2A's income comes from the defense industry. That shields the company if car orders come up short.

"You can get a pretty cool car for $80,000," he said. "But to get a truly coachbuilt car will definitely run you several hundred thousand, if you want good quality that's not some fiberglass body."

Kanter said N2A — housed in a light-industrial district in Santa Ana in Orange County — can match the precision work of a big automaker. "Aerospace mil-spec tolerances are three-one-thousandths of an inch over a 30-foot span," he said, "so we're pretty good at this."

Best of the '50s

Kanter, a medical technology engineer, got into the car business in 1971 with his brother. They started out reselling discarded dealer stocks of Packard automobile parts. That turned into a specialty parts business that now includes parts fabrication. Kanter later began making performance parts for American muscle cars.

But that wasn't enough. Kanter wanted to build actual cars. When he found out that MSX International was selling off its concept fabrication studio and equipment, Kanter snapped it up in 2003. Likewise, he pillaged the laid-off employee rolls of CTEK and ItalDesign California to bolster his staff.

Fresh out of high school in 1979, Langmesser started working as a draftsman for Fisher Body while attending the University of Michigan. In 1988, he joined Porsche and spent 14 years as a studio engineer. He joined Kanter in 2002.

The two men created N2A and quickly made plans to create their first series-built vehicle. The car, called the 789, represents three iconic late-'50s model years of the Chevrolet sedan.

Because they think GM designers never quite got it right in any of those years, Kanter and Langmesser took the best styling elements of 1957, '58 and '59 Chevys and combined them into one $75,000 car. So far, Kanter said, they have sold 18 copies.

"The front of a '57 was great, but the middle was nothing, and the back was cold," Kanter said. "The 1959 front was like Godzilla with braces, but the back is fantastic. The 1958 has the interior and the best side elements."

As a build-to-order car, any two-tone color combination is available no matter how bizarre it may seem. After all, the customer is king.

"It takes 12 to 14 weeks to deliver a car, even though it really only takes four weeks to actually build it," Langmesser said. What with the military contracts, storage space for cars is minimal. The "assembly line" is limited to four cars at a time.

Retro Vette

The next step for N2A is its own creation: the $200,000 Antera sports car, which is the company's take on modern supercars. With its Corvette C6 underpinnings, the Antera certainly should hold its own on the racetrack.

The car has custom-made bodywork, interior trim, seats and instrument panel. The body is a composite mold on the painted side, backed with carbon fiber. The logo, a play on Lamborghini, is a bull with wings.

The Antera will debut in November at the Los Angeles auto show.

Next on the drawing board is the Stinger, which N2A hopes to have ready for the 2009 New York auto show. The Stinger takes the split rear window of the 1963 Corvette, the sharky side of the 1965 model, and the hood and turbine-look wheels of the 1967.

Because the body will be built out of two layers of carbon fiber, it will weigh 200 to 300 pounds less than a real Corvette. Toss on a Magnuson Supercharger, and it should be a $180,000 speed demon.

If the Stinger succeeds, N2A's next target is to bring back the wild styling of such 1930s ultraluxury cars as Bucciali, Bugatti and Voisin. But for all of Kanter's and Langmesser's dreams, there are those pesky market realities to consider.

"You always need to have volume," Fisker said. "Sometimes we would sell a car, then we didn't sell any for three or four months.

"People are always talking about what rich people do, but it's always not-rich people doing the talking. And the rich people got rich by not doing what everyone else wants them to." 

You can reach Mark Rechtin at mrechtin@crain.com

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