(Galley reprint, commissioned article for Quest magazine in Toronto, August, 1984. The article never saw print. Shortly after, Editor Michael Enright announced the magazine was folding and later, in that same downturn, Aurora, the car company, wound up operations.)
The Now and Forever Cobra
By Peter Thurling
There is snow and ice on the ground. He doesn't want to drive in that, but he can't stop himself from going out to the garage.
So he starts up, backs out a few feet, then rolls it forward. And sometimes he just sits there, feeling the lumpy, big V8 turning under all that gloss, all those curves.
It's hard to tell anyone how good it feels. Sometimes it’s even a little touchy. He's no kid, after all; this is George Gannon, 46, an asparagus farmer blessed with a good year, sitting outside in the black winter night, 200 miles from Seattle, Washington.
His 15-year-old son sees him from the house and "thinks I'm going through a second childhood," George says, chuckling. "I probably am."
What's going to do that for a grown man or woman these days?
When you find yourself trapped in some plastic-injected-mushmobile, beating down the highway, dying of hypertension; when you are sold design that comes any way you want it -- in a box, like any other Road Warrior death wish; when you can't take it any more -- digital
readouts, surround speakers, voice commands; when you want out, truly out-- we have something for you.
What we have is what draws George Gannon and holds him out there in the winter night. It's a classic, in flawless, hand-finished fiberglass form – seductive, scary, and a throwback.
What it is is nothing less than a state-of-the-art reincarnation of the now-and-forever Cobra, the original, legendary performance roadster of the '60s. Brutally fast and one of the most sensuous shapes ever to see production, the Cobra is still regarded by some as a high-water mark in the evolution of the open sports car.
The surprise is that the new car -- the Aurora --is being turned out by 20 or so revivalists in the back of an anonymous little industrial plaza in Richmond Hill, on Toronto's sprawling suburban flank.
What's more, they've been at it four years and after building almost 200 cars and enduring the shocks and setbacks of start-up, seem to be in business to stay.
That in itself is an improbable accomplishment, considering the odds. And there is more. They dream -- this tiny band –of one day being as well known in North America for performance cars as Ferrari is around the world.
That is an outrageous fantasy, considering
Commendatore Enzo Ferrari. Now in his eighties, he's been at it since before World War II, and for more than a generation has turned out the most original and exotic performers anywhere --the standard against which every
one else is measured.
And yet it is that very demand that fuels Blaine Hobson, 29, the hard-driving day-to-day boss at Aurora.
He doesn't expect it to happen overnight, or even in a decade. But, he's a fanatic, convinced that it will.
As he talks about his ritual "rock 'n roll with the bank,"
in a small office not 20 feet from the factory floor, you can hear the revving of a car being tuned. It seams to pulsate through the fantasy.
When Aurora has become as well known as Ferrari,
then I’ll say “adios,” Hobson promises. And you suspect he knows it may take a lifetime.
Aurora is an upstart: a car maker that, in classic backyard tradition, has come out of nowhere to give us a tantalizing new toy, and a world class specialty car.
It's a period piece in mirror like acrylic and matched leather
in shape alone -- those curves -- can take you back to earlier, easier times.
Here's a car that recalls the innocence of original American 'Graffiti days (" where were you in '62?") when cruising was magic; when going all the way was a study in a steamed-up rear window. Times were affluent, parental attitudes permissive. Gas was zip a gallon; you could cruise at 80 miles an hour and nobody cared.
And the most pervasive myth of all was that things could only get better, bigger, faster. We were going somewhere --we were going to take a moon shot.
That kind of thrust burned over into our most
characteristic passion: our almost 100-year-old, hot and heavy affair with the automobile (cosmologist Carl Sagan has noted that if an alien saw the earth from 100 miles out, he would think it was inhabited by cars, not humans).
There was nothing subtle about the pre smog '60s brand of
You could drive family sedans, right off' the showroom floor: that would blow the doors off a rocket launcher and top 140 miles an hour, never mind why. It was, as a
growing band of collectors now regard it, the last golden age of motoring of a certain kind.
All of this contributes to the kind of attention the Aurora commands in the streets today as a piece of rolling nostalgia.
Yet seductive as it is, this car is definitely not for everyone. Not at $46,000 a copy.
For one thing, you're not going to leave it in a supermarket parking lot, waiting to be hit by a $600 junker. And you're not going to let just anyone drive it, either.
This is too much like an honest-to-God rocket sled, certified as the fastest production car built on this continent (0 to 60 miles an hour in 5. 6 seconds; top speed, 147 miles per hour).
But if performance is the touchstone, it is the primo quality of the Aurora that sets it apart.
This is the specialty of Dave Ciolfe 25, Hobson's right hand man on the factory floor.
In his first job after finishing school, Ciolfe is a bug for details. He describes himself as the "fussiest prick in the house," and works out things you might never think about, such as black carpet for the floor.
Leave it to any supplier and what you get are different shades of black.
If the gap in pile is too much, you bend it around a corner and see white backing.
Ciolfe was sending back five rolls out of six -- until he found a supplier who was willing to give him matched rolls for each car.
This attention to detail is even more unusual when you realize that the Aurora is an eclectic blend of hundreds of parts, a mix of Jaguar, Lucas, Datsun, Ford, Corvette, MG and Toyota.
In fact, Ciolfe claims there have been so many modifications since the prototype that the Aurora is now almost a different car.
There is a flexibility' and directness in the smallness of the operation. A guy in a floppy hat sits at a sewing machine, right alongside the seven or eight cars being built.
He takes three hides and matches and cuts them for the car right in front of him. It takes him 18 hours to put just two seats together because he hand-cuts and fits foam and Italian hides to each frame. No lumps, and no bags.
This kind of extraordinary and expensive care exists throughout the building process. The result: it takes 450 man hours to assemble one car by hand -- about eight weeks.
(At Ford in Oakville, Ontario, it takes 19 man hours, 2,000 workers and 39 robots.) And when the car is finished it is subjected to Ciolfe' s spare nothing, 30-mile
He knows how to wring out a car and what to look for. He often finishes by taking it home for the night. "When I put it in my driveway, it helps me take the part of the owner”, he says. “I ask, if it was mine, what would bug me?”
Just about everything, as it turns out. Little flaws
such as a crooked nose badge; serious ones such as vibration or a car that floods out on hard braking.
When the car passes, it goes back on the hoist and Ciolfe goes under, inspecting almost every bolt to see that it's trimmed and blacked out against rust. No mass-produced anything could get this kind of personal attention.
Today you see something once and know what's missing, right from the ground up.
In a neat twist, the federal government sent an Aurora to
Japan last fall. "They think we can't build anything of quality over here," Hobson chortles.
It's still a thrill for Ciolfe, who has presided over production since 1979.
"Amid all the confusion and heartaches, you look at this
thing and wonder how anyone can create it … build that," he says.
" Those moments still exist here. I mean, it's not the biggest, the fanciest plant -- and Jesus Christ, we build this damn thing."
For Hobson, the magic is in resale. The idea is that you drive a classic for a couple of years, and if demand is heavy you make money on resale. At the very least you don't lose.
In fact, Hobson's whole car-making strategy is in under accessing the market -- keeping demand well ahead of supply.
And the price of Auroras has edged up from $28,000 at the end of 1980, indicating healthy demand. Hobson suggests he'll buy back any used one, if he has to, to keep prices buoyant.
Who buys Auroras? So far only men, the kind that tend to be hard-working, independent and tough-minded professionals in their thirties to fifties. And they often take a year to make up their minds.
"People who buy toys are very, very rational -- not lunatics," says Hobson. “They' re mostly self-made guys; they will research, and don't do it on an airy-fairy decision."
But they're not without their longings, a sense of nostalgia. And this stark, sensuous roadster is, after all, a message and missile from the last decade where we did anything different. What else could it be for someone like George Gannon, sliding out of his garage in the winter night?
"I graduated from high school in '57," he says. "It was a great time. Now you see the old Studes, Chevys --they're all coming back." Looking ahead to harvest time, Gannon wonders how he'll get through the 33 days without driving at all.
In many ways it's the same for Toronto computer executive
Bill Train, 27. When he goes out of town on business and leaves his car behind, "it's like' withdrawal. "
And Chuck Gunetti, a San Francisco property manager,
waited 22 years for the right car. In the '60s he was promised one for getting straight As in college, passed up the original Cobra, and had regretted it ever since. Until the Aurora.
For all of them, having the car brings instant recognition, a lot of recall, and ego strokes. Without overdrawing it, Toronto analyst Dr. Ian Graham sees in this kind of buyer "a need to get back where he wishes he was.
“ One looks good in it, reflected in it," Graham says. 'It' s a way to show that you're invulnerable to aging, that you don't need anyone else."
Graham also expects to see aggressive, 80s-style executive women become buyers, and for the same reasons.
That includes the idea of "leaving a beautiful corpse," he says, and "wearing your car like part of your skin."
Women friends in their late thirties agree that they might want to fill those needs if they had that kind of money. One of than suggested that it might be like Joni Mitchell or Helen Reddy hooking up with a teenage rocker, "enjoying the guy as a score."
The Aurora comes by its star appeal naturally enough. It started life in 1961 as the original, the legend, the Cobra.
The 'base was an AC (Auto Carriers) roadster out of England -- an inspiration in gossamer alloy; in design a steal from Ferrari. And after building a reputation in racing, a car without an engine.
At the sane time, Ford in Detroit was developing a small block V8 and waking up to a sudden passion for racing. It was a natural combination for Carroll Shelby, a onetime Texas chicken farmer and veteran race driver.
Right out of the box, his Cobra (the name came to him in a
dream) was a sensation. It redefined fast, and it was beautiful and not fussy to boot. It was also, at $5,995 U.S., relatively cheap (criminally cheap in retrospect).
By 1967, Selby had taken on Ferrari and won ground; he had also brought the Cobra (with 427 cubic inches of brute power) to what some felt was the ultimate high.
Others regarded the ultimate as ridiculous. It didn’t matter. Less than a year later, the Cobra was dead, the yictim of U.S. safety laws and changing attitudes.
Suddenly, automakers were fighting for EPA approval --higher gas mileages were the only numbers that counted.
The Mideast oil shortages and the Japanese invasion came with the 70s, and the U.S. introduced the double nickel: the 55 mile -an-hour speed limit. That about did it.
Oh, Ford kept the Cobra name alive, of course, but it went on tacky little coupes laced with decals. And the people who knew quietly began collecting real Cobras.
Prices remained level and then began rising with the legend (until now, a good 427Cobra could command $100,000).
The death of the car seamed final enough. Shelby had only built 1,100 and then on to sell chili.
By 1976, though, Eric Campbell-Smith, a small Toronto developer (30 to 40 homes a year) had become intrigued with the idea of a Cobra revival.
Long a certified car nut, he put together his first home-built at the age of 12, with a motorcycle engine and Singer sewing machine wheel. It brought out everybody in his Toronto neighborhood. He liked that.
Later, out of college in the '60s, he put together an AC roadster with a Corvette engine in it.
Campbell-Smith, 45 is one of a rare breed. He's always looking for a hole in the market, any market, considering it "God-given opportunity."
And by the mid-70s he had became convinced that there was "a hole, growing, gaping" in the market for those who couldn't afford real Cobras the first time around.
He didn't see why it couldn't be built again. After all, he still wanted one. So did his buddy, Wayne Stevenson, pilot, engineer and another car nut. "It wasn't like building your own skyscraper," Stevenson says. "One thing just led to another."
Initially, they planned to build eight or 10 -- just enough to get their money back and, of course, drive one each. Home base was the Stevenson family garage, containing a welding outfit, grease pit and tools.
"We thought we could make it for next to nothing, $6,000 to $7,000 a car," Campbell-Smith chuckles now. At the same time, he persuaded Hobson, then working for him as a construction supervisor, to go back to school.
Hobson went into the MBA program at the University of western Ontario and did his thesis on this new generation Cobra.
They all agreed on one thing: there was a market. Others were already in the burgeoning specialty field (fuelled by boring mainline mush) and were making money at it. So Hobson took his thesis back to his profs. What did they think about actually doing it?
"They thought I was right out of my flaming mind," Hobson recalls. And that was it --he was hooked. "The odds personally were what made the thing," he says. " It was running on pure faith. A land developer needed some one to take it from drawings to a car company, and I'm it." And it was all the sweeter because Hobson didn't know a thing about cars.
Campbell-Smith already figured on a new clientele out there, much like himself. His buyers would be serious, "so serious they wouldn't put up with all the nonsense of a Ferrari."
He was after another group, and wanted to get them with a car you could bash around in and have some fun
with. That meant stock Ford V8 power, nothing fancy.
The next big step was to build a chassis. It took a whole year, after hours, and at times they thought they would never succeed. To develop cash flow, they started turning out -- are you ready? -- Cobra fireplace grates.
They were the recirculating kind, with long tubes -like the car frame --that required welding, and they made them by the thousands in the little shop they settled into in Aurora, Ontario.
But the grates gave them what they desperately needed: a business history and therefore credibility with the bank. They got a $10,000 revolving line of credit. “The thing was self-sustaining," Campbell-Smith says. "And that's how we managed to sneak into the car business."
And so they started serious car building. "We were on the ground, trying to make something," says Ciolfe, who came into the business in those early days of 1979. "We did things we shouldn't have, and accomplished
things we couldn’t."
The prototype took up 2,000 to 3,000 man hours, and it was rough. Ciolfe and Hobson worked alongside each other almost nonstop as they tried to get production times down. At the start, the best they could do was three cars a month, clearly not enough.
"It was seven days a week., as many hours as you could stay awake," Hobson says. "Very few people understand the commitment--legal and marketing during the day, and at night putting on the overalls, actually
building the mothers… "
Hobson wasn’t likely to forget that first shop: “it was so f---ing cold in there, there was almost a fight over who would get to weld. God, it was awful.”
Eventually, Campbell-Smith found a financing partner and together they went to the Ontario government for a small business loan. The company was recapitalized at $250,000
and the original partners were paid back. Aurora
became freestanding; everyone had shares.
But the demands of the business were endless. They lost early promised orders of 25 cars or more and settled down, going public with their first customer to show that somebody would pay for their car.
In 1980, they all stayed up for two nights while moving to their Richmond Hill headquarters. Then they loaded a car on a trailer and drove it down to the U.S. to canvass dealers.
A1though the reception was good, there were early problems. For exanple, paint would "craze" (throw egg shell cracks) in a showroom somewhere, just weeks after production. Right then, says Campbell-Snith,
"We decided to be very sensitive about quality -- to take it back to the factory and fix anything."
Gearing up, Aurora made changes. Production time was reduced to the current 450 man hours per car. The company began to really perform.
Then the recession hit and interest rates went crazy. Businesses everywhere were in the toilet, and particularly hard hit were Aurora buyers, most of them in business for themselves. After its early promise, the company took a dive and began to look like a case for intensive care.
Going into 1982, Aurora wasn't selling more than
a car a month. This went on for four or five months, and campbell-Smith couldn't see any future for himself as home builder or car backer. "'The economy really tore me apart," he says.
There was a deal in the offing for refinancing but it dragged on while the company slid. They didn't close the doors,
but they did do the closest thing to it. The workers were
laid off for a month while nervous bankers appointed a receiver.
And it got worse. A New York distributor took off with four cars. An L.A. dealer went broke with a couple of cars still in stock and didn't pay for them. At one point there were eight or nine cars floating around.
"You get five or six cars, at $35,000 a copy, and that's working capital," Canpbell-Smith says.
Then, in May 1982, the company got the fresh financing and reprieve it had been looking for. The deal had been building for months.
Doug Hatch, whose family interests include Hiram Walker, and his partner, Jim Plaxton, had bought Auroras. The fix was in: Hatch liked the product so much he bought the company. He became president while Plaxton became chairman.
Aurora is now building seven cars a month and going for eight. There are also radical changes in the works, including plans for a new coupe with distinctive Aurora (as opposed to Cobra) shape. This raises question how long the roadster will continue to be produced.
The recognizable shape they started with has become a negative factor because the replicar business has sunk under the weight of too many scams. Hobson says that too many hustlers took deposits and built shoddy cars.
"It's now something you have to rise above," he notes. "They left shady and slippery connotations."
And although word of mouth about the Aurora (which is good) is being bolstered by new high-profile promotion, there is no plan to take production of the roadster beyond 100 a year. This is partly savvy, but also an inkling of just how shallow the ultimate market may be.
Hobson's own leanings are for Aurora to build an intermediate-stage coupe with a period '60s look, V8 or V12 engine, and a flip top ("We're in the fresh air business"). Jim Plaxton is known to favor going right to a totally plastic car-- a futuristic, high-tech model made of composites.
The problem: heavy developnent dollars, the kind that can sink a small company, without a trace.
The truth is, the specialty car business is precarious at the
best of tines, and even trickier in times of recession. The wreckage of other failures is legend.
Malcolm Brick1in's gull-wing safety car ate through his fortune, and further millions put up by the New Brunswick government. The DeLorean, a stainless steel, high-tech coupe, sank despite John Delorean’s expertise as a former GM executive, and hustler extraordinaire. who allegedly tried to save his business with a cocaine deal.
"He forgot a few rules," Hobson says about DeLorean. Especially one of the most elemental: under accessing the market. "You just can't go from zero to 15,000 units a year," Hobson points out. Not when majors such as Porsche have taken three decades.
How is the Aurora doing out there in the real world --the U.S. market, where most of them go? Just fine, according to Tan Fair, a dealer out of Newport, Rhode Island, who sold his first Aurora the day it came in.
Fair says the car, at $40,000 U.S., is "a cheap toy toy-- people pay $10,000 for a gold watch, $300,000 for a condo, a summer place."
Others are not so sure-- these are fragile economic times, after all. Even in Beverly Hills, salesman Brian Fiebelkorn has seen prospects go down. "Someone earning $80,000 a year comes in and figures he can afford it," he says. "Then he finds out it's like a second house mortgage, like
$1,500 a month."
And Edmonton dealer Bernard Orthey has also had trouble closing deals. "When you start talking a difference of $25,000 cash," Orthey says, "most people are in trouble."
And yet we have a contender, a genuine car builder, in Canada, with an appetite for the world. And nobody is more ecstatic about the car than the owners themselves. George Gannon, Train and Chuck Ganetti, for
example. And Gary Kohs of Detroit, who owns a blue
Kohs insists the car is everything the original Cobra would have been if it had stayed in production. Kohs can say that; he has a collection of some 35 cars (he doesn't count), including Ferraris and original Cobras.
"When the buying public finally discovers it, as it's starting to, production will be sold out for years,” Kohs predicts. "It doesn't yet have the brand magic of Ferrari-- but it will.”
One last thing. You want a ride?
You go out to the back with Ciolfe, who knows how to drive one, and there's this beautiful, wicked blue number sitting there.
This one's built the way they like to build them, at 400 honest horsepower, nowhere near stock.
To get in, you grab the roll bar behind you, plant your feet, and wedge down deep.
There is an undeniable jolt as Ciolfe blips the throttle. You're out there --exposed (in space --with that curving hood, and fender lips.
All '50s-style bent elbows. Cramped but connected. And it's definitely too late to get out.
Whooowww. Seven grand. Whaaaa!
Don't forget to breathe.
He drops the hammer. It's on again.
And you drop. Eyes pulled back. Glued where you are--
Through a slice of road--
You hope there will still be--