Buying a boutique car can be as much of a trip as driving one. Saleen treats customers to a stay at the nearby Ritz-Carlton at Laguna Nigel, followed by a sacred pedal- and seat-fitting ceremony and private lessons in how to handle the machinery. Panoz offers a similar experience at Chateau Élân, his family’s sprawling hilltop hotel and winery in rural Georgia. He also provides a winding, tree-lined racetrack where enthusiasts can take their babies up to Autobahn speeds. “You don’t get that family commitment from other car manufacturers,” says Mike Hansen, president of a Chicago-based trade-association-management company. He happily waited two years for his Esperante. “I mean, Danny himself shows you around the factory.” For drivers like Hansen, none of the technological advances touted in even the highest-end showrooms can match the stripped-down, unhurried craftsmanship of a boutique car, a sentiment shared by the makers. Panoz finds luxury-car gizmovations like infrared starting keys antithetical to a true driving experience, calling them “an emotional gyp.”
No car embodies this no-frills purism more than the mythic Shelby Cobra. After 40 years in the muscle-car business, American racing god Carroll Shelby has amassed legions of speed-freak loyalists. The Cobra, the streamlined roadster he invented in the sixties, is a design icon, and his Las Vegas factory handcrafts about 150 re-invented versions every year. Buyers snap them up for $100,000 each before they even roll off the lifts.
“I’ve wanted a Shelby since I was a kid,” says Morgan LeBlanc, a 43-year-old wine-industry executive who waited almost a year for his CSX 4000. “It sounds ridiculous, but it actually touches your soul,” he says. “It pulls on somethingmaybe it’s my testiclesand I just think, ‘Oh, this is so cool.’”
But America’s strict emissions and safety regulations make it tricky to give these aroused drivers the happy ending they jones for. Small-scale auto artisans can’t easily afford multiple crash tests on their pricey beasts. Sometimes, however, necessity gives birth to innovations like Panoz’s high-grade aluminum frame, which makes his car as light as it is strong.
Tough regulations are part of the reason that Americans haven’t seen more of the Mosler MT900s. With a profile like an airplane wing, the stretched speedster does zero to 60 in 3.3 seconds. Its creator, Warren Mosler, a hedge-fund manager turned carmaker whose company is based in Florida, has had a proto-type since 2001, but it didn’t pass its U.S. emissions and crash tests until last year. Mosler, who grew up building go-karts, is planning to launch his new $190,000 Corvette-powered toy this spring, and he knows exactly what kind of road warrior he’ll be targeting. “We’re not going to have a better fit and finish than a Honda Civic, or a Ferrari, where they’re making thousands of cars,” he says. “But that’s not what it’s about. This is weaponry.”