Replica cars are being taken to a whole new level at one company in South Africa, as Alan Swaby learns.
Petrol heads will need no reminding of the iconic 1960s AC Cobra—often referred to as the Shelby Cobra, due to its association with US racing driver Carroll Shelby. Production ceased in England in 1969 by which time around 1,000 Cobras had been produced. Today, if such a car comes on the market it can fetch millions of dollars if it has a race history. Even with no track experience it could sell for $200,000.
With such boundless nostalgia and demand for the car, it’s not surprising that an industry has grown up replicating the Cobra—and many other classic cars. But it might come as a surprise to learn that there are between 30 and 40 businesses around the world making Cobras in what’s known in the trade as continuation cars, and turning that model into the most replicated car in history.
Jim Price, managing director of Hi-Tech Automotive in Port Elizabeth, South Africa, was one who was seduced into investing in a continuation kit car business, despite having precious little knowledge about cars. “I worked in construction all my life,” says Price, “and was attracted by the glamour of cars and their contrast with what I was doing. But it didn’t take long to discover that as fast as I put money into the business, it was haemorrhaging out the other end.”
Price realised that the problem related to the availability of parts. Kit cars either used unreliable second-hand parts or required paying through the nose for new parts. “If you made a car from its separately bought components,” explains Price, “it would cost five times the original selling price.”
Price’s solution was to build complete new cars rather than second-hand kits. And he decided to do it himself rather than invest in others—so in 1995, Hi-Tech Automotive was born. With just a handful of employees producing a handful of cars a year, Price has grown the business by 50 per cent per annum and by 2002 was already the largest such supplier of replica cars anywhere. The company has built 3,500 Cobras in 15 years.
During that time, Hi-Tech has had a couple of body blows to contend with. In 2002, the value of the rand appreciated in value 50 per cent in just a few short months. Then, having coped with that, 2008 saw the automotive business implode and Hi-Tech felt the full force of the recession. “Most of our output goes to the US,” Price says, “and it’s very much a discretionary purchase. Let’s face it—owners tend to be middle-aged and wanting to relive their youth. So when cash is short, our sales feel it immediately. We used to employ 500 staff but now that’s down to 220.”
Given that it is selling heritage cars such as the Cobra and GT40, the name Hi-Tech Automotive somehow didn’t feel appropriate. As such, this side of the business works under the name of Superformance, shipping through a US distributor to a network of dealers. To get around US compliance rules, cars are sold without engines but built specially to the engine specified by the owner. The owner can also decide if he wants a car to the original spec or with a more modern, better handling chassis. In all cases, though, the aluminium bodies have been replaced by lighter fibreglass.
Hi-Tech has invested huge sums in its engineering and construction facilities. Ironically, while Port Elizabeth is the Detroit of South Africa, Hi-Tech doesn’t employ conventional automotive workers. “They are usually of no use to us,” he says. “They’re used to working on very narrow aspects of a car and having the support of a huge organisation behind them. We want our engineers to turn their hands to anything, so we take promising graduates and teach them about life on the shop floor before they ever get their hands on a computer and CAD package.”
Depending on specification, a Cobra can sell for up to $70,000 and a GT40 for $100,000. To remain competitive, Hi-Tech has its own sophisticated machine shop which turns out dozens of parts that would otherwise be too expensive to buy. “Of course there are certain components such as brakes and electronics,” says Price, “that we can’t make and here we rely on the good relations we have with OEMs to get reasonable prices. But if it’s something within our capabilities, we can make it for less than half the trade cost.”
But although Hi-Tech is unconventional when compared with other car makers, it is light years away from the kit car company that first attracted Price—so much so that the other side of the business truly is ‘high-tech’.
Petrol heads will also be familiar with the highly respected Noble M12 sports car designed by Lee Noble but surprisingly built in South Africa by Hi-Tech. Noble has since severed his connection with the company that bears his name and has set up shop once again under the name Fenix. Orders for his new car have already been received and they will be built by Hi-Tech.
“We have the ability to turn our hands to many things,” says Price. “But we have to remember that we are a low volume manufacturer. When the numbers go higher than 300 units a year, it changes the whole perspective of the game—and that’s not what we want.”
To demonstrate its versatility, Hi-Tech is preparing to build a trial run of a new South African entry to the electric car market. The contract with Optimal Energy will be to prepare a pre-production fleet of cars while Optimal’s own factory is being built.
With 20,000 square metres of factory space to occupy, Hi-Tech has plenty of capacity for new projects; but Price’s heart is still bound up with the continuation range of cars. He likes nothing better than playing host to visits by owners’ groups wanting to see where their dream cars originated. www.superformance.com/Aboutus.aspx