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Entrepreneur hopes all-aluminum sport truck will shine

July 1, 1997

FREDERICKSBURG, Va. (AP) _ John De Lorean’s dream of selling a new breed of car to Americans hit the skids in 1982, and since then few independents have dared to compete with the Big Three automakers.

But a former real estate developer with no experience in the car business is building an all-aluminum sports utility vehicle and plans to start selling it in the United States next year.

The Stinger is being sold first in Caribbean resort areas, where its nearly rustproof body will be a major asset, entrepreneur Ken Warnes said.

Warnes, 53, quit his business building West Coast luxury condos to open Warnes International Vehicles Inc. in 1994. He has 16 employees.

Warnes picked as his improbable headquarters a renovated 18th century building in this city of 20,000 people nearly 600 miles from Detroit.

``We don’t want to be where the other guys are, because we’re not like the other guys,″ Warnes said.

Fredericksburg affords cheap office and research space a short ride to Washington, about 50 miles away, where the company is working closely with federal environmental and safety officials, Warnes said.

The headquarters is also close to aluminum supplier Reynolds Metals Inc. in Richmond.

A bright red demonstration model of the Stinger fills the central lobby of the Warnes office, its lights flashing and pop music blasting from the outsize, waterproof speakers on the dashboard.

The truck _ also available in blue, white, yellow and green _ is designed as a weekend fun machine with a built-in roll bar, four-wheel drive and an onboard inflator for beach toys or bicycle tires.

Each vehicle comes with a detachable hard top as well as a soft fabric top.

It comes with a standard 1.3-liter 4-cylinder engine and Warnes claims it has a top track speed of 110 mph. It gets 50 miles per gallon fuel economy on gas, and a diesel model is also planned, Warnes said.

Warnes plans to market the car in the United States for $16,000 to $22,000, depending on the model and whether they have such extras as leather seats and air conditioning.

``It’s sort of a poor man’s Humvee,″ said Michael Marsden, an automotive historian and former trade press writer at Northern Michigan University in Marquette, Mich.

Perhaps.

The Stinger weighs 1,520 pounds and can go from zero to 60 mph in 8.5 seconds. The Hummer, a street version of the military transport, weighs 5,700 to 6,400 pounds. Its 6.2-liter V-8 engine takes 19.5 seconds to accelerate from zero to 60.

In addition, the $60,000 high-tech Hummer, which is made by AM General Corp., can traverse 18-inch vertical walls, climb 60-percent grades, and earned a solid reputation during the Persian Gulf War.

Still, the appeal of both vehicles is similar _ a durable, surefooted and unabashedly macho truck.

About 2,000 Hummers were sold in the first two years. Warnes said he has sold 300 Stingers so far to car rental outlets in Barbados, Aruba, Antigua and other islands.

Wilbert Queeley, who owns Queeley’s Rentals on the island of Nevis, said the aluminum construction was a major selling point.

``I’ll get 25 years out of them, easy,″ Queeley said. The Suzuki Samurais and similar vehicles he rents now break down or become a maintenance headache after just a few years, Queeley said.

Queeley would not say how many Stingers he ordered, nor how much he will charge to rent one.

The first Stingers are being assembled now in Puerto Rico, and will be delivered in July. He also plans to expand later this year to Australia and South Africa.

The first U.S. sales will probably be in Florida. Warnes is coy about exactly where and when the Stinger will make its American debut, but he says he already has one American fan.

Singer Jimmy Buffett will display a model in ``Rainforest Green″ at his Florida restaurant, ``Margaritaville,″ Warnes said.

Buffett, known for his relaxed, island approach to life, said in an August letter to Warnes that the car should ``fit right in.″

No matter the quality and boutique interest of the Stinger, it faces the same problems that were prohibitive for De Lorean and other innovators, Marsden said. In addition to the high cost of developing a new car, the logistical hassles can be overwhelming, he said.

``The car business is a lot like the film business. Anyone can make a car, anyone can make a film. The problem is how do you distribute it? If no one can see the film you have not been successful,″ Marsden said.

De Lorean was a General Motors executive until 1973 when he left to open his own company that built the $25,000 stainless steel DMC sports car with wing doors that opened up instead of out.

De Lorean’s company collapsed in 1982 after problems with shipping the cars from the plant in Northern Ireland, cash-flow issues, and finally, De Lorean’s arrest in Los Angeles on cocaine charges. He was acquitted.

Warnes said he’ll handle distribution in-house. Cars will be built on an order-only basis at dedicated ``Stinger centers″ in each state, he said. He hopes to sell up to 20,000 cars in 1998, with an eventual goal of 40,000 to 50,000 annually.

It’s an ambitious goal. De Lorean’s company went out of business having made only 8,583 cars.