By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
By David Villano
By Jose D. Duran
By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
By Kyle Swenson
By Luther Campbell
For much of the Eighties and Nineties, drivers on the Palmetto Expressway zipped past a revolving, 45-foot tower of Gatsby-era Fords and classic Porsches. It sat atop the 160,000-square-foot headquarters of Classic Motor Carriages, then the nation's largest manufacturer of automotive replicas. The firm was forced to close in 1994 after the Florida Attorney General's Office filed suit against it on behalf of hundreds of defrauded customers.
The court case and the company's implosion made headlines across the country. But the public saga has a little-known coda. Classic Motor Carriages has since reopened under the saucy moniker Street Beasts.
Today the business resides in a 50,000-square-foot warehouse on NE 72nd Street and Second Avenue, surrounded by acres of cinder block and chainlink fence. In the lobby hangs a U.S. map riddled with colorful thumbtacks, each representing a Street Beasts car. Most of them are clustered east of the Mississippi, but there is at least a smattering in every state, including Alaska and Hawaii. And the map is just one sign of the company's renewed vigor; it now sells some 40 cars a month and brings in about six million dollars a year. "No one else does that kind of business," maintains Bob Southern, the company's vice president of sales. "Once again we've become the largest manufacturer of replica cars in the country."
Brian Brennan, editor of Street Rodder, one of a half-dozen magazines that target collectors, says he can't say for sure whether Street Beasts tops the growing list of replica producers. "But there's no doubt it's a major player," he notes. "Forty cars a month is huge."
Classic Motor Carriages was founded more than three decades ago. From the beginning it sold do-it-yourself kits, which customers used to build ersatz classics. In 1978 wealthy Fort Lauderdale resident George Levin bought the firm and unleashed a marketing blitz. Soon Classic's cars were displayed in airport lobbies from Newark to Seattle. And orders poured in so fast that the company abandoned its modest Hallandale headquarters and moved to the mammoth warehouse on the Palmetto and 27th Avenue.
In the first three years that Levin owned Classic, revenues soared from $500,000 per year to $12 million. By 1985 it was grossing $20 million and churning out about 300 kits a year. It was also rankling customers. Some began alleging that the company employed deceptive sales tactics, delivered incomplete kits, and kept deposits when nothing was delivered.
By 1994 the state had amassed 900 complaints thanks in part to a campaign by local consumer watchdog Stuart Rado and California car-guide publisher Curt Scott. The Florida Attorney General's Office sued the company in July of that year. And Classic closed down the following November after sales plummeted and it was evicted from its headquarters. A variety of media chronicled the saga, among them the Miami Herald, Car and Driver, the Los Angeles Times, the Associated Press, and ABC's Inside Edition.
In the midst of the fiasco, Levin launched a company called Auto Resolutions. "The goal was to clean up the Classic mess and resolve outstanding customer complaints," explains Southern. Meanwhile the case continued wending its way through the courts until 1999, when the company was ordered to pay nearly three million dollars in restitution and fines for fraudulent business practices.
Around the same time, Auto Resolutions quietly began selling cars under the brand name Street Beasts. Sales were sluggish the first few years. But they've picked up recently. In fact Southern says revenues have nearly doubled since 2002.
The 40 kits the company sells each month range from $14,500 to $18,500 each; the price includes frame, body, and interior. Most of the components are manufactured in the firm's Little Haiti warehouse. On a recent Wednesday afternoon, forklifts crept between the bone-white hulls of faux classics on the factory floor, and women hunched over sewing machines. An elderly Cuban man in fatigues and a gingham cap used a blowtorch to craft hinges from thick slabs of steel. Nearby, three others in hazmat suits swiveled a giant mechanical arm and then sprayed thin layers of fiberglass thread into a mold for a 1933 Ford Victoria.
Street Beasts caters mostly to street rod enthusiasts, meaning those who get revved up over pre-1948 models. At any given time, 300,000 people are restoring or replicating cars of this vintage, according to Brennan of Street Roddermagazine. This makes it a one-billion-dollar industry.
Besides the 1933 Victoria, Street Beasts sells kits for the 1934 Jeep Willy, a 1934 Ford cabriolet, a 1944 Ford three-window coupe, and the 1966 Shelby Cobra. Originals of these cars are rare and expensive; a vintage Cobra can run upward of a million dollars.
Street Beasts' reputation is mixed among modern-day rodders. Spirited debates about its product quality and customer-service standards sometimes erupt on electronic message boards catering to collectors. And although most of the dozen customers contacted by New Times were happy with their purchases, at least five have recently filed complaints with the Better Business Bureau and the state attorney general.
Among the unhappy clients is Jack Luster, a 65-year-old retiree from San Juan Capistrano, California. He says he purchased a Cobra kit and assorted upgrades for about $20,000 in late 2004. When his order arrived in March 2005, parts were missing. Among them: front coil-over shock absorbers and the driver-side roll bar. Some elements took three months to arrive. In the meantime, he claims the company refused to return his phone calls. He also says it mistakenly sent him $1200 worth of parts and then refused to refund the money it charged for them.
Luster was so steamed that he scrapped the project and sold his Street Beasts body and frame to another rodder. "I've just written them off," he explains. "I know nothing will be resolved and they'll just aggravate me further."
Southern says he's not familiar with the particulars of Luster's complaints. But such grievances, he argues, usually arise from factors outside the company's control. Street Beasts' suppliers are sometimes slow to deliver parts. And customers often lack the necessary mechanical acumen. "A lot of people think they know how to build a car," he explains. "But when they get in there, they don't. And they always think it's our fault."
Other customers have been so pleased that they've bought multiple cars. Among them is Ronald Mayberry, a 64-year-old retiree who lives amid the rolling, brush-covered hills of Duncan, Oklahoma. He bought his first Street Beast kit, a 1934 Ford three-window coupe, after his mother died in the late Nineties. "My dad was kind of lost," he recalls. "I thought getting into street-rodding would give us something to do together and let him get his mind off the mourning." The duo spent nearly two years outfitting the car with everything from a Chevy 350 motor to an overdrive transmission and power windows. Then they glazed their creation with metallic purple paint. Shortly after it was finished, they ordered and built a 1933 Victoria.
To house the cars, Mayberry constructed an old-fashioned garage, complete with checkered floors, a penny scale, and antique gas pumps. He has also taken to attending street rod shows. "It's like going back to better times, when life moved slower," he explains. "The cars really transport you."