After many years, the Vector 'dream car' on verge of revving into reality

THE BALTIMORE SUN

LOS ANGELES -- The Vector is Jerry Wiegert's dream car: It is his fighter plane without wings, his Rolex with wheels.

Fans of the Vector -- the term is defined in promotional literature as "a quantity with force, velocity and direction in space" -- see one of the fastest, safest street cars ever designed.

Skeptics look at the sleek, dark prototype for the $250,000 Vector and see a 12-year-old automobile that has logged more than 300,000 miles and three crashes. They see 14 years of hype and the specters of failed carmakers John DeLorean, Malcolm Bricklin and Preston Tucker.

And yet the Vector W8 TwinTurbo, which has been a glint in Mr. Wiegert's eye since 1971, may be about to rev into reality.

A single production version of the wedge-shaped super car is ready for delivery to the first buyer, a Saudi prince who plans to pick up the car in Switzerland soon. A second vehicle has been built, and a third nears completion.

Mr. Wiegert says his Los Angeles company, Vector Aeromotive, has 17 firm orders in hand and several more pending.

NB Vector Aeromotive, which went public in late 1988, recently an

nounced plans for another stock offering and a reverse stock split only one day after raising $8 million through the conversion of warrants to common stock.

"Great things are going on," Mr. Wiegert said. "We're a hot company in a hot market at the right time."

Could be. But the skeptical and the cynical abound where the Vector is concerned. Can Mr. Wiegert deliver the car he promises? Can he deliver enough cars to make a profit? And will investors ever see any kind of return on their money?

"This year is going to be the make-or-break-it year for him," said John Rettie, editor of the California Report, an automobile newsletter published by the J.D. Power & Associates consulting company in Los Angeles. "I honestly think he has a very good chance, but it's one of those things I wouldn't lay money on

either way."

The Vector is low and wide and loaded with features a pilot would love, with a --board more reminiscent of a cockpit than anything earthbound.

The clutch-free car can have either an automatic or a manual transmission at the driver's constant whim with the push of a button. Video display gauges track all sorts of functions. Doors slice up like those on the Lamborghini Countach, with which the Vector is to compete. Options include a rear-mounted televi

sion camera and ---mounted monitor to give a more compete view out back.

Mr. Wiegert says that the car is built to be reliable, unlike most exotic cars, and that its aluminum V8 engine (600-plus horsepower) will be easy to repair.

Safety features include a steel roll cage, air bags, braided steel fuel lines and high-impact fuel tank. The body is made of a high-tech composite material.

"It's a combination of aerospace and Southern California hot-rod technology all rolled into one car," said John Dinkel, editor-in-chief of Road & Track magazine, who has followed the Vector saga for years.

Mr. Dinkel said he was extremely skeptical when he visited Vector Aeromotive earlier this year and test-drove the prototype. "But I was extremely impressed with the car," Mr. Dinkel said, and he gave the Vector a favorable review in the magazine's March issue.

In the rarefied world of exotic super cars -- where the Ferrari Testarossa and F-40, the Lamborghini Countach and the Porsche 959 are household names -- the $250,000 base price of the Vector is only mid-range. In this small market segment, most of the buyers are men and all are well-heeled.

"These are people who buy houses in Beverly Hills for $5 million and in Santa Barbara for $4 million and who have private jets and a yacht in Monte Carlo harbor," Mr. Rettie said. "People pay money for a spot in line" to buy an exotic car from the likes of Ferrari or Porsche, he said, "and they make money by reselling their spot in line."

It has been a long road for Gerald A. Wiegert, a 45-year-old Detroit native whose taste in his youth was for go-carts and then muscle cars.

Mr. Wiegert, an alumnus of the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, Calif., played with his concept of the perfect car for five years before he produced a mock-up in 1976 at a Los Angeles auto show. A drivable prototype was completed two years later.

Lots of oohing, aahing and favorable publicity followed. The first orders for what was called the Vector W2 were placed, and deliveries were expected soon of the car that Mr. Wiegert claimed could do more than 200 miles an hour and could race from 0 to 60 in about four seconds. But that was nearly 10 years ago.

Mr. Wiegert said he found that raising money for a start-up company wasn't easy. Particularly if the company wasn't a technology venture. Especially when the spectacular flameouts of carmakers Tucker (1948), Bricklin (1975) and DeLorean (1982) were still smoking in investors' minds.

Jerry elected to tough it out and he would sell consulting services or do whatever he had to do to move on to the next step," said Barry Rosengrant, a Los Angeles real estate consultant who has known Mr. Wiegert for 15 years and is Vector Aeromotive's only outside director.

Mr. Wiegert kept running out of money, and work would stall until new investors could be found. In early 1987, the venture's bank unexpectedly called $85,000 in loans and froze Mr. Wiegert's personal funds after -- Mr. Wiegert contends -- bank officials read an unfavorable article in AutoWeek magazine that noted, among other things, "Wiegert has little more to show for his efforts than a building, some T-shirts and the prototype." (Mr. Wiegert lost a libel suit against AutoWeek and the article's author, and he is appealing last January's ruling.)

Then Mr. Wiegert's check for an American Express payment bounced, his card privileges were suspended, a public stock offering was postponed and, finally, Vector Car, a limited partnership, went out of business. Vector Aeromotive was formed late in 1987 and bought the assets of Vector Car in a stock swap.

Things geared up in late 1988 when Vector successfully completed its initial public offering, selling 60 million units of a stock and warrant combination at 10 cents each. Mr. Wiegert hopes to raise at least $10 million in his upcoming offering, which will be followed, if shareholders approve, by a reverse stock split in which every 100 shares will be exchanged for one new share in a plan to boost the price of Vector's over-the-counter stock.

Mr. Wiegert is described by friends, employees and longtime Wiegert-watchers as a free spirit, tenacious, hard-headed, a tireless flag waver (a drawing of the U.S. flag competes with many Vector posters for space on Mr. Wiegert's office walls) and embittered by his years of entrepreneurial turmoil. The author of a recent, largely upbeat article in Automobile magazine even called him a "weirdo" in editorial comments at the front of the publication.

"I think, frankly, it is an inhuman price that he has paid," said Steven D. Lewerenz, a vice president in Shearson Lehman Brothers' Kansas City office who has placed an order for Vector No. 6, in midnight blue.

But can this stubborn, intense free spirit with a mission pull it off?

Skeptics point out that the Saudi prince keeps promising to take delivery of his car but has yet to do so. (And yet, enthusiasts who are in line to buy later models say they would gladly take Vector No. 1 off Mr. Wiegert's hands.) Vector's auditor, Laventhol & Horwath, qualifies the company's financial statements by saying that no adjustment has been made for possible production difficulties that might develop when the car is produced in commercial quantities.

Defining success for the Vector "all depends on one's perception of what he's looking to do," said Tim McGrane, managing director of Rick Cole Auctions, which auctions exotic cars. "I don't know in reality whether they'll make more than half a dozen or a dozen" Vectors.

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