Firm makes models of innovative autos DREAMS ON WHEELS


WESTMINSTER -- "It's aerodynamically designed to get up to 150 miles per gallon at highway speeds," Stephen Stringer says as he rubs his hand along the silky-smooth surface of a futuristic-looking car he would like to see parked in driveways across the nation.

But it is not really a car, he concedes as he lifts the front end of the 10-foot-long, bright yellow, two-passenger vehicle. "It's what people in the industry call a 'mule,' a styling mule," Mr. Stringer says. "It can't go anywhere. It doesn't have an engine. It doesn't have an interior."

In this case the styling mule is a fiberglass shell of a car made from a clay model. It's the same process used in the design of most of the flashiest sports cars made around the world. There's also a good chance your family sedan was made of clay early in its life.

Mr. Stringer is the owner of Alternative Automotive Design, a job that draws as heavily on his love of cars as it does his talents as a sculptor. The 20-month-old Carroll County company designs cars and auto components for auto manufacturers and produces prototype units of clay before they go into full-scale production. He also produces clay models for "concept cars," sometimes-fanciful designs of what cars might look like in the future. They are often displayed at trade shows.

One of his latest jobs, for General Motors, was to design the aerodynamic lower body and front-end sections used on the limited-edition, sporty model of a GM pickup truck called the SST Cyclone. Alternative Automotive Design also made body parts and a rear deck wing used on a Corvette Mulsanne, a souped-up

concept car that a GM supplier created, based on today's Corvette.

When he speaks, it becomes obvious that Mr. Stringer is a man torn between reality and the dream of making his own mark on the industry comparable to the contributions of Henry Ford or Lee A. Iacocca.

His more practical side says the Quimoto, the name he has given his car, is nothing more than "a calling card" that he takes to auto trade shows to lure potential customers to his booth. "It shows them what we can do in auto design," he says.

But the incredible dream -- the full-scale production of the Quimoto -- seems to be always on his mind. "If it ever gets to production," he says with the strong accent he brought with him from Bedford, England, "it would be powered by an aluminum flat six Honda [motorcycle] engine."

A few minutes later, he again imagines: "If it ever gets to production, the whole car will only weigh 860 pounds. It will be like this," he adds, tapping the flexible, plastic-like material used in fender of his other "toy," a fire-engine red Renault Alpine sports car in his driveway.

"Basically," he says, "it will be an enclosed motorcycle. It would combine the feel of a motorcycle with the comfort of a car."

He concedes that occupants sitting one behind the other in a cramped passenger compartment might not be very comfortable, "but they wouldn't be getting all wet in the rain."

"You would lean into a curve like you do on a motorcycle. It would give you higher cornering speeds," he says.

He explains that the Quimoto is designed so the body is on one plane, the seats and suspension on another. While the outer body would remain flat and stable during cornering, the seats and suspension would lean into the curb. "That's the theory, anyway. That's what it did on a model and on the computer screen."

Setting up a Quimoto assembly line is one of the 43-year-old automotive engineer's dreams. If things go well for the struggling young company, he envisions opening his own major auto design studio in Maryland. It would be the first example on the East Coast of an industry that is concentrated in California, he says. "We're talking about a facility that would be at least 15,000 square feet," he says.

He currently operates out of a tiny shop about one-tenth that size, with four consultants, at a secret location somewhere in Westminster.

"There's big espionage in this game," he says, explaining the secrecy. "Even on the West Coast the design studios try to keep a low profile. They have different names from the car companies they are associated with. They have names like Design Works or Pacifica."

TH Mr. Stringer feels that he's just "one really big project" away from

opening his own studio. He says he is negotiating with auto companies on about 20 major projects, but interjects: "You ain't got nothing until you got it . . . until you got the money in the bank."

What his struggling company needs now is more money in the bank. He shifted the operation from England to Carroll County in January 1990 after noticing that 80 percent of his business was generated in the United States. But these have not been the best of times for domestic automakers, and Alternative Automotive Designs has felt the economic impact of the recession.

"We're in a loss situation," he says of the company, which posted about $250,000 in sales last year, "a heavy loss situation." He draws encouragement, however, from an increase in phone calls in recent weeks. He's hopeful it's a sign that the auto industry is on the upswing.

Mr. Stringer is no newcomer to the industry. He says he was born into it. In England, his father operated an auto dealership, a truckingcompany and a motor coach business.

After his father died, Mr. Stringer left England for the first time and set up his own company in New Zealand. It built race car bodies and concept cars. He returned to England in 1975 and founded Star Custom Vehicles, another auto design company. It produced all the concept cars Ford and General Motors displayed throughout Europe, he says.

It was fun, but the seven-day-a-week, 18-hour-day schedule became too much for him. "I gave the business to my partner" in 1980, he says. "I learned that there are more things in life than just work."

Retirement didn't last long for Mr. Stringer, who admits that he "eats, sleeps and drinks cars." In 1983, he says, he was getting "too many calls from people asking me to do work for them. I started up again, but this time it was a smaller company with a maximum of 20 employees."

He came to Maryland in 1987 as a clay model consultant to E & G Classics Inc., a Columbia company that produces auto accessories. He says he discovered Maryland "because it was a good stopover point" for his 15 to 20 trips a year from England to the West Coast. "I really like it here. The weather is similar to that in England. We have the rain and humidity."

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