Mosler's Makeover

Walking around his Riviera Beach headquarters, one can easily figure out that Warren Mosler isn't trying to impress the buying public. The place has needed a good sweep for months. Dirt and leaves are strewn across the entrance. The white walls are streaked with greasy fingerprints. The counters look as if they were purchased secondhand from an auto parts store, and the drop ceiling seems about ready to fall.

But Mosler has never been about appearances. He builds race cars, unattractive but fast ones. They are so fast that some endurance races have banned them for continually winning. He's the guy Car and Driver magazine said isn't capable of distinguishing "a beautiful car from a stack of pancakes."

Recently, though, this economist-turned car builder, with his halo of bushy hair and wide-rimmed glasses, has gotten a makeover. Think of one of those teen movies where the nerd becomes the cool kid in school. Nowadays, Warren Mosler's name means style. The image change began in 1995 when Mosler hired one of the guys who redesigned the Corvette for General Motors. Rod Trenne promised to add some panache to Mosler's super-fast race cars, and what they created could make Mosler the car industry's new Freddy Prinze Jr.

Later this year, Mosler is expected to begin mass production on what may be the fastest road car ever built. That's right, Mosler's MT900, a Lamborghini-looking coupé straight out of the 'hood of Riviera Beach is likely the world's zippiest car. Only the faintest trace of doubt remains in auto racing circles. And while the expected $163,000 price tag may sound more like the cost of a two-bedroom house, it's actually competitive in the world of exotic sports cars.

Most of Mosler's 35 employees, and the many followers he's collected during 16 years of building race cars, are predicting big things for the small company. Dr. Steve Martyak, a West Palm Beach general surgeon, has been a Mosler groupie for years. "If this isn't the fastest," Martyak said during a tour of the plant recently, "it's at least going to be one of the world's premiere street cars."

The new car, which has already been on race tracks for two years, awaits government approval of emission and crash tests. Results could come within the next month, says Martyak, who volunteers to handle Mosler's promotions. The Riviera Beach office can't handle high production, so Mosler has already arranged for the car to be built in a factory in Albany, Georgia. Demand is unclear, but early on Mosler predicted he'll be turning out more than 500 cars a year.

Initial speed tests on Mosler's new model aren't conclusive. The prototypes have been clocked at doing 0 to 60 mph in about 3.5 seconds, just shy of the 3.2-second record set by the McClaren F-1. But Mosler's engineers say the final production car could hit 2.9 seconds and a top speed of more than 200 miles per hour. Then there's the most recent set of tests by Motortrend. The magazine recently timed Mosler's baby at one tenth of a second faster than the McClaren, said Chris Walton, the magazine's senior road test editor. There's no official agency or source that clocks the speed of cars, so the Mosler will only be widely recognized as the world's fastest car if it continues to blow away the competition. For now, though, it's reputation is growing. "It's absolutely an amazing car," Walton said from his office in Los Angeles.

Mosler's 45,000-square-foot workshop on Old Dixie Highway has been his toy box since 1987, when the billionaire Singer Island resident dreamed of building his own cars. Mosler had already made a name for himself as an economist/financier who worked with an offshore hedge fund that now tops $2.5 billion. Two years ago, Mosler correctly predicted the recession, and his followers deftly pulled their money out of the stock market. Said by his associates to be in St. Croix right now, he's traveling the world on a speaking circuit and stops in at his car factory only a few times a year.

His first creation at Mosler Automotive was a Volkswagen Rabbit souped up so fast it could smoke Corvettes. He went on to play with his factory like a kid with Matchbox cars, dropping an extra engine into the trunk of a Cadillac and fusing truck beds onto the backs of Jeeps. He expanded the business by building race cars out of lightweight sailboat material; he used Chrysler engines boosted with turbo chargers. The early Mosler creations, selling under the names Raptor and Intruder, looked a lot like smokeless ashtrays. They had a bubble-shaped cockpit with a dorky, split windshield across the front on top of a flat, lackluster body that included square headlights. Responding to a New Times e-mail recently, Mosler said his designs were practical. "We were producing 'weaponry,' as our goal was to produce the top performance sports car manufactured U.S. legal," Mosler wrote. "That required a brutally efficient shape."

But the cars were fast, and race car drivers have won with Mosler's cars. The racing version of the MT900 took first-place in the GTS class at the Daytona Rolex 24 this past February.

He sold 50 cars in 1998, his top year of production, although the business has never made money. Mosler won't comment on how the business survives, but he clearly supports it with his own millions, says Frank Markus, technical director for Car and Driver, which has tested the MT900. "He's a rich guy who wants to build cars," Markus says, "and you can do that if you're a rich guy."

When Trenne, the Corvette designer, came on board, Mosler's company used high-tech software to design the new car. The specifications of the computer model go straight to machines that carve out molds for the fiberglass frame. The factory workers need only assemble the parts as if they were a toy. The process takes about three to five months. The new design, with its sloped nose curving gently to a flat rear end, looks like a Corvette on steroids -- without the drug's ball-shrinking side effects.

For the new car, Mosler upgraded to a Porsche transmission and an eight-cylinder Corvette engine, which he placed behind the cockpit. The computer-generated car weighs just 2,590 pounds, so the 350 horses yank it forward like a jet engine. The car hits 30 miles per hour in a little more than a second.

The MT900 has some remnants of Mosler's geeky past. The drab dashboard looks no fancier than that of a Neon, and the six headlights look as if they were pulled from the tops of flashlights. The lightweight body makes for a noisy ride, and the interior is far removed from the luxury of Italian sports cars, says Walton, whose Motortrend article is due on stands May 6. "People who will buy them have a garage of cars already. This is more about having the fastest car out there than having the nicest one," Walton says.

Mosler has never been one to sweat the details, Martyak says. The car is designed to drive like a race car, but not necessarily to cut a colorful figure floating down the freeway. "What we're trying to do is duplicate what you get on the racetrack on the highway," Martyak says.

All right, but it may be time to upgrade the office. Maybe Mosler could relocate the low-end used car dealership that's tacked onto the building like a line of laundry off the back of a tenement apartment building. For now, visitors have to snake through a parking lot of old Chevys and Fords to get to the showroom where the MT900 sits like a purring fighter jet at the lee end of an aircraft carrier runway.

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