MODENA, Italy - For the intimate community of boutique automakers in and around this northern Italian town, the arrival of a family of San Francisco car dealers has created a commotion.
Bruce Qvale and his family will sell $82,000 Qvale Mangusta sports cars built in Modena, Italy, in the USA.
The Qvales, including father Kjell and sons Bruce and Jeff, will sell their locally assembled, $82,000 Qvale Mangusta sports car in the USA with the same flair that took the senior Qvale from a penniless Norwegian immigrant to owner of six dealerships in the San Francisco area. Their company, Qvale Automotive Group, plans to build, distribute, market, sell and provide aftersales service on all Ford-powered Mangusta convertibles sold in the USA. In Europe, franchised dealers will handle the small percentage of cars expected to stay there. Sales already have begun.
The Qvales hope eventually to sell vehicles on the Internet and service them though three existing factory-owned outlets in San Francisco; Beverly Hills, California; Fort Lauderdale, Florida; and one yet to be established in New York.
Except for Fiat-owned Ferrari, the exotic vehicle builders that have gravitated to this broad valley between the Apennines and the Italian Alps over the past half-century have lacked the resources or the will to take responsibility for every aspect of their high-end products. Dreamers with little business experience but big hopes to become the next Enzo Ferrari have run many of these companies into bankruptcy.
Qvale's experiment has caught the attention of the more permanent community of designers, engineers and suppliers who cater to these tiny companies, which tend to blossom and then wither with changes in the global economic climate.
Vaccari & Bosi Srl of Modena, the small firm that assembles chassis by hand for Ferrari, Lamborghini and Maserati, has invested heavily in dedicated tooling and workshop space to make the steel frame for the Mangusta.
Giordano Casarini, a Modena native who worked in the engine departments of both Ferrari and Maserati, was lured to Qvale this year as chief engineer. 'The Qvales are true businesspeople,'' he said. 'Our neighbors are watching us.'
To the Italians, the wealthy Qvales probably seem more substantial than some of the other dubiously funded entrepreneurs who have come to this valley. They preside over a dominion that includes dealerships selling a mix of high-end European brands plus Honda, Nissan, Subaru and Dodge. Since 1947, they claim to have retailed more than 1 million cars.
Kjell Qvale, 80, was the first distributor of MGs and Volkswagen Beetles on the US west coast. He was also once an automaker with the ill-fated Jensen-Healy. Between 1970 and 1976, 11,000 were built before disagreements with British labor unions closed the factory.
So far, the Qvales have almost $30 million invested into the Mangusta. That includes paying for a two-year development program to make the chassis compliant with European and US crash regulations and buying a workshop on the outskirts of Modena. Production began in November, and a few cars already have reached customers.
The Qvales bought in to the project in 1998 under a licensing agreement with DeTomaso Modena SpA, the small Modenese company that created the original 1996 Geneva auto show concept car.
Qvale planned to build the Mangusta and distribute it in the USA. However, the deal fell apart when squabbling erupted over distribution rights in Europe and licensing revenue from nonautomotive accessories.
Bruce Qvale, 40, said the company someday may take on franchised dealers, but he wants to get the Mangusta on a firm financial footing first.
'We're not trying to cut dealers out, but right now I don't have to pay a dealer margin, and that helps us a lot,' he said.
Bruce Qvale added that the company will be profitable selling 450 cars a year. He hopes to build up to 1,000 cars annually in the former key factory. By comparison, Qvale's neighbors, Ferrari, Maserati and Lamborghini, build about 3,600, 2,000 and 250 cars a year, respectively.