A Dream Weaver Threads Together the Best of 3 Classic Chevys

04/15/07 - The New York Times

By DON SHERMAN

 

FRED KANTER deserves a lifetime pass to the New York auto show.

His first trip to the show, in 1958, was the pilgrimage of “a car-struck 13-year-old” from New Jersey, Mr. Kanter recalled in a recent interview.

“Shortly after a friend and I arrived by train from Morris Plains, I was transfixed by the Dual-Ghia 400 concept on display,” he said. “It was absolutely breathtaking, very imaginative and the most stunning car I’d ever seen.”

The car had been created as a design study by Ghia, the Italian coachbuilder, for Dual Motors, a limited-edition car builder in Detroit. Dual-Ghias gained visibility with celebrity owners like Frank Sinatra and his Rat Pack pals.

Alex Freeman, a New Jersey machine shop owner who had come to the auto show in search of a family car, was also moved by the Dual-Ghia 400. All thoughts of shopping for a new Ford or Chevy were swept aside by Mr. Freeman’s realization that he “must have that car.” Hearing that, his wife shuffled the couple’s eight-year-old daughter to another display, explaining that daddy needed time by himself.

By the time Mrs. Freeman returned, her husband had convinced Gene Casaroll, president of Dual Motors, to sell the car on display for $15,000, at least twice the price of a new Cadillac. Delivery was postponed to let the car finish its tour of auto shows.

Nearly 20 years later, Mr. Kanter heard that the concept car was for sale. A deal was struck the same day and by that evening, the dream machine was parked in the Kanter garage.

Never intending to hide his prize, Mr. Kanter has often displayed the car in the classics section at the New York show. Gregg D. Merksamer, the show’s historian and author of “A History of the New York International Auto Show” (Lionheart Books, 2000) said he thought no other car had topped the Dual-Ghia’s number of appearances at the show.

This year Mr. Kanter enjoyed the show — which ends today — from both sides of the velvet ropes, as a spectator and an exhibitor. His own design showcase, a two-seat convertible called the 789 that gathers up Chevrolet’s Greatest Hits of the 1950s, is displayed near the entrance to the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center.

The roadster, painted a brilliant two-tone blue, combines the front end of a ’57 Bel Air, the center of a ’58 Impala and the rear of a ’59. It drew crowds of gawkers, many of whom stopped for snapshots. And those most taken by the 789 are able to order their own — for $135,000, the new owners can have their 789 painted and trimmed to their liking.

Mr. Kanter’s car, which can be seen at n2amotors.com, is built on the chassis of a sixth-generation Corvette. It is 4 inches wider, 11 inches longer and 150 pounds heavier than a stock Corvette convertible.

Building a few dozen 789s a year is merely the tip of Mr. Kanter’s iceberg. His main business is Kanter Auto Products, a source of hard-to-find parts for vintage cars in need of a replacement ball joint or brake drum.

Mr. Kanter’s auto entrepreneurship began taking shape at age 15. While helping friends haul home a ’32 Plymouth for a hot-rod project, he spotted a ’37 Packard resting forlornly near a gas station in Branchville, N. J. When the $35 Plymouth deal fell through, the group’s interest shifted to the Packard, which had an asking price of $50.

“Between us we had enough money for a deposit,” he said. “It wasn’t running, so we towed it home, fixed the engine and sold the spare parts stashed in its back seat for more than our initial investment.”

While visiting dealers for the parts he needed to repair his Packard, Mr. Kanter learned that a hubcap might cost $8 and a door handle $12 but, since Packard had gone out of business, a dealer might have two truck loads of spare parts he would be happy to unload for $100.

Every Packard dealer’s junk soon became Mr. Kanter’s gold. In 1960, he bought the parts inventory of a dealer in Henderson, Pa. Like a grapevine, his operations spread along the East Coast, then extended west to Detroit and beyond. While attending Lehigh University, where he earned degrees in industrial engineering and applied sciences, Fred and his brother Dan sold parts to the Packard needy using Fred’s college address. Various storage sites, including their parents’ basement, housed the inventory.

Today, Mr. Kanter said, the vintage parts business is a $15 million operation with 65 employees and 150,000 square feet of warehouse space in Boonton, N.J. “We stock everything a Packard dealer would have offered from a clock hand to a new frame,” he said. “And we’re still buying inventory from anyone interested in disposing of their stock.

“One of the largest purchases we made was from the Packard importer in Mexico. In the late 1950s, the factory ordered the local person responsible for parts to dispose of obsolete merchandise. Instead, he hid the spares for more than 20 years. When the son of his housemaid offered us the chance to purchase that inventory, we bought two 40-foot oceangoing containers full of parts.”

While Mr. Kanter’s first Packard is long gone, he and his brother still own the three-tone 1956 Caribbean convertible he bought in 1966 — plus four more Caribbeans and 25 other Packards.

The Kanter brothers both left their day jobs in 1971 to concentrate on the vintage parts business. They soon realized that Packard alone could not support them, so they added Buick and then branched out to cover all American cars built after 1930. Mr. Kanter said it was not unusual for him to buy 20 truckloads of old stock at once.

Not all of what the Kanter brothers sell comes from the shelves of auto dealers’ parts departments; they produce replacement parts as well. “We also have thousands of parts manufactured in Asia, India and South America,” Mr. Kanter said. “Our inventory of 70,000 part numbers runs the gamut from engine parts to rubber trim to chassis parts.”

Tapping into the muscle car craze, the Kanters also own Performance Suspension Technology, which sells firmer chassis bushings, larger antiroll bars and kits to convert drum brakes to discs.

Mr. Kanter’s concept-car quest came full circle four years ago, when he was searching for a company capable of building a small run of show car clones he could sell to car enthusiasts. His research revealed that a candidate for his business — the West Coast design studio operated by MSX International, a business, engineering and personnel services conglomerate — was closing. Mr. Kanter bought MSX’s equipment and assumed its lease, making a grand leap from the East Coast to the West Coast — and from servicing antiques to designing and building futuristic cars.

A chance encounter with George Kerbeck, an Atlantic City Chevrolet dealer, provided Mr. Kanter’s next inspiration. “Kerbeck was about to chop up 1957, 1958 and 1959 Chevrolets to create the ultimate 1950s icon,” he recalled. “I asked him to wait 30 minutes for our input. After a quick call to Kanter Concepts on the West Coast, my designer, Terrence Robinson, responded via fax with a sketch. Kerbeck preferred our design to his original concept.”

That particular project did not directly result in a sale.

Last year Mr. Kanter’s West Coast operation purchased a new Chevrolet Corvette and stripped off its fiberglass skin to create the 789 shown in that sketch.

“This was the one time where three successive model year designs carried over nothing other than round wheels from their predecessors,” Mr. Kanter said. “It also represents something of a high-water mark for G.M., if not American, styling.”

Sculpturing the 789’s shape and converting the full-size clay model to molds and the first set of carbon-fiber-reinforced body panels required 14 weeks of intense effort. Mr. Kanter’s baby made its debut last fall at the Specialty Equipment Market Association show in Las Vegas and was displayed at four other shows before arriving in New York.

“I founded Kanter Concepts to help keep America’s love affair with the automobile alive,” Mr. Kanter said. “I modeled the company after Italy’s Carrozzeria Ghia, which, in its day, was one of the world’s foremost design and low-volume manufacturing enterprises.

“My goal is to tap the gold mine of design cues invented by Detroit to touch the soul of the American consumer,” he said. “I want to trigger buried emotions the same way a hint of perfume recalls a long-lost love. Hopefully, our efforts will help the U.S. auto industry reclaim the eminence it deserves.”