BRATISLAVA (Reuters) - Cleaning cars at a gas station near Washington D.C. in the late 1980s, Dick Kvetnansky spotted something weird. A yellow Ferrari Testarossa rolled in, but its engine sounded more like a Chevrolet.
It was a fake. It gave the Slovak an idea.
He started making fake Ferraris and Lamborghinis — his first was a yellow Testarossa — and spent several years trying to mimic the world’s top sports car makers. A few were used in Hollywood crashes.
But Ferrari cracked down, saying he was harming their image. The Italian company made him shut down his replica business and forced him to enter a kit car market with a new design.
Making roadster kits built on a Honda Accord frame that a crafty teenager could assemble in a garage was profitable.
Many small companies also supply kits allowing enthusiasts to recreate replicas of desirable sports cars like the AC Cobra — a performance legend now beyond the pockets of all but the rich.
Then Kvetnansky realized he could make an original sports car. Now the entrepreneur, backed by about 150 million crowns ($8 million) from Slovak investment firm CI Holding, is hoping to take on the likes of Lamborghini with a wholly original roadster, the K-1 Attack. And he is nothing if not brazen.
“Before, Attack looked fast only when standing on a parking lot. Now, I call out any Porsche, any Ferrari for a challenge,” he said.
Kvetnansky hopes Attack’s fresh look — a shape born in a Bratislava sushi restaurant where Slovak designer Juraj Mitro first drew its curves on a napkin in 1997 — will entice people looking for something beyond the mainstream.
If Slovakia does not usually come to mind in terms of innovative auto design, the top designer at Volkswagen’s Skoda Auto is a Slovak: Jozef Kaban designed the 1 million euro, 1,000 horsepower Bugatti Veyron.
And while carmakers have rushed to central Europe — particularly Slovakia — in the last decade to pump out mass-produced family cars for the growing middle class, Kvetnansky’s firm, K-1 Engineering, is an exception.
Rather than offering a low-cost substitute for well-known sports cars, Kvetnansky is aiming for the top of the market and hopes to attract wealthy car aficionados willing to pay a sizeable sum for something new.
“The Attack kit was so successful that even people like U.S. doctors or dentists bought it. They were hiring firms to assemble the car, paying big money,” he said. “So we thought we can do the same and become a real small sports car maker.”
The company has sold about 120 Attack kits in the past, mainly in the United States, for around $20,000 each. But Kvetnansky decided to go for an upgrade and take on the biggest names in the high performance segment.
“When you put the pedal to the floor, you’ll be shocked what a kick in the back you get,” he said, standing near a black panther-shaped Attack body in his workshop.
Some analysts say his car still needs more power, a better luxury feeling and some common features to face Ferrari or Porsche, but it can still find buyers.
“The concept is great, the car looks great and I think it has a future,” said Ben Arnold, who reviewed the car earlier this year for German Auto Bild magazine, adding the Attack could compete with cheaper Lotus cars.
But in Europe’s low-volume sports car landscape, which is dotted with specialized firms such as Britain’s Morgan or Caterham, he said its positioning should be re-considered.
The Attack comes in at the high end on price and it is not the fastest off the block.
Its Ford 242 horsepower engine takes it from zero to 100 km/h in 5.1 seconds, slower than the 218 brake horse power Lotus Elise SC roadster and Ferrari’s 483 bhp F430 Spider, which have acceleration of 4.6 and 4.1 seconds.
But although it is half the price of a Ferrari, the two-seat roadster is not a budget car: on offer for around 70,000 euros ($110,100) before taxes in Europe that puts it well above the Lotus, which fetches around 32,550 pounds ($63,620) in Britain.
Auto Bild’s Arnold thinks the car should either have a lower price or a lot more horsepower. “It also has no ABS (anti-lock braking system) and this is a handicap,” he said. “People want real sports cars but they do not want to have stress.”
Kvetnansky, who hopes to build up to 40 Attacks this year and up to 120 in 2009, says he will comply and offer ABS, airbags and other features and plans more variants.
K-1, in the red since pushing away from kit cars in 2005, has to sell 2.6 cars a month to break even, a goal Kvetnansky said he hopes to achieve this year.
That number compares with Ferrari’s 6,000 per year output, but half the 2008 Attacks have already been ordered.
“The only problem is that the brand is not really known in Europe,” said Oliver Brinkmann, who sells Attack alongside BMWs and Audis.
Still, Dutch businessman Frank Berbee is convinced. He plonked down 90,000 euros after seeing the unknown brand at a Paris car show.
“I have tested the Z350 from Nissan, the Audi TT and the Mazda RX8... but then I saw K-1,” said Berbee, 51.
“It was almost double the price but it is unbelievable.”
Editing by Sara Ledwith