By on March 30, 2017

A striking neo-classic, the 1985 Armaretta

Initially, I drove to Penmar Golf Course expecting to find a Rolls-Royce.

My partner Leslie (a fine car spotter herself and the originator of the “Parked in Drive” name) mentioned seeing a swoopy car with a “flying lady” radiator mascot parked there for sale. When I pulled into the parking lot and saw this tan-on-brown behemoth, it was clear the Rolls was gone, replaced by something far more fascinating.

All the typical cues — separate fenders, landau top, whitewall tires — indicating a classic car also placed it in that most self-contradictory of categories: “Neo-Classic.” The coupe’s “bustle-back” trunk initially reminded me of the last Cadillac design approved by Bill Mitchell, the second-generation Cadillac Seville (which, in turn, took inspiration from the mid-1930s “Razor Edge” Bentley), and gave me a useful spread of dates to search: 1980-1985.

Three alternate angles on the 1985 Armaretta

A closer look at the trunk revealed the unknown automobile’s badge: “Armaretta,” a name to match the coupe’s mocha latte hue. A single pinstripe separated the tan trapezoid of a trunk from the protruding brown fenders. Looking at the Amaretta’s side profile a few steps away revealed the dominant influence in the car’s design: The 1936-1937 “Coffin-Nose” Cord 810. Following the chrome strip that peeks out behind the front fender, you’ll find six other (mostly) straight strips that outline the “coffin” of Gordon Beuhrig’s groundbreaking 1935 design, though it must be mentioned the Cord’s grille goes about its business in a more elegant manner. The peak of the Amaretta’s hood comes to a narrow point considering the legacy engine fitted underneath, with the front end accentuated by a humble flick of the opponent-color pinstripe and a golden lowercase “a” badge.

The genuine article: A 1937 Cord 812 Supercharged Phaeton at the 2017 Arizona Concours

The genuine article: A 1937 Cord 812 Supercharged Phaeton at the 2017 Arizona Concours

While I drove home to research the lineage of this mid-1980s neo-classic, I considered the conditions in which it existed. I have to believe it started a decade prior with the mid-1970s Colonial Revival movement. As America celebrated its 200th birthday in 1976 with an economy just coming off a stagnant recession, its people naturally looked backwards to a time when patriotic bravado really meant something. This nostalgia manifested itself architecturally in the faux-columns that guarded the front doors of 1970s suburban homes; their living rooms invariably wood-paneled; their plates commemorative.

With the look backwards in architecture came an inevitable revival of classic automobiles. While nobody wanted to wind the clock back to the days of the horse and carriage, the period of art-deco automobile design between the late 1920s and the start of World War II was deemed worthy of a second look. By the 1970s, Brooks Stevens’ Excalibur — the undisputed godfather of the neo-classic movement — was already in its third generation. It was soon joined by a reborn Stutz Motor Car of America (1970) along with upstarts Clénet Coachworks (1975) and Zimmer Motor Car Co (1978). The Elite Heritage Motors Corp (1978) translated its historical influences literally, leaving many casual observers unable to tell a Duesenberg II from an original unless they tapped the front fender and found it to be fiberglass instead of steel. The first batch of replica Porsche 356 Speedsters were completed in 1975 by Automobili Intermeccanica, which shows the urge to revisit the past wasn’t limited to luxury cars. (Check out this Canadian car website for a timeline featuring more neo-classics than you probably ever knew existed.)

The Armaretta's main competition, a 1981 Clenet (top) and a "Gazelle" of unknown vintage (bottom)

The Armaretta’s main competition in-period, a 1981 Clenet (top) and a “Gazelle” of unknown vintage (bottom)

Taking another step back: The idea of driving a classic automobile with modern underpinnings is one that never really went out of fashion. The finished product may be labeled an “outlaw,” or a “tribute,” or — worse still — a “replicar,” but the desire to enjoy retro styling while still keeping the convenience and capability implied by a modern powertrain unites every one of these low-production builders of nostalgia. This trend still exists today, with modern interpretations of Toyota’s venerable Land Cruiser by Jonathan Ward’s ICON and Porsche’s iconic 911 by Rob Dickinson’s Singer Vehicle Design, proving buyers still want to have the best of both worlds.

So, where does the Armaretta fit into all of this? Founded in 1983, the Lerini Coach Corporation of Reseda, California produced its first prototype car in 1985, 10 years after the first wave of neo-classics. Like Clénet and Intermeccanica, Lerini took advantage of the skilled workforce in Southern California; designers and hot rodders who knew how to mold fiberglass into classic shapes. Built by Ed Matula, the designer of the 1971 Talon GT sports car, at Bill Matthews shop in Ventura, California, the prototype Armaretta was actually made from two cars — a Ford Pinto was chopped and stretched over a Chevrolet Malibu chassis. The mixing of engine and body didn’t bode well for ongoing reliability, and the company moved to a Pontiac Sunbird/Chevy Malibu combination when it came time for production. According to Matula, that decision was also customer-driven, as Lerini received many requests for convertibles, and the prototype Pinto body “did not fit the bill.”

A period photo of the Armaretta prototype (right) posted by builder Ed Matula

A period photo of the Armaretta prototype (right) posted by builder Ed Matula

Looking at photographs of the prototype Armaretta, you can see the fabric top is merely a tonneau cover — a trick that customizers usually employ when they are trying to mask alterations in the body. Knowing that the Armaretta is a mashup of Pinto and Malibu makes more sense. From the firewall back, the Pinto’s body shell wasn’t significantly altered to make the Armaretta coupe. Granted, the expansive glass hatchback (the Pinto “Runabout” model’s star feature) has been subbed out for a Seville-style trunk, and the Pinto’s hood has been stretched to fit the Malibu frame, its subtle fenders festooned with fiberglass.

Whether you think the Armaretta prototype “works” comes down to whether you think the mishmash of material ingredients and influences compliment one another. I’m inclined to believe the original Pinto never got its due. That same argument could be made for the first class of American sub-compact cars, all of which look like collectors items now. Using a Pinto as a base to build a Cord 810 knockoff is an odd compliment, one that was slightly negated by Lerini’s decision to move to the larger 1985 Chevrolet Cavalier body for its $49,000 production car.

Sadly, Lerini’s customers only purchased an estimated 30 Armaretta coupes, convertibles, and sedans, and the company reportedly folded in 1988. The alleged culprit behind the bankruptcy was the Armaretta’s extreme asking price; $50,000 could have nearly purchased a Mercedes-Benz 560 SEL in 1985. And yet, this criticism seems harsh — low-volume custom cars are always going to be expensive, whether they’re built by Stutz in 1987 or Singer in 2017. A theoretical customer in 1985 would be cross-shopping the Armaretta against the Fiero-based Zimmer Quicksilver for the same price.

The famed Zimmer Quicksilver of Olympic Blvd. in Los Angeles

The famed Zimmer Quicksilver of Olympic Blvd. in Los Angeles

Even if I wouldn’t’ve personally invested in a brand-new Armaretta (or even a gently used one), I must admit any prototype that can survive (and drive) three decades after it was built is impressive.

A few days after I saw the Armaretta parked at the golf course, I was walking on Washington Blvd. in Culver City and saw an oddly proportioned, two-tone brown shape driving towards me. Of course, it was the Armaretta prototype. I was too stunned to take a photograph, but I believe it to be a good omen regardless. If the Armaretta is up and running around West L.A., I stand a good chance of seeing it again. And if I do, you’ll be the first to know.

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52 Comments on “Parked In Drive: 1985 Lerini Armaretta Prototype...”


  • avatar
    Syke

    Proof that when you put enough time and effort into a project, you lose all objectivity regarding the desirability of the finished item.

    I can’t believe he got this far without seeing how ugly it was becoming.

  • avatar
    stars9texashockey

    I think that the Monte Carlo tail lights and Granada headlamps are worth mentioning!

    • 0 avatar

      Great spot – as blocky as they are, those Granada headlamps might actually help with aerodynamics. I’ve always heard that, even though they look sleek, fully separate fenders actually interfere with air flow rather than aid it. Thanks for reading!

  • avatar
    Corey Lewis

    How are we sure it’s actually a prototype one, and not one of the thirty-odd models which were made for customers? The color seems to be the only piece of evidence to that effect, and that’s pretty shaky.

    • 0 avatar
      FreedMike

      It doesn’t matter. All of them deserve to be killed with fire.

    • 0 avatar
      Corey Lewis

      Other pedantry:

      -The window aft-b-pillar is different on this one than the grey one on the used sale link. The grey one has a rectangular window rather than this fuller, sweeping one.

      -The white one in the Hooniverse article has this same window line, but cheap Cavalier door handles.

      -The used one for sale has the cheap door handles and a rectangle window behind the door.

      I have no good answers.

    • 0 avatar
      Scoutdude

      The production cars didn’t get Pinto bodies so that pretty much seals it.

      • 0 avatar
        Corey Lewis

        So the black one for sale then, is also a prototype?

        • 0 avatar
          Scoutdude

          The black and silver one on the used car dealer’s website is clearly a Cavalier sedan body. The coupe and convert in the Hooniverse article are also clearly Cavalier bodies. The sedan looks like a Cavalier sedan body with a stretch in the middle.

          The featured car and the shot of the prototype clearly show the extreme curvature of the Pinto door, the unaltered Pinto quarter window and the trunk following the rake of the Pinto body, with the added fenders giving it a bit of the Seville bustle back look. The other cars have a 3 box look since they are based on the Cavalier.

          • 0 avatar

            Hey, Corey – I appreciate your urge to take a closer look. It seems to me the black Armaretta is a production landau coupe with a fixed head, while the white car posted on Hooniverse is a production cabriolet.

            The way I was taught to verify vehicle identities was to look at the proportions and wheelbase – you can always re-paint a car and add different accessories. The distance to compare here is from the back of the door handles to the front of the rear fender. You can see on both production Armarettas that the distance is much longer than on the car I spotted, which makes sense given they’re riding on the stretched Chevy Malibu chassis.

            Thanks for reading and thanks to Scoutdude for the explanation!

          • 0 avatar
            Corey Lewis

            Thanks, I am only 2% suspicious now!

          • 0 avatar
            Coopdeville

            Once you see the Pinto body you cannot unsee it.

            Comparatively speaking that Zimmer is a work of art.

          • 0 avatar
            bumpy ii

            This. I didn’t even read the article before deciding the car was some sort of Pimpto.

          • 0 avatar
            FreedMike

            I actually kinda dig the Zimmer. Clearly they were channeling the ’67 Eldorado, and anyone who does that has my FreedMike Seal of Approval.

    • 0 avatar
      cdotson

      When you make 30-odd vehicles over 3+ years, they’re all prototypes.

    • 0 avatar
      dal20402

      You’re too young! Both of the cars visually scream the donor car. Pinto for the prototype, J-body for the production car.

  • avatar
    OldManPants

    Yimminy! If AMC had tried to make a Cord.

  • avatar
    Thorshammer_gp

    Both the name and the appearance make it look like something out of the Grand Theft Auto series.

    On a related note, my first exposure to the whole neo-classic thing came one summer in high school when I was working at the parking lots for the College World Series. Someone rolled up in a Corvette that resembled a late ’50s model but very definitely had the C5 interior and wheels. I had no idea that such a thing could be done (or, for that matter, why anyone would pay actual money to do so), but it was certainly an introduction to one of the weirdest segments of car enthusiasm (IMO).

    • 0 avatar
      Land Ark

      Growing up in the late 80s someone on my bus ride home had an Excalibur street parked that I was physically unable to not stare at every time we would pass it.

      The first custom I encountered like the Vette you’re talking was in about 1995 at a large car show when I first encountered a newer Thunderbird with ’49 Ford front and rear ends grafted on.
      There was a while where you couldn’t go to a car show without seeing one.

      http://4.bp.blogspot.com/-CNq_cDdXGTE/Ucy7U8N0DxI/AAAAAAAAAcY/DUeL5daEkXo/s1600/tbirdkitfrontquarter.jpg

      • 0 avatar
        Corey Lewis

        Oh good lord! Where is Vincent?!

      • 0 avatar
        Thorshammer_gp

        Weird as it is to say, that’s actually *almost* tasteful in a way…not to say that it’s necessarily good, but it works much better than the description makes it sound. The Corvette treatment was much more ill-fitting, as the “classic” body panel shapes didn’t stretch well at all over the underlying shape of the C5. The GM parts-bin door handles didn’t help the effect much, either.

        http://georgeshinnclassiccars.com/wp/wp-content/uploads/2015/07/2004a.jpg

        • 0 avatar

          @Thorshammer_gp – the funny thing is, “Armaretta” sounds exactly like the sort of non-name they would use in the GTA series. Bet it would be slow as hell to boot.

          In general, I think the rule with Neo-Classics is that the less you can recognize the donor car, the better the effect of the conversion. When you’re talking about grafting on hoods and trunks, it starts looking like a Beverly Hills nose job pretty fast…

  • avatar
    FreedMike

    My eyes! They burn!

    And the missing piece of chrome on the side door of the Zimmer really makes the design.

    (Great story, Forest.)

    • 0 avatar

      Thank you, Mike! Much appreciated and more to come!

    • 0 avatar

      I threw up in my mouth when I saw this, but good article and comments.

    • 0 avatar
      TheDoctorIsOut

      Thanks for posting the photo of the Quicksilver, I drive past that too nearly every day. Thankfully it wasn’t successful enough by itself to consume many Pontiac Fiero donors,but it still intrigues me enough that I want to knock on the door one of these days and see if he’ll take an offer for it. Yes, it’s gauche but it looks different enough from Eldorados to almost stand up on its own design merits. And, the under hood front trunk must be impressively enormous.

      • 0 avatar

        Hey, thanks, DoctorIsOut! I’ve passed the Olympic Quicksilver many times and only recently stopped to photograph it. The missing chrome strip sort of makes it look like it has gullwing doors, which would be righteous.

        As a friend recently said, if the Zimmer is parked outside – wonder what’s hiding in the garage!

  • avatar
    doublechili

    If they had opted for a sedan rather than a wagon, I could totally see Chevy Chase driving that monstrosity in the “Vacation” movie series.

    [I guess it’s a coupe – it’s hard to get a good look while simultaneously averting your eyes.]

  • avatar
    Heino

    Hideous. I want one with Corinthian leather and a humidor.

  • avatar
    dukeisduke

    Wow that thing is ugly. It’s why they invented mobile crushers.

  • avatar

    “A Ford Pinto was chopped and stretched over a Chevrolet Malibu chassis”

    That pretty much sums it up right there. Hard to believe it could go downhill any further, even though the Pinto was used for a lot of these types of cars.

  • avatar
    dividebytube

    This look definitely appeals to a certain age. When I went to my cousin’s wedding – a decade ago? – someone rolled up in an Excalibur or some type of of neo-classical kit car, or whatever it was.

    My dad – born during WW2 – thought it was the coolest thing ever and wouldn’t stop talking about it.

    I thought it was hideous.

  • avatar
    BoogerROTN

    This car absolutely screams “Brewster’s Millions.”

  • avatar
    Acd

    No list of ugliest or worst cars will truly be complete until this is on it.

  • avatar

    Every Gazelle needs to be burned.

  • avatar
    Johnster

    I was positive that this was going to be based on the ’81 to ’83 Chrysler Imperial (the one that used the Plymouth Volare/Dodge Aspen chassis).

  • avatar
    Flipper35

    One thing missing form the article is Glen Pray and his second generation Auburn 851/866 that was built from the 60s to the 80s (I think the 80s). Glen owned Auburn/Cord/Duesenberg at the time and were considered generational and not replicas.

    They were among the most elegant looking of those types.

    • 0 avatar

      Thanks for the info, Flipper35 – I had not heard of the “second-generation” Auburn speedster. Funny how those are considered ACD canon, while I don’t know anyone who would consider the Virgil Exner Bugatti 101C or Stutz continuations to be “generational.” Interesting distinction.

  • avatar
    The_Imperialist

    I believe this posted a day too soon.


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