Opinion: Florida is America's Turin

Jo Borras
by Jo Borras

Have you ever played the Florida Man birthday game? It’s simple enough – you type “Florida man” into Google, followed by your birthday, then read the headlines. Hilarity ensues (“Half-Nude Florida Man Wearing Underwear Marked ‘Breathalyzer, Blow Here’ Arrested for DUI,” is mine, in case you’re curious). But there are a few other “Florida Man” headlines you might find interesting, from an automotive perspective. Headlines like, “Florida Man Builds World-beating Supercar”.

You might think that’s a line about my personal hero, Warren Mosler, who built the Consulier over in Riviera Beach – and it very well might be! The thing is, it might also refer to the guys at Everett-Morrison outside of Tampa, who built some really slick, high-end Cobra replicas to spite the notion that “kit car” was still a bad word. It could also refer to Piero Rivolta, who designed the Grifo 90 supercar out in Sarasota. Check Beck, the father of the Ford Shogun – an absolutely wild, mid-engine Ford Festiva – was also a Florida guy, and they are just the tip of the automotive iceberg.

Join me, then, as I dust out the old brain attic and see if I can’t convince you of this one simple truth that I’ve always believed: That Florida is the American Turin.

DON’T KNOW ABOUT THE FUTURE BUT THE PAST KEEPS GETTING CLEARER EVERY DAY

At some point in the 1990s, and probably fueled by whatever was left of the cocaine cowboys’ fortunes, Florida was awash with fledgling supercar companies whose products were absolutely iconic to the gearheads of Generation X.

Up in Jacksonville, for example, a company called Megatech had just completed a hostile takeover of Gerry Weigert’s Vector. Upon discovering that the Weigert’s car was a far cry from the fully conceived supercar it had been marketed as, the company spent $40 million to buy Lamborghini from Chrysler, made a Vector-esque body kit to fit the Lamborghini Diablo frame, and the Vector M12 was born.

Not too far away, in Sarasota, Piero Rivolta was working to launch his Grifo 90 with some help from Reeves Callaway – but he was also busy bringing another one of his family’s business operations to Florida. This one, Zagato, you have definitely heard of.

Straight across the state and just south of Cape Canaveral, Renaissance Cars was trying their hand at building a lightweight, sporty, all-electric roadster called the Tropica. Fully 16 of the sporty-looking two-seaters were produced and a few of them were sold through Don Mealey Chevrolet in Claremont.

A bit further south, we find another, far more iconic car – the “Bad-Ass Benz”, Car and Driver’s Dec. 1998 cover car. That wild machine was a V12-powered W210 Mercedes E class packing 620 horsepower and a top speed that a dark fate would limit to 198 mph, and no more, was built in Lake Park, Florida by Hartmut Feyhl and the Steve Jones at RENNtech, a shop I would later work at and which, to this day, builds some of the most powerful, thoroughly considered hyper-sedans in the world.

Mere blocks from RENNtech, George Balaschak was busy with TLC Carrosiers. You may not have heard of George, but he built one of the most beautiful cars the world has ever seen – the Talbo. Inspired by the classic Talbot-Lago shape, the car was, nevertheless, an original design. The great Strother McMinn once called the Talbo, “truly a work of art, fully representing the heritage of the classic French shapes.” George was a super-knowledgeable guy, too, and had one of the largest CNC mills on the East Coast.

That last part was a fact that just about every would-be supercar and powerboat builder in Florida seemed to be keenly aware of – including another well-known supercar-type guy made use of, more than once. No, I’m still not talking about Mosler. This time I’m talking about Frank Rinderknecht. Frank’s real name may not be famous, but you might know him better as “Rinspeed”.

Despite calling himself a Swiss carmaker, Rinspeed’s Yello Talbo and Mono Ego were born at TLC – and those are just the two that I can speak directly to. Rinspeed’s E-Go Rocket, Advantage R, and Tattoo concepts all have that same sort of George Balaschak vibe, to me (it’s the Hyundai lighting – George was always a big fan), but those were after my time, so I wouldn’t know. What I do know is that I reconnected with Frank again in 2008, when he was in Florida (naturally) with his Lotus Elise-based submersible concept, the sQuba.

Frank walked right into RENNtech, looking for Hartmut to answer some car question or other (that was, perhaps unsurprisingly, a common enough thing for people to do). And, if you know your Florida geography, you probably also know that Warren Mosler’s shop – now owned by Rossion – was just about a mile down the road, and Carroll Shelby, John Lingenfelter Sr., and Niki Lauda were just a few of the colorful characters that wandered in there from time to time.

That’s what made Florida in those years such a wild place. It’s exactly like what I imagine Turin would have been like, with Lamborghini, Maserati, and Ferrari – to say nothing of Bizzarrini, DeTomaso, or ATS – all within spitting distance of each other, trading talent, moving and shaking, and trying to see who would end up where in the ultimate pecking order. It was great fun for a young gearhead, and I was very, very lucky to have laid hands on most of the cars mentioned in this article.

That said, to say that I view that era with rose-colored glasses is a bit of an understatement. You’re the Best and Brightest, though, so you can tell me how it is. Was Florida some kind of weird, American supercar Mecca back then, or did Florida Man stumble onto Cocaine Island, dig up the bags, then read too many Car and Driver magazines on the flight back from Culebra? Head on down to the comments section and lay some truth on me.

[Image: Ingo70/Shutterstock.com]

Jo Borras
Jo Borras

I've been in and around the auto industry since 1997, and have written for a number of well-known outlets like Cleantechnica, the Truth About Cars, Popular Mechanics, and more. You can also find me talking EVs with Matt Teske and Chris DeMorro on the Electrify Expo Podcast, writing about Swedish cars on my Volvo fan site, or chasing my kids around Oak Park.

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  • Dal20402 Dal20402 on Nov 03, 2021

    Florida Car, 1980: Screaming chicken Trans Am, meth in glovebox Florida Car, 1990: Triple white C4 Corvette, coke on console Florida Car, 2000: Lifted Ford Excursion, several cases of Red Bull in the back Florida Car, 2010: Clapped-out Equinox with Pep Boys portholes, bath salts randomly in the floor Florida Car, 2020: Duramax Silverado on 37s tuned to roll coal, meth in glovebox

    • See 4 previous
    • Lou_BC Lou_BC on Nov 04, 2021

      @dal20402 - my bad. I just assumed it was a deep south thing.

  • Mopar4wd Mopar4wd on Nov 04, 2021

    Can't say much about super cars but I have a feeling it's the same as why all the boat builders are down there (beside the year round customer base). For a long time if you built a business and made some money or just made some money at someone else's business and wanted to do your own thing FL, was kind of the promised land. No snow, cheap real-estate (away from the water) cheap taxes, cheap labor. So you ran a trucking company in NJ and made a few mil, it's 1978 so what do you do? Load up the wife kids and mistress drive to Miami buy a boat, get annoyed with boat start your own boat company and so it starts.

  • Dartdude They need to rebrand the models, The standard model should be Wagoneer and long version should be Grand Wagoneer. There should offer the Ram Rev powertrain in these
  • Irvingklaws Seems more like they're adopting Honda styling queues. Now if they would just adopt their reliability...
  • FreedMike "Obsidian Edition."Oooooh, obsidian is really, really hard stuff.
  • John The awesome Infiniti G series saved this company 20 years ago, but they are right back on track to obsolescence. (yawn)
  • Teddyc73 White with black wheels, I'm so sick of. Or dull grey and black wheels. Just stop.
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