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North Dakota Company Makes Fiberglass Auto Reproductions, Big Money

January 23, 1988 GMT

FARGO, N.D. (AP) _ The automobile sitting in the showroom window at Classic Roadsters Ltd. appears to be a mint-condition 1939 Jaguar SS-100 maintained in its original, stylish state by the most appreciative of owners.

But a rap on the car’s hood produces the sound of fiberglass, not metal. The convertible top is brown vinyl, not leather. And the odometer shows the car has traveled only 11 miles.

The automobile is one of about 80 exquisitely built, full-size reproductions manufactured monthly at the Classic Roadsters factory on Fargo’s Main Avenue.

The cars are not exact replicas, but facsimiles based on such vintage road cars as the 1962 Austin Healey 3000 and the 1952 MG TD, says Gary Rutherford, the company’s confident and energetic president.

″If we were to make exact replicas, we would build in the overheating, the rust, the electronics that failed, no parts, no service and the reason the company went out of business the first time,″ said Rutherford, who calls the cars ″adult model sets.″

Rutherford, a 40-year-old North Dakota native, started Classic Roadsters from scratch in 1978. He was convinced the company could flourish in a state known more for its farming and energy than for its manufacturing.

Rutherford’s inspiration for Classic Roadsters came after seeing what he considered a poorly built MG replica on the streets of Fargo.

″And I said, ’If somebody did this right, there would be a business here, there would be a market here,‴ Rutherford said.

Since then, Classic Roadsters has put more than 5,000 vehicles on the road around the country. Most are sold to car buffs on the East and West coasts. Only a handful have been sold locally.

Most of the company’s business is done with people who buy kits ranging in price from about $6,000 to $9,000 and assemble the vehicles themselves. To assist the kit buyers, Classic Roadsters provides a 100-page illustrated instruction manual.

Completely factory-built cars make up only 3 percent of Classic Roadsters’ sales. They can cost up to $30,000, Rutherford said.

The company has representatives in every state and has opened showrooms in large cities throughout the country. But most of its business is done through the mail or over the telephone in response to advertisements placed in national automobile publications or television, Rutherford said.

Selling a car to someone unable to kick its tires, look under its hood or sit behind its wheel was difficult in the beginning, Rutherford said. But sales have increased as the company’s reputation for excellence has grown, he said.

Feature articles in Car & Driver and Motor Trend magazines have helped, he said. The company’s cars also have been featured as prizes on television game shows such as ″Wheel of Fortune″ and ″The Price is Right,″ Rutherford said.

The company now produces about 80 cars and kits a month with a work force of 130 employees.

Rutherford said the company’s North Dakota location is not a detriment, although he admits it would likely be more successful if based in a larger city.

″Classic Roadsters could be more of a success in California, but I’m a North Dakotan and I wanted to do it here,″ said Rutherford.

Rutherford, who grew up in Hillsboro, considers Classic Roadsters a test of his theory that a manufacturing company can flourish in North Dakota.

His goal was to make the company a financial success within 10 years. With anticipated sales of $10 million this past year, he feels the company has attained that goal.

Rutherford has already begun work on another company, tentatively called Classic Industries, to produce futuristic-looking travel trailers. He said he has other business ideas that he believes would work in the state.

Rutherford received a degree in mechanical engineering from the University of North Dakota in 1970 and worked in Los Angeles and Atlanta before operating Rutherford Construction International in Saudi Arabia for two years.

Rutherford and his wife, JoAnn, returned to the United States in 1977 convinced it was the only place in the world to do business. They settled in Fargo because as born-again Christians they felt it was a good place to raise their three children.

Having proven his ability to start a business from scratch and make it successful, Rutherford now plans to offer his knowledge and experience to others hoping to start businesses in the state.

Rutherford expects continued success for Classic Roadsters. He predicts sales of $20 million some day. But he plans to turn the company over to new management in about 10 years.

″Having gone through this whole process, I feel that we have something to offer on a consultant basis and that’s where my energies will be directed in the future,″ he said.

End Adv Weekend Editions Jan 23-24