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Classic Motor Carriages of Miami Florida

For much of the Eighties and Nineties, drivers on the Palmetto Expressway zipped past a revolving, 45-foot tower of Gatsby-era Fords and classic Porsches. It sat atop the 160,000-square-foot headquarters of Classic Motor Carriages, then the nation's largest manufacturer of automotive replicas. The firm was forced to close in 1994. Classic Motor Carriages has since reopened under the saucy moniker Street Beasts.

Today the business resides in a 50,000-square-foot warehouse on NE 72nd Street and Second Avenue, surrounded by acres of cinder block and chain-link fence. In the lobby hangs a U.S. map riddled with colorful thumbtacks, each representing a Street Beasts car. Most of them are clustered east of the Mississippi, but there is at least a smattering in every state, including Alaska and Hawaii. And the map is just one sign of the company's renewed vigor; it now sells some 40 cars a month and brings in about six million dollars a year. "No one else does that kind of business," maintains Bob Southern, the company's vice president of sales. "Once again we've become the largest manufacturer of replica cars in the country."

Brian Brennan, editor of Street Rodder, one of a half-dozen magazines that target collectors, says he can't say for sure whether Street Beasts tops the growing list of replica producers. "But there's no doubt it's a major player," he notes. "Forty cars a month is huge."

Classic Motor Carriages was founded more than three decades ago. From the beginning it sold do-it-yourself kits, which customers used to build ersatz classics. In 1978 wealthy Fort Lauderdale resident George Levin bought the firm and unleashed a marketing blitz. Soon Classic's cars were displayed in airport lobbies from Newark to Seattle. And orders poured in so fast that the company abandoned its modest Hallandale headquarters and moved to the mammoth warehouse on the Palmetto and 27th Avenue.

In the first three years that Levin owned Classic, revenues soared from $500,000 per year to $12 million. By 1985 it was grossing $20 million and churning out about 300 kits a year. The next rebirth of the company was Street Beasts. Sales were sluggish the first few years. But they've picked up recently. In fact Southern says revenues have nearly doubled since 2002.

The 40 kits the company sells each month range from $14,500 to $18,500 each; the price includes frame, body, and interior. Most of the components are manufactured in the firm's Little Haiti warehouse. On a recent Wednesday afternoon, forklifts crept between the bone-white hulls of faux classics on the factory floor, and women hunched over sewing machines. An elderly Cuban man in fatigues and a gingham cap used a blowtorch to craft hinges from thick slabs of steel. Nearby, three others in hazmat suits swiveled a giant mechanical arm and then sprayed thin layers of fiberglass thread into a mold for a 1933 Ford Victoria.

Street Beasts caters mostly to street rod enthusiasts, meaning those who get revved up over pre-1948 models. At any given time, 300,000 people are restoring or replicating cars of this vintage, according to Brennan of Street Roddermagazine. This makes it a one-billion-dollar industry.

Besides the 1933 Victoria, Street Beasts sells kits for the 1934 Jeep Willy, a 1934 Ford cabriolet, a 1944 Ford three-window coupe, and the 1966 Shelby Cobra. Originals of these cars are rare and expensive; a vintage Cobra can run upward of a million dollars.

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