Sue Ellen Jares
November 05, 1979 12:00 PM

One owner, upset that the car was getting more attention than he was, threatened to sell it; instead, he bought a second. Rod Stewart, Wayne Newton and Ken Norton tool around in them, and the Beverly Hills branch of Neiman-Marcus has made deliveries in a silver model with wire wheels. The rock group Kiss wanted theirs in shocking pink but were turned down. Even the man in charge of design for Ford, Gene Bordinat, drives one—to the office yet. The object of such unusual automotive attention is the neo-classic product of the Clenet Coachworks of Santa Barbara, Calif., America’s answer to the Rolls-Royce. Its sticker price: $67,500 for the Clenet II convertible four-seater, up from $27,000 for the first model two years ago.

Celebrities aside, most Clenet owners are considerably less flamboyant than their transportation. A spokesman for the company describes them this way: “90 percent have dark hair, most are male, 45 to 55 years old, self-made, are sensitive and know how to say ‘Thank you.’ ” Although at 35 the design and marketing expert behind the company is more than a decade younger than his average customer, Alain Clenet fits the Gatsby mold. The son of an affluent Ford dealer in Angers, France, Alain dropped out of pre-seminary studies when he was 13 (“I couldn’t stand the hypocrisy”). He eventually earned degrees in industrial design, engineering and fine arts at Paris’ prestigious Ecole Nationale Supérieur des Arts Décoratifs.

At 19 Clenet built his first sports car and in 1965 went to Detroit. For two years he worked for American Motors but, he says, “I didn’t become chief designer because I was impatient and made political mistakes.” He got more on-the-job training with Ford and GM.

Tiring of Detroit, he moved to California as a consultant to Yamaha and Toyota. Then, following the advice of rent-a-car tycoon Warren Avis, Clenet set out “to make something for the rich.” The prototype—a two-passenger roadster with running board, classic hood and grill, etched glass ashtrays and lambswool carpeting—was an instant hit at the 1976 L.A. auto show. Yet Clenet could not find anyone to lend him $70,000 to start production, until he met two officers of a small Ventura bank. A friend of theirs had started Winnebago, the van company, 20 years earlier, and its success persuaded them to take a chance on Clenet. “If there are 10 people standing around the prototype when I come out of the bank,” Alain recalls asking them, “I don’t have to put up collateral, right?” The crowd was there, but he had to sign over his household furnishings anyway. This year Clenet is projecting sales of $8 million, and $12 million for 1980.

As it is, he can’t keep up with the demand. Some 100 employees, working in a converted airplane hangar, turn out only 10 of the hand-crafted Clenets a month, and almost all are pre-sold through 1981.

Most Clenet owners are wealthy enough not to worry about gas mileage (“I think it’s 15 or 20,” Alain says) and servicing is no problem. The Clenet has a Mercury Cougar chassis and a Ford V-8 engine, and can be taken to any local dealer for repairs.

No hard-driven, ulcerous executive, Clenet holds business conferences in his Jacuzzi and finds time to indulge his twin passions for flying and scuba diving. His next projects: a high-performance sports car to compete with Porsche and a four-door sedan aimed at drawing customers away from Mercedes. “Love is the only difference in my cars,” Clenet says. “They are assembled with love, and I’m proud of every one.”

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