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Q&A: Art Zimmer explains his lavish, 'neo-classic' car craft

Posted by Clifford Atiyeh  September 18, 2009 03:13 PM

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(All photos: Michael Davis/Syracuse New Times/Zimmer)

Unless you're riding to the airport, a wedding, or trying to get sex on prom night, let's face it, you've forgotten all about the Lincoln Town Car. Even most of the car's geriatric admirers have moved on to smaller Hyundais, Scions, and Camrys, some of which make more horsepower with six cylinders than the Lincoln squeezes out with eight.

The big Lincoln's body-on-frame construction, flat, planar dash, and waterbed suspension hark back to the Blaxploitation cinema era — when "Superfly" star Ron O'Neal and "Dolemite" Rudy Ray Moore ruled the streets with monster, square-jawed, utterly pimp American luxury cars. The American public was similarly sold on them. Today, it's hard enough for Lincoln to get a word in edgewise among a packed luxury segment dominated by imports.

But the bygone era of fully-kitted American pimpmobiles hasn't dimmed the colors on Arthur Zimmer's bright sports blazers as he poses in several photos of what look like replica Model J Dusenbergs or Auburn Speedsters. That's because Zimmer, 71, builds and sells the fanciest, rarest, and most expensive Town Cars on the planet.

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Flamboyance and shiny bits are everywhere: Polished wire spoke wheels hugged by whitewalls, and massive, gold-plated eagles perched on upright, glittering chrome radiators are but a few of the details.

His Zimmer Golden Spirit four-door and four-door convertible start life as humble Lincolns, and end up as stretched, impressively elegant interpretations of what he calls the "finest neo-classic motor cars ever manufactured." Two-door coupes and convertibles, based on the Ford Mustang GT, are also available (Shaquille O'Neal has one in red).

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While interiors remain largely unchanged — as well as the glass, doors, and mirrors — the Zimmer's custom front and rear flanks are all shaped from heavy-duty fiberglass with chrome-plated metal accents, assembled by hand in a garage in Syracuse, N.Y.

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The modifications, including the horn trumpets below the round headlamps and exhaust hoses on either side of the V-shaped hood, only add about 400 pounds to the original curb weight of the Mustang or Town Car, "equivalent to about one-and-a-half fat people sitting in the backseat," Zimmer said.

Much how Volkswagen lifted a bankrupt Bugatti back to prominence in the early 1990s, Zimmer resurrected the Zimmer brand (no relation) from extinction in 1996. He built his first Golden Spirit in 1999, 11 years after the first company folded (one of its last great cars was the sleek Quicksilver, a Pontiac Fiero conversion).

Today's Zimmers sell in very limited numbers each year (count your fingers), ranging from $119,900 for the two-door coupe to $189,900 for the four-door convertible. That puts Zimmer in Aston Martin, Maserati, and Bentley territory, all of which are faster and adorned with finer quality cabin materials.

But as experts agree, pimping is in no way easy, and it certainly isn't affordable. And save for a Bugatti Veyron, we can't find a new car that would prompt so many stares, questions, and extreme curiosity on the road.

Boston.com: What's your manufacturing process? Do you take customer cars that come in, or do you buy these cars direct from Ford?

Art Zimmer: We do it both ways. Most of them are brand new cars that we buy from Ford and remanufacture them into Zimmers. But we have had two or three people who wanted a Zimmer and already owned a late model Lincoln Town Car and said, what if I ship you my Lincoln Town Car?

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One of the things that we do which is a real plus on the Zimmers, unlike other little niche manufacturers in the past - all of which are out of business - most of them in the past have always made major modifications to a base car, moving the engines around, the drivetrain, transmissions. As you well know, any time you start moving major components around, after two, three years you end up with a rattle trap.

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What Zimmer developed was a system where we cut the frame right in front of the radiator, and this is a major key. When you cut the frame in front of the radiator, the only thing you've moved is the front wheels - you've moved them out - and that's what gives it the big, long, elegant Great Gatsby look. And that way the entire major mechanicals - the engine, drivetrain, transmission, all that - stays completely intact with the factory warranty.

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BDC: Do you do any modifications to engines?

AZ: No, we don't, for two reasons. One, if you want a souped-up engine, that can be done very easily by your local garage, and when you start souping up engines, there's always problems down the road, and I don't want to be responsible for that. However, with the new 2010 Mustangs, you can get as a standard thing, the 500 horsepower, so that will be an option that people can have.

BDC: Off of the GT500?

AZ: Yeah, but one thing you're forgetting - this is a car to drive and enjoy, it's not a kid's hot-rod toy. Where can you go zero to 120 in 10 seconds and not kill yourself or get a ticket? There's a lot of people who are hung up on the speed, and the big power and stuff like that, but it's totally impractical. This is a car that you can drive up and down the interstate at 80 miles an hour, not 120 miles an hour, all day along, and enjoy it and drive it and not have it as a museum piece to park and look at.

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BDC: For the people who are saying, 'Why would I pay $100,000-plus for a Lincoln Town Car?,' what do you say to that?

AZ: Well, look at the picture. You want that look, you want that kind of car, that's the price.

Lou Rawls had two Zimmers, and I was talking to him one day, and he was getting ready to order a third - this was just a couple months before he died - and he said 'I want another Zimmer, because when I drive down the street, I don't wanna have a car driving at me that's like the one I'm driving.' He says, 'in my neighborhood everyone drives Porsches and BMWs, so why would I want a couple of those?'

BDC: What are your annual sales?

AZ: If things keep going as they are, we'll be lucky to build eight or 10 cars this year. We only build them on order. I have nothing in stock. I don't build a car until I have money in the bank.

My production is up and down from year to year. I've actually done as few as five or six cars a year. I've done as many as a dozen. Now back in Zimmer's heyday, back in the 1980s, they were manufacturing almost 300 cars a year. But then that company went bankrupt and closed, and I resurrected the company about 10 years ago.

I don't make a business out of it like the original Zimmer company did, which was part of their problem. They had this big manufacturing plant, they had 125 employees, they had a lot of cars in stock. Their overhead did the same thing to them that it did to General Motors - it killed them.

BDC: Are you related to the other Zimmers?

AZ: No, there's no relation whatsoever.

I did not even know there was a car with my name on it until about 10 years ago. And then, my wife and I saw one and my wife insisted we buy one, and I said, 'well I'm not going to have an expensive toy sitting around,' found out the company was bankrupt and closed, and so I started the company back up again.

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BDC: You're also the publisher of the Syracuse New Times. How do you balance all this?

AZ: Oh, it's easy, I have 11 businesses. You're familiar with the Boston Phoenix?

BDC: Yeah, yeah.

AZ: Well, Syracuse New Times is the Boston Phoenix of Syracuse. I've owned hotels, and resort properties in Vermont, and printing companies, and publishing companies, and I owned and operated a maple sugar candy manufacturing business. I used to have a lot of real estate. I had about 100 units, apartments, rental units. So I've been into just about everything.

BDC: Any other businesses you're currently running?

AZ: Yeah, I have a theater company. I have my own theater and I write and produce Broadway-style musical shows. We produce them here in Syracuse at our own theater.

I'm just an entrepreneur. Somebody walks in the door with a good offer, I'll probably be off on another one.

BDC: Do you do test drives in Syracuse?

AZ: You've gotta remember, I only build them on order.

BDC: So you don't have any demonstration models?

AZ: I actually had two that were kind of my own cars I built, and then people wanted to buy them, and I sold them, 'cause, hey, that's the business I'm in.

I had the four-door convertible for about a year, and actually a Saudi prince was sitting here in my office one day, and he just made a deal to buy two cars. And he said, 'Gee, I know I've got to wait four or five months ... don't you have anything I could get right now?' And I said, 'no, I only build them on order.'

He said, 'well, when I came into your office, I saw one parked out in the parking lot.' I said, 'well, that's mine, it's a year old, it's got 20,000 miles on it.' He says, 'what do you want for it?' I said I hadn't really thought about selling it, so I said 'I'm not going to be greedy.'

I threw him a number and he said, 'ship it to me Monday morning.'

BDC: What kind of future models are you considering?

AZ: None. I mean, what else is there, besides those five models?

BDC: What would you do if the Lincoln Town Car went under?

AZ: Well, I'd have to find a new base car and I'm not sure what would be closest to it. The Chrysler 300 might be a candidate, I'm not sure. It depends also if Ford replaced the Town Car with something. I've had some people ask me about either a BMW or a Mercedes, so those could be possibilities.

BDC: So since you don't have your own Zimmer now, what are you driving?

AZ: Because of the newspaper, I frequently need a truck and I frequently need a bus, and so I drive a Chrysler Town & Country minivan because in about one minute I can convert it from a truck to a bus and back.

That's probably not my ultimate favorite car. The Zimmer would be my favorite car.

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This blog is not written or edited by Boston.com or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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15 comments so far...
  1. That is an amazing car. I realize a lot of people think this is a waste of money, but this man sells different. How many cars really can turn heads these days? While this car may not be a daily driver, it is an excellent throwback to the luxury aura autos had in the 20's. Good job Clifford on another well written article.

    Posted by Johnny Yu September 19, 09 10:39 AM
  1. Great Article. You think 50 cent has one?

    Posted by Bill Sherman September 19, 09 11:12 AM
  1. Are there any of these fine vehicles in MA? I think I may have seen one at Revier Beach this summer.

    - Dan Bates, King of the North Shore

    Posted by Dan Bates September 19, 09 11:13 AM
  1. Terrible. Just awful.

    Posted by MikkaJo September 19, 09 11:52 AM
  1. True American Luxury at its finest.

    Posted by Rose Derry September 19, 09 04:49 PM
  1. I approve. A lot of new cars have excessive horspower, or excessive engineering, but this car puts the excess right out there where everyone can enjoy it!

    Posted by Anonymous September 20, 09 08:03 AM
  1. It looks like cheap kit car applique.

    Posted by mike September 20, 09 11:21 PM
  1. Huggy Bear would be proud!!

    Posted by TheBank September 21, 09 12:54 AM
  1. I’ve loved these cars ever since I was 2 or 3 years old. My mom would drive past a dealership that would have a similar looking car parked in the showroom and say that it was her favorite car. That model was an Excalibur. Since then I have grown to love and appreciate the Neo Classical styled cars. I’m only 25 but would love to own one of these vehicles. They have made it to my top 10 list for cars. Sometimes speed is not what makes a car great.

    A good analogy to consider when looking at this model is that a Lincoln Town Car is to a McMansion as a Zimmer Golden Spirit is to a castle. And for that, the price is right. For those who don’t know, Lincoln Town Cars range from $42,786 to $52,195. That’s not a cheap car to base this model off of.

    You really need to ask yourselves, what would Gatsby do?

    Posted by Andy September 21, 09 09:26 AM
  1. The people with that kind of money are going to spend it anyway on yachts, private planes, luxury cars and big homes, so why not on an American made Zimmer?

    Posted by Art Zimmer September 21, 09 11:12 AM
  1. Soon to follow the knock-off Cords, Auburns, Excalibur and other such retro "classics" of recent decades - into the land of catastrophic depreciation, bankruptcy and oblivion. Geegaws, bangles and schlock.

    Posted by TexLeeger September 21, 09 10:16 PM
  1. I'd rather be driving my Z3 Bimmer.

    Posted by Liz Pakula September 24, 09 11:08 AM
  1. It's a shame there are not enough people who would buy these for $130k. I would love to see this company prosper enough to offer a lower priced model around $60k. At least then it's something that an above average sucessfull person could someday afford.

    Posted by Andy September 24, 09 02:51 PM
  1. Gawd Blessum! If customers keep coming, keep making those things. I love the volkswagen old beetle turn signals on picture number two. Doh! Personally, as an imaginative tinkerer who loves cars, I'd love to make my own crazy car one day. So, more power to 'em! Remington Steele, your car is ready.

    Posted by Car-razy September 25, 09 03:46 PM
  1. Live and let live people. If someone wants something different - well so be it! Thank goodness for the Viper, Z4 Coupe, the Soltice Coupe, and these Zimmers. They may be just "toys", but so what. Why do the Fun Police always want to complain or stop others from enjoying what fun they can have in this little life of ours? If these cars save us from having to see one more boring, seen one, seen 'em all cars on the road I am all for it even if I may be more prone to a Bentley myself.

    Posted by Marie October 1, 09 03:51 PM
 

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Clifford Atiyeh is an automotive writer and car enthusiast . He has spent his entire life driving cars he doesn't own.
In the garage: 1995 21-speed Iron Horse, 2002 Jeep Wrangler X (by association)
Bill Griffith is a veteran Boston Globe reporter, having reviewed cars for more than 10 years and serving as assistant sports editor for 25 years. He was also the paper's sports media columnist.
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AAA's Car Doctor, John Paul John Paul is public affairs manager for AAA Southern New England, a certified mechanic, and a Globe columnist. He hosts a weekly radio show on WROL.
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Craig Fitzgerald has been writing about cars, motorcycles, and the automotive industry since 1999. He is the former editor of Hemmings Sports & Exotic Car.
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