Los Angeles Times

Los Angeles Times
May 14, 2012
MOTOR TREND
May 14, 2012

Company that specializes in taking a lot off the top
Turns in Al Zadeh’s career path led him to establish a business converting hardtops.

Los Angeles Times – Los Angeles, Calif.
By John O’Dell Dec 27, 2006
(Copyright (c) 2006 Los Angeles Times)
Al Zadeh once hoped to be a doctor, fixing people’s broken bodies and restoring their dreams. Now he’s fulfilling dreams and performing reconstructive surgeries — on cars, not people.
His first career plan crashed when Zadeh discovered in anatomy lab “that I had a big problem with blood and stuff.” The USC engineering school graduate makes convertibles out of cars the original manufacturers never intended to go topless.
Zadeh has become something of a trendsetter. His company, Newport Convertible Engineering, was making cloth-top New Beetles in 1998, almost two years before Volkswagen came out with its own topless bug. He designed and built the first Chrysler Crossfire convertible and was selling convertible models of the PT Cruiser in 2002, well before Chrysler did its own production version in 2004.
Zadeh’s latest model is a convertible version of Toyota Motor Corp.’s new FJ Cruiser: a rugged ragtop he says is still capable of tough off-road activity when not cruising the coast.
Newport Convertible — an enterprise whose name evokes Southern California’s golden beaches and white-capped waves — actually operates out of a concrete tilt-up industrial building in the decidedly inland Orange County city of Placentia.
The name is part of the mystique that creates opportunity for the business.
“There’s a desire among many of us to have something unique. And a convertible, especially a model that the carmakers aren’t mass- producing, is something special,” said Jim Hossack, an industry analyst at market research firm AutoPacific Inc. in Tustin. “If you have money, a convertible like that is a great way to make a statement.”
With 15 employees and $3 million in annual revenue, by Zadeh’s account, Newport Convertible is to all outward signs a profitable business.
He has been fascinated with the idea of building elaborate mechanisms that could perform human tasks, and do them better.
After realizing that his dream of being a doctor wasn’t feasible, he turned to USC’s engineering school. There, after studying biomedical and mechanical engineering, he finished with a degree in petroleum engineering.
His plan, he said, was to make his millions early, then set up his own business and turn his talents to other pursuits.
But Zadeh graduated in 1981 just as the industry entered a period of intense competition and falling oil prices, during which petroleum companies trimmed hundreds of thousands of jobs from their payrolls. His job as an exploration engineer was one of them.
“I got laid off in 1983, so I took my savings and thought, ‘What else do I want to do?’ ”
At the time, Zadeh drove a small MG convertible and had grown frustrated with the British sports car and the “horrible design of the top.”
“It leaked everywhere, all the time,” he said. “I wanted to work with cars, and I decided that I could use my engineering background to design a better convertible top.”
To earn money while teaching himself how to do so, Zadeh sold and installed auto body customizing parts. He named the business A&F Automotive — for Al and Fariba, a sister who helped him out from time to time.
By 1986, Long Beach-based A&F was out of the custom body parts business and concentrating on doing convertible conversions.
Zadeh’s brother-in-law Matthew Kahnamelli had moved to the U.S. after finishing college in England and became a co-owner and the company’s business and marketing manager. The company changed its name in 1995 when it moved to Placentia.
It took six months to design and build the first convertible, Zadeh said. And it wasn’t an MG but a conversion of a Nissan 240Z sports coupe. Others followed — initially one-of-a-kind models built on spec, including convertibles made from hardtop Zs as well as Volvo, Lexus, Toyota and Mercedes-Benz models.
Kahnamelli began advertising the company’s work in specialty magazines, such as the Dupont Registry and Robb Report, that are aimed at wealthy auto enthusiasts. Newport Convertible started building to order for people who wanted something a bit different from what their neighbors were driving.
“That’s a market that’s big enough to keep them going a long time,” said Roy Adler, a car enthusiast and Pepperdine University marketing professor who specializes in consumer psychology.
By the late 1990s, Zadeh had started converting popular production cars, deciding that the future lay in having established auto dealers sell his work rather than depending on individual customers to come in with customizing requests.
Chris Collins, manager and co-owner of the recently opened Urban Chrysler-Jeep-Dodge in Foothill Ranch, said he had already sold one of Zadeh’s convertible Chrysler 300s and had just signed on to sell Newport Convertible’s Dodge Charger version as well.
“The quality of their work is great,” he said, “and these kinds of cars really bring people in.”
The cars typically run $10,000 to $15,000 above the regular hardtop version’s sticker price, though one notable job penciled out at $250,000. (That was to turn a Mercedes Benz S-Class sedan into a wheelchair-friendly two-door convertible.)
Making a convertible out of a hardtop involves much more than chopping off the steel roof and designing a folding mechanism for the cloth top. Removing the steel top robs a car of a tremendous amount of structural rigidity that must be restored before the resulting soft-top can be deemed drivable.
“We did a lot of learning on the job about that,” Zadeh said. “I was able to use my engineering training, and I used some of the same methods that are used to make bridges structurally sound.”
In reviews of Newport Convertibles’ work, enthusiast magazines including Car and Driver and Motor Trend have found the cars to be the equal of factory-built convertibles in rigidity and roadworthiness.
Zadeh’s latest inspiration was to replace the steel top of Toyota’s FJ Cruiser sport utility vehicle with a one-touch, automated canvas convertible roof. The prototype was unveiled in November at the Specialty Equipment Market Assn. trade show in Las Vegas and drew lots of attention at the recent Los Angeles Auto Show.
The project earned Zadeh the opportunity to pitch his design and engineering services to Toyota Motor Sales USA, the Torrance-based U.S. arm of the Japanese automotive giant.
A Toyota spokesman said the company had not pursued things further. But Zadeh said he remained hopeful that the electronically controlled convertible system he developed for the FJ Cruiser would help move his business into its next stage.
“I’d like, ultimately, to stop building specialty cars in small numbers and to become a design and engineering consultant working with all the automotive companies to help them develop convertible models,” he said.
Automakers tend to be leery of convertibles: They are difficult to engineer, are expensive to make and sell in small numbers in a business that needs big volume to make development costs pay off.
That, Zadeh said, is where he can step in.
It’s a big dream, but Zadeh, who preaches the glories of American capitalism and opportunity, says dreams are necessary to succeed in business.
“When you don’t have goals, if you are only satisfied with what you are doing, then you get stale,” he said
Zadeh cautions, though, that entrepreneurs must learn to pace their dreams.
Zadeh’s business has been moving steadily forward ever since.
And if the Toyota deal doesn’t happen?

Custom Car Shops Beat VW to Top
2 Southland Firms Fill Consumer Demand for Convertible Beetles
Los Angeles Times – Los Angeles, Calif.
Oct 8, 1998 By John O Dell

Southern California is home to a huge and versatile automotive aftermarket industry that often designs and produces dress-up and performance-improving add-ons for new vehicles before the car makers even funnel their new models into dealer showrooms.
The Dodge Viper, the Plymouth Prowler and the convertible Toyotas, Nissans and Ford Mustangs that sprang forth in the late 1980s can trace their bloodlines to Southern California’s custom car shops. These and other vehicles eventually became production models from the slower-off-the-mark high-volume manufacturers in Detroit, Europe and Japan.
Now come the convertible Beetles: soft-top versions of Volkswagen’s hot-selling New Beetle.
Two competing Orange County auto customizers have just hit the market with the world’s first convertible New Beetles after substantially re-engineering the car to stiffen the body. It took just six months from the March introduction of the new VW Bug for the convertible models to hit the streets.
Industry insiders say that even with price tags that boost VW’s base price for a hard-top Bug by about 60%, the firms should be able to sell all they can make, given their admittedly limited capacities. Together, they expect to build fewer than 1,000 a year, converting less than 2% of the 50,000 New Beetles that Volkswagen plans to sells in the U.S. each year.
“There’s a lot of demand for a convertible,” says Miles Brandon, owner of Capistrano Volkswagen Inc. in San Juan Capistrano. “We’ve got customers asking us to take advance orders even though it will be a few years before Volkswagen comes out with one.”
The official version for VW’s delay is that the company doesn’t need a convertible yet because it still can’t satisfy demand for the New Beetle with its hard-top models. All of the Bugs are made at a single factory, in Puebla, Mexico, that is running at capacity, VW officials say. New production lines would have to be built to begin making convertibles.
But assembling convertibles is far more complex than building hard tops, and VW is reportedly reluctant to begin making soft-top Bugs because of quality-control problems with its hard tops. Addition of a convertible line isn’t likely, dealers and other sources say, until VW can resolve production glitches that require many of the cars coming off the line in Puebla to be reworked before being released into the retail pipeline.
Meanwhile, Volkswagen customers have been gobbling up the company’s Cabrio, a convertible version of the Golf. Cabrio sales are up about 70% this year and account for almost 10% of the 76,000 vehicles VW has sold in the U.S. through September. The Cabrio typically costs about $4,500 more than the Golf, a 24% premium that is typical of factory-built convertibles.
But there still is a big demand for a topless Bug, and the two Southern California conversion firms have grabbed the opportunity to profit from VW’s delay.
The aftermarket convertibles by Newport Convertible Engineering Inc. of Anaheim will sell for at least $10,000 above VW dealers’ prices for a regular Bug.
With 1999 Beetles typically selling for $16,000 to $21,000, depending on options and dealer profit margins, that puts the convertibles in the $26,000-to-$33,000 range.
Although both are convertibles, the battling Bugs have as many differences as similarities, Newport Convertible has opted for solid canvas, eliminating rear side windows and counting on the large rear window to lighten things in the back seat.
The converters used different approaches to stiffening the Beetle’s frame and body to compensate for removal of the rigid hard top.
Both companies provide warranties on their work, Straman for a year and Newport for two years. The warranties cover the tops and top mechanisms as well as structural rigidity.
The alterations won’t affect VW’s factory warranties on powertrain, suspension, emission and electrical systems.
He says he will market the Beetle convertibles through a network of VW dealers as well as take orders directly from customers. He started sales in late September, almost a month after Newport Convertible launched its marketing effort, and says he has sold three cars and is processing orders for “several dozen more.”
Al Zadeh, founder and president of Newport Convertible, says he expects his volume to hit 50 a month. Newport has specialized in “one-off” conversions of luxury coupes and sedans. Zadeh said the company, which he started in 1983 shortly after graduating from USC with a degree in engineering, has been averaging about 75 custom conversions a year.
He said his company received more than 100 inquiries from an ad in a recent issue of the Robb Report, a lifestyle magazine aimed at the well-to-do. The company has also picked up several clients referred by area VW dealers.
Pete Cameron, owner of Special Vehicle Concepts Inc. in Newport Beach and one of two worldwide distributors for Newport Convertible (the other is ConvertiBeetle Inc. in Scottsdale, Ariz.), said he has sold a dozen converted Beetles in the last month.
One buyer is Vickie Boyd, a Laguna Beach resident who picked up her yellow convertible Monday and says she’s been driving it around the beach town ever since. “I just love it–it’s so incredibly cute,” says Boyd, who got rid of an expensive Mercedes-Benz roadster to make room for the Beetle.
“I had a yellow convertible {Bug} when I was in school, and when I saw the new ones I started asking if VW was going to make a convertible.”
Boyd says she was told repeatedly that the factory wasn’t going to have one for some time, so she started asking about custom conversions and last month was referred to Cameron by McKenna Volkswagen in Huntington Beach.
“Everybody I see asks me where I got it,” Boyd says. “Nobody asked me about my Mercedes.”
PHOTO: Al Zadeh, above, president of Newport Convertible Engineering Inc. in Anaheim, says his company has received more than 100 inquiries about transforming hard-top Beetles.; PHOTOGRAPHER: KARI RENE HALL / Los Angeles Times; PHOTO: At left, Robert Ramirez of Newport fastens a soft top onto a Bug.; PHOTOGRAPHER: KARI RENE HALL / Los Angeles Times; PHOTO: A ragtop Beetle converted by R. Straman Co. attracts attention at a Newport Beach car show Sunday.; PHOTOGRAPHER: GERALDINE WILKINS-KASINGA / Los Angeles Times
Credit: TIMES STAFF WRITER
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