UPPER BEEDING, ENGLAND — Tony Dennis runs the smallest car factory in the world.
He turns out copies of vintage racing cars, selling them to collectors for about $30,000. He has an order backlog that will keep him working until 1999 and beyond.
The factory is the garage beside his house in Upper Beeding, about an hour's drive south of London. The cars he makes are about 14 inches long and it can take him 18 months to turn out just one perfect replica of a 1953 Maserati 250F.
"I make everything myself, from the nuts and bolts to the spokes in the wire wheels," says Mr. Dennis, a retired engineer - which in Britain means a top skilled craftsman, not a professional such as a mechanical engineer. He started his working life in an aircraft factory.
The miniature Maseratis cost more than real thing did new, the most expensive model cars in the world. Dennis picks up his latest car and the suspension drops, dangling free as it would on a real car if it were hoisted in the air.
"See, the steering works as well," says Dennis. The only thing that doesn't work is the engine. "It's too small." The engine is perfect in every other way.
Collectors value the fine detail, the more than 4,000 separate parts, almost all of them silver-soldered together.
"There is very little glue," Dennis says at his workbench. Even the tires are hand-pressed from raw rubber, with a mold that stamps a tiremaker's name into the side. Unlike the original, the body is made from copper rather than aluminum. The reason: "The melting point of aluminum and the welding temperature are very close, especially on metal this thin. So I use copper."
"He's an artist," says Robin Lodge, a London businessman who bought the first car Dennis produced.
"This car is perfect in every way," Mr. Lodge says. "He is obviously not in it for the money. He just wants to build the best model car in the world."
Lodge owns a real Maserati 250F and drives it in vintage car races. The car was a race winner in the 1950s. The famous Argentine driver, Juan Fangio, won the Monaco Grand Prix and the 1957 World Championship in one.
Other collectors, like Lodge, want their prize antique cars recreated as models.
The week of this writer's visit, Dennis was readying one Maserati for painting or, to be more exact, electro-plating.
Mass production? He can't do it. "The whole thing is to make a one-off model of a real car which is absolutely unique in itself," says Dennis, who points to the car that he's making now and a picture of the one he made for Lodge. "There was only one made, each one is different."