One man's quest to build his dream car

At a show dominated by auto-market gloom, Gary Kaberle's sleek BAT 11 concept vehicle is an inspiring reminder of the passion cars can evoke.

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The BAT 11, on display in Detroit.
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The pink ribbon next to the car helps raise breast-cancer awareness, in honor of Deb Kaberle.
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DETROIT (CNNMoney.com) -- A sign of hope for today's ailing auto industry is here at the 2009 North American International Auto Show, but not where you'd expect to find it.

Tucked at the back of this year's show at a kiosk shared with a local design school - behind the Maserati booth, next to the hot all-electric Mini, and way, way past the sprawling General Motors (GM, Fortune 500) and Ford (F, Fortune 500) displays - is a man who isn't even in the auto business.

Meet Traverse City, Mich., dentist Gary Kaberle, 62, the first individual ever to show a car at this legendary gathering of automakers. What got him here - and what he believes can get the major car companies and all the rest of us where we want to go - is a blood-pumping passion.

"You gotta have a dream," Kaberle says, gesturing toward his partially self-designed BAT 11, a two-seater that looks like the car Speed Racer would drive once he inked a zillion-dollar book deal. Sure, he says, it's easier for one person to chase a dream than for a group, a company or an industry to give everything over to pursuing a vision. But he's not letting anyone off the hook.

"I know the auto industry has a challenge," he says. "But everyone else does, too. Life's like that."

A lifelong love

For Kaberle, cars are an enduring infatuation. At 17, he fell hard for the BAT 9d, created by legendary Italian automotive designer Nuccio Bertone, the maker of the uber-hip Lamborghini Countach. Kaberle scraped together his entire life savings at the time, borrowed $500 from both his mother and his grandmother, and got his hot ride. Owning the BAT didn't diminish Kaberle's zeal: While in college at Michigan State, he corresponded with Nuccio about his beloved car.

Years later, attending dental school at the University of Michigan, Kaberle found a new love in Deb Carlson. Along with their three children - one his, one hers, one theirs - the pair (and the BAT) settled into a comfortable family routine.

But life had other plans. In 1989, Deb was diagnosed with breast cancer, and Kaberle sold one love to keep the other. His original BAT 9 was sold privately the next year, and its proceeds helped finance treatments to keep Deb alive for three more years. When she died in 1993, Kaberle needed a distraction, and figured it was time to go back to the car he loved. He couldn't afford to buy a BAT - they were now for-millionaires-only collectibles. So he took it on himself to design his own.

He started with sketches, then refined the design with to-scale clay design models built with help from friends. After a few years he had a carefully honed best attempt, a from-the-heart prototype he dubbed the BAT 11dk.

The DK is for Deb Kaberle.

Gary stayed in touch with the folks at Bertone throughout his own personal BAT design process, and in 2006 he suggested to the company that perhaps it could take his designs and create its own, legitimate new BAT. With little financing and nothing but a handshake agreement, he sealed a deal to make the car with an offshoot of the original Bertone operation, called Stile Bertone.

No BATmobile

Love makes life complex. Developing prototypes was slow and expensive. Kaberle had little money, and Stile Bertone teetered near bankruptcy. There were vendors to deal with and materials to be found. And, through it all for this still-practicing dentist, there were teeth to clean.

Finally, with the BAT 11's due date - the 2008 Geneva Auto Show in March - bearing down, Stile Bertone rallied 24/7 for a two-week period and finished the car, basically on spec. A muscular two-seater that looks like something about to blast into orbit was born. Kaberle had his stunning automotive achievement: A first-rate, world-class design unmatched by the major brands, including Mercedes Benz, BMW, Honda and all the rest. And it was done by a small group with hardly any money.

The BAT 11 concept car was a hit at the Geneva Auto Show, making the front page of the Automotive News' show coverage. It was namedConcept Car of the Year by Sky Motoring, a large British automotive enthusiast media service. All the hoopla caught the attention of the usually fussy North American International Auto Show officials. Two weeks ago, Kaberle was offered a plum prize: Placement on the show floor next to the original VW bug, and recognition as one of the world's preeminent car designers.

"This car is not just cool," says Dennis van Stee, who coordinates exhibits for the show and is an avid car enthusiast. "This car truly has achieved iconic status."

Kaberle's next move? He's trying to get his dream car rolling outside the show floor. The current BAT 11 only goes forward and backward, and needs a push to do either one. It has no engine or other systems. Kaberle says Stile Bertone can manufacture 25 to 50 cars a year, assuming he can find financing. He expects each one would retail in the $750,000 range. Kaberle would retain some design rights and a share of each sale.

But Kaberle is not here to rebuild the American auto industry. He laughs heartily when asked what lesson his success might have for the major car makers. Their massive exhibits dwarf his modest booth, which holds nothing but the BAT, some banners, and a stack of printed cards made at Fed Ex Kinkos.

He is here, he says, to show that one person can make a difference. That having a dream and the courage to chase it - even in the teeth of the worst pain - opens the most unlikely of doors and transforms lives from ordinary to extraordinary.

"I do not want to get into telling the auto industry what to do or not do," he says. "I just want to put it out there that you see the road you look down. You have to stick your neck out to look around the corner. We have all the tools we need to get our problems solved."

Kaberle doesn't need to offer up advice. His car - a new love created in tribute to a lost one - speaks for itself. Amid a show dominated by auto-industry gloom, Kaberle embodies what the industry most needs. Inspiration.

"Hey, if I can do this, what can't be done?" he says. To top of page

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