The car of his dreams

Deirdre McMurdy July 19 1999

The car of his dreams

Deirdre McMurdy July 19 1999

The car of his dreams

Deirdre McMurdy

On a summer day 28 years ago, Robert Waddell discovered the passion that has shaped his life. Under his father’s watchful eye, he took apart the lawn mower at the family’s Toronto home. His fascination with engines has never faded. From there, Waddell advanced to tinkering with motorcycles and cars. He became an engineer, with an MBA and a client base in the automotive sector. But in 1992, at 34—an age when most men are resigned to abandoning their boyhood dreams—Robert Waddell became involved with a venture to design and build a racing car from the ground up that could be legally driven on the street. “I knew I had to take a chance, try to make it work,” he says, “or Fd always be wondering, what if?”

Seven years and $2 million later, the sleek, cherry-red prototype, called simply CH4, sits in an immaculate garage at an industrial building near Toronto’s Pearson airport. When Waddell takes the low-slung car for a spin around the parking lot, workers gather in the windows of surrounding buildings to gape at its exotic lines. At car shows in Detroit and Toronto, it attracts similar attention. But it remains to be seen whether buzz can translate into bucks. Waddell says his company, Motion Concept Vehicles Inc., needs two years and at least $ 10 million to begin commercial production. “We’re on the knife-edge at this point,” he admits. “We need to get to the next level, but it could go either way.”

With a carbon fibre chassis and a 450-horsepower aluminum engine, the CH4’s price is as high as its speed: it goes up to 300 km an hour and will cost about $300,000. Waddell plans to limit production to 30 cars in the first year, and only 400 to 500 after that. Although it would be assembled by hand, many parts would be sourced locally from suppliers to the Big Three American automakers.

Although recent consumer demand for luxury goods has been up—with sales of Mercedes-Benz cars increasing 46 per cent in June—the market niche for Waddell’s vehicle is small and highly competitive. The CH4 must vie with established, prestigious, high-performance brands like Ferrari and Porsche. But that does not deter Waddell, who says his target customer is a 45to 60-year-old male who is self-made, probably an entrepreneur and owns several other vehicles. “This car’s allure is its uniqueness and low-volume production,” he explains. “It’s designed to be part of a stable of vehicles.”

Of course, it’s one thing to have a dream, and another to convince others. A high-performance car is a hard sell to Canadians, who have a very conservative attitude towards vehicle purchases. According to Dennis DesRosiers of DesRosiers Automotive Consultants, Americans romanticize

cars and freedom of the road, while Canadians stick to functional compacts and minivans. Waddell concedes North Americans have a “different philosophy” than Europeans, who are more receptive to niche market cars made by independent manufacturers.

Memories of the ill-fated Bricklin sports car also dog Motion Concept. In the 1970s, the government of New Brunswick, anxious to create jobs, lost millions of dollars backing Malcolm Bricklin’s plan to build the gull-wing cars in suburban Toronto and Saint John. To Waddell’s credit, he has done remarkably well at selling his product and vision— perhaps because his personal style is so much at odds with them. At 40, he is slim, soft-spoken and precise—every inch the engineer. The flamboyant husde so often associated with hot cars and fast money is not his style. And while he keeps a red 1972 Dino 246GT under a tarp behind his garage, Waddell looks more at home chauffeuring his Newfoundland dog in the back of his Audi 5000 Quattro. As for the home front, he says with a wry smile that his wife, Barbara, “has been extremely patient” towards the other love in his life.

When he first became involved with Motion Concepts, Waddell hooked up with a so-called angel investor—the term for an individual who provides private capital to new businesses. Dr. Don Wright, a former bandleader now in his 90s, furnished some start-up money in return for half of the company in partnership with Waddell, who has also managed to recruit support from other well-known Canadians. Race-car driver Scott Goodyear is helping test the CH4, while John Sleeman, the founder and CEO of Sleeman Breweries Ltd., recendy joined the company’s board of directors.

But financing the next phase of the CH4 remains a challenge. Waddell admits he is frustrated when he sees all the capital directed at Internet and software companies that have less-concrete business plans and more speculative technology. A proposal to develop an “investment package” that would offer tax breaks to potential Motion Concept shareholders was rejected by Revenue Canada. He has had similar frustrations in efforts for federal funding, and notes sardonically that “with the federal programs, you need to have money to get money.” But he has made good use of the Ontario Centres of Excellence program, which subsidized student employees.

Recendy, Waddell has begun scouring the United States for funding. At the same time, he is taking on freelance engineering projects to help cover the costs of developing the CH4. “There’s just no business reason why this project can’t work here,” says Waddell. “We’ve got some of the best auto industry talent anywhere.” And some of the biggest dreams.