Lemon Or Lemonade?

Tennis star Andre Agassi will never forget his first ride in a Vector W8, the fastest lemon the auto industry has ever produced. It was on a spring day in 1991, shortly after he wrote a $400,000 check for the 200-mile-an-hour turbocharged coupe. After Agassi took the car for a spin in the desert around his Las Vegas home, he and his brother Phillip opened the back and found the carpet burned to a crisp. His mechanic's diagnosis: the exhaust pipes were getting too hot and the Vector might catch fire. Agassi demanded a refund. "The car was basically a death-trap," says Phillip. "He was scared the whole thing would blow up."

Agassi's short-lived ownership is just one of many scorch marks in the history of Vector Aeromotive Corp., a tiny carmaker that's performed so badly for so long that it may as well have been managed by a team of crash-test dummies. After nearly 20 years in the auto business, Vector has built just 22 cars-and lost more than $29 million in the process. Now fueled by new investors, a partnership with Lamborghini and a revamped design, it's revving up to sell more superexpensive cars to the rich and famous. This week the company begins final assembly of its new model, the M12. The sticker price: a more modest $189,000. "We have nothing to lose . . . we have a lousy reputation," admits Vector's new president, D. Peter Rose. "It can only go up."

Vector's new managers lay much of the blame for the bad rep on founder Gerry Wiegert. His idea: to design American-made exotic cars to compete with foreign makes like Ferrari. For a decade he made sketches, built prototypes, attended auto shows and did what any successful auto exec has to do--except build or sell cars. When he finally got an assembly line running, costs ran wild and the cars were full of glitches. In 1993 his directors decided to ax him. But Wiegert refused to budge and changed the locks at Vector headquarters. It took six months of court battles to get him to give up his job. Today, Wiegert is busy building a motorized waterbike--and suing Vector. He says he was wrongly fired; Vector says he used company money for personal expenses, including a $28 bra for his wife. He denies the charges, and says she needed the bra for an auto show. Attention, Court TV: the trial is next spring.

The more important verdict will come from the well-heeled car buffs Vector hopes will buy the new car. For months designers have worked 12-hour days at an abandoned naval base near Jacksonville, Fla. They've retained the old car's low, sleek styling but transformed the nuts and bolts to cut costs. Out went the $525 steel door latches; in came $12 versions. The biggest change: a more reliable 12-cylinder engine designed by Lamborghini. The first M12s will roll into Vector's 12 dealerships late this year. To help buyers who don't have $189,000 to spare, the company is offering a three-year lease: just $50,000 down and $2,999 a month. To gain publicity, it's trying to persuade Clint Eastwood to buy the new car. Optimism abounds: it's projecting 96 sales in 1996, enough to bring $3.9 million to the company's bottom line. Vector's president even hints of plans for a new convertible, an under-$100,000 budget car, or maybe a speedboat. "Who knows what we might do in the future?" says Rose. Maybe even Agassi will take a chance on a new Vector. Or maybe not. Says brother Phillip: "He's gotten rid of all his sports cars." Well, there's always Pete Sampras.