The Shape May Say Italy, but It's California Born

February 26, 2012 12:00 am

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OAKLAND, Calif. -- THE driver of the white Lexus, slouching in his seat and peering over mirrored sunglasses, tried his best to look nonchalant. But the slack jaw gave away his astonishment.

The reaction was understandable: the car he had been flanking since the off-ramp, a low-slung beast with a ferocious growl, was an enigma. In profile it resembled a Ferrari from the 1950s, yet its gaping concave grille hissed "Maserati." A pair of oblong bulges in its roof hinted at the hallmark of a famed Italian coachbuilder, Zagato.

When the road forked, the blue beast peeled off to the left, and with a mad rumble pawed its way through a drab industrial district to a nondescript beige building, where, with a final grunt, it eased over the threshold. To a passerby, it might seem an odd lair for what looked to be a long-lost masterpiece of Italian coachbuilding. But for the exotic looking machine, named Gatto by its creators, it was home base.

A hand-built sport coupe powered by a Ferrari V-12, the Gatto is the result of a four-year collaboration between Bill Grimsley, a lifelong car enthusiast, and Moal Coachbuilders. Every inch of its skeleton and skin was created here in the family-owned Moal shop.

Mr. Grimsley, 73, who lives in Sausalito, Calif., grew up in south Georgia, "always poor," he said, "but always interested in cars." European sports cars of the 1950s, beginning with a Morgan, held a particular allure.

While Mr. Grimsley's penchant for European autos remained through the years, his fortunes changed. He went on to become a principal in a mutual fund management company. When he retired in 2000, he began pursuing his automotive interests in earnest, working his way through a pair of Mercedes 300SLs, assorted Bentleys, a 1955 Maserati A6G/54 2000 Spyder and several Ferraris. Gradually, he came to a realization.

"All these cars that I thought were so great -- Ferraris and the like -- the fantasy was better than the reality," Mr. Grimsley said. "They overheated. They had feet of clay."

He found himself longing for power steering, a reliable cooling system and amenities like air-conditioning. As luck would have it, soon after this epiphany he was introduced to Steve Moal by a friend and fellow enthusiast, Eric Zausner.

Mr. Moal, 65, was born in Alameda, Calif. His grandfather, William, emigrated to the Bay Area from France at the turn of the century and went into business building wheels and bodies for horse-drawn carriages. His shop in Oakland evolved to serve a growing auto industry, and by the 1920s he was working on racecars and building one-off bodies for wealthy clients. The Depression ended such opportunities; the family opened a collision shop, Bill Moal & Sons, in 1946.

First Published 2012-02-25 23:07:56

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