Ravell Call, Deseret News
PROVO—David Kirkham, the Utah Tea Party founder who helped make Bob Bennett a former senator and put himself on Sen. Orrin Hatch's speed dial, is taking a guest for a ride in a car he made himself. It's a replica of the famed Shelby Cobra, which is really nothing but a stripped-down, road-legal race car that goes from 0 to 60 in three seconds flat. G forces press Kirkham into the back of his seat as he guns the car onto I-15 and zips past a towering tractor-trailer.
There's nothing on a Cobra that won't help it go faster, which means there is no radio, no back seat, no heater, no air conditioner, no windshield wipers and no top; most of which would be handy now because it's raining and cold. Kirkham and his guest wear earplugs and six-point harnesses, like fighter pilots, with straps over both shoulders, between the legs and around the waist. The car's body is unpainted aluminum, which gives it a mirror finish and attracts stares everywhere it goes.
The car, he explains, weighs just 2,000 pounds — less than a Honda Civic — with a 643-horsepower engine, which is like putting a jet engine on a skateboard. "Ever scare yourself in this thing?" his guest shouts over the engine noise.
"Every time I take it out," he says.
When Kirkham is not conducting tea party business or taking calls from politicians or playing the piano or running mountain trails, he makes fine automobiles. Kirkham and the tea party could have more to say about the next election than anyone else in Utah, but in his day job, Kirkham owns and operates Kirkham Motorworks, a company he started as a BYU student in, of all places, an old MiG-airplane factory in Poland — a story that figures prominently in his midlife foray into politics. The company makes custom replicas, mostly of classic models from the '60s. They make about two cars a week, one at a time, by hand, with parts they make themselves, in a nondescript shop on Provo's west side, where they are neighbored by farms and railroad tracks.
"We are one of the few companies that actually makes cars," he says. "Most of the car companies sub out a huge chunk of their work and assembly-line them. We make close to everything on the car, even the gauges. We didn't like the gauges, so we made our own. We take flat pieces of aluminum and turn them into cars. We do our own metallurgy, our own heat treatment, all of it."
If you've never heard of the company, it's because you're not, well, rich. The average cost of a Kirkham car is $100,000, and that doesn't even include the engine or transmission. He sold one to Larry Ellison, the founder of Oracle, for $1 million. His other clients has included race-car driver Bobby Rahal, the late entrepreneur Larry Miller, Ford vice president James Farley, Ford Motors and the legendary Carol Shelby himself. The creator and original maker of the Cobra, Shelby has bought some 200 replicas of his own car from Kirkham, including 12 that will be official 50th anniversary Cobras.
"Most of our clients can just write a check, but some of them are just guys who have saved their money for years to buy their dream car," says Kirkham.
For the umpteenth time during this cold wet drive around Provo, Kirkham glances at his iPhone, which vibrates constantly with calls relating to tea party business. "Probably half of my day is eaten up by this," he shouts, as he turns the car up Provo Canyon. "A couple of weeks ago, I was interviewed every day of the week. The New York Times called. The Washington Post. Orrin (Hatch) calls me. Jason Chaffetz calls me."
Last week, Hatch called Kirkham and asked him to testify for the Senate finance committee on June 28 about the burdens and problems of the tax code for a small-business owner. This is heady stuff for a guy whose political involvement until two and a half years ago consisted of voting. "I never dreamed I'd be involved like this," he says. "I didn't even know who Glenn Beck was when I started."
How did a carmaker wind up testifying for Congress and calling senators by their first names and being quoted in the New York Times? You've got to know Kirkham's past to know how he got here.
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