Luxury-brand customers are paying millions to design their own cars

2019-06-11 20:08:59

Last November, Lamborghini announced that it had created a single car in collaboration with one favoured, unnamed customer.

The exact value of the one-off Lamborghini SC18 Alston has not emerged.

But technical director Maurizio Reggiani is very clear on one thing: he claims Lamborghini started what is a growing (or-depending on how you look at automotive history-re-emerging) trend of making extraordinarily expensive, street legal, one-off supercars.

The SC18, for instance, was created "in synergy" with the customer and Centro Stile Lamborghini division. In short, head designer Mitja Borkert sat down with the longtime Lamborghini client, and they drew up the car.

It is the first one of its kind for the brand-but it was also a long time coming.

This current mode of customisation can be traced back to the the Lamborghini Reventon in 2008.

"I remember it very well, because when I first became technical director, my first job was to do this car," Reggiani says. "It was appointed in a meeting with [then-chief executive officer Stephan] Winkelman, who decided we needed to do a car that was completely out of the scope. So we came up with Reventon."

Although the Reventon wasn't a one-off (Lamborghini made 21 of them) it was the brand's first model to test a new stratosphere of modern buyer.

In fact, its almost immediate sell-out success proved to Lamborghini executives that the market could handle the extravagant price and exclusivity of vehicles heretofore considered too wild for it to bear. This paved the way for the US$4.5 million Veneno and Centenario, each rare-as-plutonium supercars that came several years later.

Over the decade since since the Reventon's debut, the company has sharpened a strategy of making ever-more expensive, scarcer cars, ultimately resulting in the single commissioned SC18 from last year.

"The Reventon prompted the big discussion about the dimensions of this segment," Reggiani says.

"As we scouted more and more during that time, we started to see how, this market, you can stretch in terms of price and in terms of demand. The Reventon coupe was $3 million; the roadster was $3.2 million; the Centenario was $2 million."

Of course, the men and women at Aston Martin, Bugatti, Ferrari, and Rolls-Royce have had a foothold in this market for years.

Ferrari has built one-off cars such as the Superamerica 45 and the P540 Superfast Aperta for special buyers since announcing its Special Projects Division 10 years ago. Aston Martin has quietly made such one-offs as the CC100 for its most prized collectors in recent years.

Both Bugatti and Rolls-Royce have fashioned uber-expensive one-offs, if at times only intermittently and, until recently, usually secretly, for a century.

In fact the coach-built one-off tradition goes back, arguably, hundreds of years to the days of building actual coaches-the royal, horse-drawn kind.

Rolls-Royce was doing its own version of coach-building with the likes of its Phantom touring limousines throughout the 1900s. In 2017, it debuted the singular $13 million Rolls-Royce Sweptail at the Concours d'Elegance Villa d'Este, where the client picked it up from the event and took it directly on a road trip through the Italian Alps.

"The industry is going through a burgeoning point with these cars-and there is an extreme exercise in differentiation," says Alex Innes, Rolls-Royce head of coach-build design.

Bugatti, meanwhile, says "the sky is the limit" on how it will alter or augment one of its base chassis models-and has been more vocal than most companies have been, until recently, about this lucrative side of the business.

Tim Urquhart, principal automotive analyst at IHS Markit, says the potential growth in this ultra-exclusive market is "exponential." Witness the burgeoning number of billionaires around the globe, particularly in Asia, and the increasing trend toward personalisation and individualisation of luxury objects. Last year saw 31 individuals added to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index.

Many one-off cars use the platform of previous models, requiring little new development or financial outlay from automakers. The lure of the sale must be enormous. It's no small thing that with the Reventon, Lamborghini figured out a way to charge eight times the price of the car upon which it was based.

"The margins are huge, and the potential for this to continue is massive," Urquhart says.

There is plenty of discussion about the proper way to do it. Technologies such as 3D printing have reduced the limiting effects of time and the scarcity of human talent.

"Let's not forget there's no accounting for taste-and the mega-rich have some of the most appalling taste on the planet," Urquhart says. "At Ferrari or Rolls-Royce, they will have to be very protective of their brand heritage."

Indeed, Innes puts the Rolls-Royce philosophy in culinary terms: While you might order something special off the menu of a three-Michelin-starred restaurant, you'd never walk into the kitchen, take over control from the chef, and start adding ingredients, would you?

Aston Martin and McLaren are fashioning supercar small batches of their own, such as the multimillion-dollar Valkyrie and GT12 Volante and the ultra-rare McLaren P1 GTR, respectively.

And, of course, Bentley has long made coach-built vehicles for Queen Elizabeth II, whose seat, for example, must sit higher than Prince Philip's.

At the highest level, nearly all cars are personalised to some degree. At Rolls-Royce, the number hovers between 95-99 per cent. Bentley's Mulliner programme sees 70 per cent of Bentayga SUVs sold heavily bespoked.

Sielaff mentions one customer who requested over a private meeting at home in London that her Mulliner-made car match the favourite of her 100-count collection of nail varnish. Of course, Bentley could do that but she didn't want to hand over the bottle for development. It was her favorite colour, after all.

The next day, the Bentley designer returned to the factory to start work on the lady's order, sporting a single fingernail painted with the varnish of choice from the previous day.

It wasn't on the level of designing an entire car from scratch, but it's a lot of work for a whim.

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