Home >Auto News >Making millions off your designs: Luxury automakers’ next gambit

Making millions off your designs: Luxury automakers’ next gambit

A Lamborghini SpA Urus sports utility vehicle (SUV) is displayed during the 2019 New York International Auto Show (NYIAS) in New York, US, on April 18, 2019.  (Photo; Bloomberg)Premium
A Lamborghini SpA Urus sports utility vehicle (SUV) is displayed during the 2019 New York International Auto Show (NYIAS) in New York, US, on April 18, 2019. (Photo; Bloomberg)

  • This current mode of customization can be traced back to the the Lamborghini Reventon in 2008
  • Both Bugatti and Rolls-Royce have fashioned uber-expensive one-offs, if at times only intermittently

New York: This past November, Lamborghini announced that it had created a single car in collaboration with one favored, unnamed customer.

The exact value of the one-off Lamborghini SC18 Alston has not emerged, though in an interview with Lamborghini technical director Maurizio Reggiani in his Sant'Agata Bolognese office, he teased that it hovers somewhere between $1 and $13 million dollars, the cost of Bugatti’s recent La Voiture Noire. Price eliding aside, 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 770-horsepower V12 car.

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

A Decade of Daring

This current mode of customization 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 221-mph Reventon wasn’t a one-off—Lamborghini made 21 of them, sold to the likes of Bahrain business magnate Khalid Abdul Rahim and Chechen strongman Ramzan Kadyrov—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 auto market could handle the extravagant price and exclusivity of vehicles heretofore considered too wild for it to bear. This paved the way for the $4.5 million Veneno and 759-horsepower Centenario, each rare-as-plutonium supercars that came several years later.

Over the decade 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 [Reventon] roadster was $3.2 million; the Centenario was $2 million. So in this segment, we know there is a marvelous market."

The Rest of the Market

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. These aren’t just bespoke versions of existing models; they are built-from-the-ground-up special creations tailored specifically to the commissioner’s request: lengthened wheelbases and novel seating positions—special outfitting to enable, say, hunting or state ceremonies, for example.

Coach-building in its current form at Bugatti means building a specific and special car first as a unique vehicle, then approaching a potential customer to ask if they’d like to purchase it. 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. In fact the coach-built one-off tradition arguably goes back hundreds of years, to the days of building actual coaches—the royal, horse-drawn kind.

“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. “The Rolls-Royce approach is much more organic, much more romantic, than some. To us, it is a very, very small niche part of the business, and it will always remain so."

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.

Growing Appetite

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 personalization and individualization of luxury objects. Last year saw 31 individuals added to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index.

Add to that the fact that many one-off cars use the platform of previous models—yes, it’s a muddy area between something being 100% original and something that is one-of-a-kind that may use a chassis from an existing car—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 cars upon which its chassis was based.

“The margins are huge, and the potential for this to continue is massive," Urquhart says. “A company that does this like Rolls-Royce is mining their heritage very successfully."

Separate Strategies

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. But where Lamborghini has indicated it tends to let customer’s imaginations run a little freer, and independent hyper-carmakers such as Glickenhaus might go several steps farther down that crazy fantasy aesthetic, Rolls-Royce takes a closely guided approach. And Bugatti, for its part, has said it will always build the car first, then approach a potential customer about a purchase, rather than the other way around.

“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?

“We work on commissions with clients who are committed to buying a car, even without knowing what it might look like," Innes says. “Rolls-Royce is a very precious thing. The customer is a commissioning patron, and we are working collaboratively with them, but artistically we are always in control. It’s important to underline that because I know some other brands approach it very differently."

The company will never make “more than single figures" of coach-built cars annually, he added.

Watching and Waiting

Others are watching closely. 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 the Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II, whose seat, for example, must sit higher than Prince Philip’s. The company is not quite making one-offs for others with less-than-blueblood pedigrees yet—but those in power there are certainly considering it.

“There are more and more customers who want something very very unique, and customers are asking us about the possibility of [one-off commissions]," says Stefan Sielaff, the chief designer at Bentley. “But we would not give a car to a customer that is a coach-built object that is not homologized and certified [to be legal to drive on U.S. roads]. As you can imagine we are a member of the big Volkswagen Group, and there are a lot of people looking into this legally. It is rather expensive to do. "

But make no mistake: At the highest level, nearly all cars are personalized to some degree. At Rolls-Royce, the number hovers between from 95% to 99%. Bentley’s Mulliner program sees 70% 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 favorite of her 100-count collection of nail varnish. Of course, Bentley could do that—it’s a frequent request—but she didn’t want to hand over the bottle for development. It was her favorite color, 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.

“It’s a little bit like having a sparring partner," Sielaff says. “Obviously, these people are able to afford it. They are self-confident and also brave enough to ask, and that is great. So we are thinking about it. Nothing has been decided—but we are thinking."

This story has been published from a wire agency feed without modifications to the text. Only the headline has been changed.

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