Story and photos by Laurance Yap
I was at a coffee shop a few months ago when a woman pulled into the parking lot with a dark-green Audi TT – a colour that I’d never seen on that car before, and indeed had never been available. Curious, I stood in line behind her, complimented the colour of her car, and asked if she’d had it repainted. “Oh no,” she replied. “They can match the colour to any sample you provide.” Which in this case, had been her dark-green Gucci handbag.
When you buy a luxury car these days, your choices go way beyond what engine you’d like, which stereo best suits your needs, or which option packages you’d like to add. Much like the makers of all luxury goods, car manufacturers are starting to realize that high-end buyers are looking more than just a terrific product: they’re looking for a terrific product that they can really call their own. Whether it’s a custom-tailored suit or a pair of shoes created from moulds from your own feet, personalized products demand more respect as well as higher profit margins for their makers. It’s a win-win situation for everyone.
While the vast majority of cars built on production lines are now more similar than ever, low-volume production cars and those made by hand offer an increasing proliferation of options, finishes, and customization features, which now go way beyond simply choosing a set of finishes that suits your taste. High-end cars now offer the ability to customize how they drive as well. Opt for a Bentley Continental GT in “Mulliner Driving Specification” and you not only get an interior with opulent sport seats with pleated leather and a different design of 19-inch wheel, but also a suspension optimized for sportiness and a louder, angrier exhaust. BMW’s new M cars – the V10-powered M5 and M6 – offer almost 200 possible combinations of driving behaviour between the ability to adjust the speed at which they shift, the sensitivity of their throttle, the power output of their engines, the stiffness of their suspensions, and even the width of your driver’s seat. Find the set-up you like best, and you can program it into an “M” button on the steering wheel, which saves it just like a radio preset.
With a growing interest in customization, the market for high-end aftermarket conversions has grown along with the manufacturers’ increasing range of options.
You can, for instance, go to AMG to customize your Mercedes S-Class with more power, a richer interior, or special paint; Mercedes’ own Designo program also gives you a number of exotic paint choices and interior trim options not available in its regular catalogue. Or you can, like a number of the company’s own board members, go to Brabus instead. While this mega-tuner’s creations are visually fairly tame, save for massive double-spoked alloy wheels, they often feature performance and technology upgrades that take things to an even higher level. Brabus’ flagship engine, a thundering 7.3-litre V12 (1.3 litres up on AMG’s most potent offering) can propel any one of its signature black-on-red creations right past 200 mph, while driver and passengers relax in cabins crafted from exotic woods and leathers.
Brabus is just one of a number of high-end car tuners these days that are capable of giving you anything you desire in terms of luxury or performance. If your Porsche isn’t fast enough or exclusive enough, there’s a huge range of accessories available to make your car more “yours”. Buy a 911, and the company’s Exclusive program allows you to not only match the paint colour to whatever you desire (for the not-insubstantial cost of over $10,000), but you can tailor the car’s look with a range of different wheel designs, aerodynamic additions, and even custom striping. Inside, you have your choice of trim pieces finished in leather, carbon-fibre, or one of several kinds of wood, and they’ll create custom door sills with your name engraved into them. Backlighting, of course, costs extra.
Gerry Bachmann of Pfaff Tuning in Newmarket – who do most of their business with Porsche and VW/Audi products – showed me a wall of wheels from companies like TechArt and Champion Racing (for whom the company is the exclusive Canadian distributor) that go way above and beyond the largest stock 19-inch wheel. Indeed, 20-inch packages are now available even fitted with snow tires. Styling additions are also popular, and over the last year, Pfaff has fitted fifteen Porsches with aero addenda ranging from a fairly tame factory spoiler to a full-on TechArt body kit with carbon-fibre front splitter, side skirts, rear flares, and air intakes.
It’s not just that customers are spending more on aftermarket parts now, Bachmann says. They’re also looking for customization right from the start. A customer who has yet to take delivery of his new Carrera 4S is having it shipped directly to the shop to have parts fitted, a change from the time when customers would drive the car for a while before making selective enhancements to it. These days, they want the customization – be it an ABT body kit on an Audi A3, a “chip flash” performance upgrade on a Volkswagen GTI, or a supercharger on a 911 – done right away.
Drivers of domestic luxury and performance cars have a huge range of choices for performance and luxury upgrades: in the States, Lingenfelter Performance Engineering offers twin-turbocharged Corvettes and blinged-out Suburbans, while Hennesey offers upgrades for Dodge Vipers that can take them up, and past, the 800-horsepower barrier while also clothing their interiors in custom Connolly hides.
For the ultimate custom experience, though, a coachbuilt car remains the holy grail. Once a fixture on the luxury landscape in the twenties and thirties, coachbuilt automobiles took tried-and-true mechanics and clothed them in unique sheetmetal, often with luxury and performance upgrades on top of their already-exclusive packages. At the L.A. Auto Show last January, one company launched a range of products claiming to offer just that.
Started by Henrik Fisker, who formerly lead the design team behind the Aston Martin DB9 and AMV8, Fisker Coachbuild aims to recreate a little of that bygone era. Its two models, the Tramonto (based on the Mercedes SL) and Latigo (based on the BMW 6-series) both offer modern platforms, but come wrapped in exclusive shells, and will be built in strictly limited numbers. Beyond their unique coachwork, they have interiors decked out with the latest electronic gadgets and hand-finished leather, plus a number of powertrain options, with base engines and transmissions upgraded by the performance tuner of their owner’s choice.
Based on the Mercedes SL55, the Tramonto retains all of the base car’s safety and technical features, but looks completely unique, and is a lot faster, especially if you choose the 610-hp Kleeman supercharger option. Its custom body panels are finished as well as those from Mercedes itself, and the fit of all the pieces is superb. More importantly, should you wish, they’ll even paint it to match your Gucci handbag.