Long-term car loans, presently averaging seven years and stretching to nine, have made luxury automobiles more accessible to a greater number of buyers while, at the same time, making exclusivity more elusive.
The solution for the discriminating buyer is the bespoke automobile.
The term bespoke traditionally applies to made-to-order items – a suit sewn from scratch based on precise measurements, a unique piece of jewelry crafted to the customer’s design.
For cars, the definition is more elastic, covering items such as custom colours or unique interior finishes outside the usual list of dealer options. As a general rule: The higher the price tag, the closer to purely bespoke it becomes. To configure a Pagani supercar, with its starting price in seven figures, Toronto-based Pfaff Auto Group relies on a computer system that itself cost €26,000.
The refinements rarely extend to mechanical alterations to avoid running afoul of safety regulations or certification requirements, said David Sherrard, Mercedes-Benz Canada’s national manager of product management.
Pfaff, whose luxury offerings include Porsche, BMW, Audi, McLaren and Pagani, partnered with Canadian fashion designer Sid Neigum to offer services for custom orders.
“This was just an opportunity to take that (bespoke orders) to the next level where somebody may know we have the ability to do stuff like this but may not be ready to specify a car themselves,” said Pfaff marketing director Laurance Yap. “What Sid does is kind of bring a designer’s eye to it.”
Neigum provides advice on colour matching, finishes and other details. Customers may have an idea of what they want but need guidance to realize an aesthetically pleasing vision. It can be a delicate diplomatic dance to ensure the customer drives away happy.
“The risk … with these manufacturers in being able to specify everything individually is that you may end up with something that you thought was going to look really good and doesn’t,” Yap said.
Wildly customized cars are hard to resell when the owners get tired of them. Mercedes-Benz sells only a handful of truly bespoke vehicles each year, Sherrard said, in part because the company has incorporated more individual choice into its ordering process under the name “designo.”
“In the past it would have been a lot more free-for-all,” he said.
Mercedes’ web tools allow buyers to preview designo features before they’re in the car.
Designo touches are available throughout most of Mercedes’ model range but are most popular on the high-end S-Class and G-Class lines.Changing the wood trim on an S-Class can cost $1,500, paint up to $6,000. A custom order that requires the car to come off the assembly line for a respray will cost more and take longer to deliver.
“We’re always happy to talk to the factory to explore what can be done, because we want to accommodate as many customer requests as we can, of course,” said Sherrard. “Sometimes it’ll just come down to what’s technically feasible.”
Serious bespoke means anteing up more money. All Rolls-Royce models, which start at around $300,000, can be personalized, said Steven Wu, brand manager at Rolls-Royce Vancouver.
Buyers start with an extensive list of optional equipment that can be mixed and matched, from monogrammed door-sill plates to personalized headrests. Special colours within Rolls’ existing paint codes take an extra month or two.
The ultimate custom order, with non-standard colours or unique interior furnishings, can take up to a year while the bespoke team at Rolls’ factory in Goodwood, England, ensures the request can be fulfilled.
Anything edgy is handled tactfully, Wu said. “If they do insist after our adviser or bespoke team advises otherwise, of course Rolls-Royce can make it happen,” he said.
For those wanting to make a different kind of statement, there’s a Porsche 911 restored by Singer Vehicle Design. It’s developed a cult following for its highly detailed work on 1989-to 1994 911s supplied by customers.
No two commissions, which take 4,000 hours to complete, are alike. They start at more than $500,000.
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