Inside the rarefied world of prestige and bespoke cars.
IN THE RAREFIED WORLD OF PRESTIGE AND BESPOKE CARS, LUXURY IS A TERM USED TO DESCRIBE THE OPPORTUNITY TO CREATE AN INCREDIBLY PERSONALISED OBJECT D’ART. A PLAYGROUND WHERE DISCERNING CLIENTS AND ENGAGED DESIGNERS DISCARD STANDARD SPECIFICATIONS IN FAVOUR OF A WORLD OF LIMITLESS POSSIBILITIES, PERSONAL EXPRESSION AND THE FULFILMENT OF DREAMS.
While all luxury marques will indulge some level of individualisation and customisation, the UK has some of the most established super luxury and performance brands where bespoke interaction have long been considered the norm. Aston Martin, Rolls-royce, Bentley and relative newcomers Mclaren Automotive all have departments whose remit is to act upon bespoke requests. While such individual personalisation isn’t unique to either marque, it is, in an historical sense a peculiarly British phenomenon.
“People say they don’t need our cars, they buy them because they’re beautiful. They buy them because they create a personal feeling with the car, and Q exemplifies that process. It endorses it and allows people to create a piece of their own inspiration,” says Dr Matthew J Bennett, General Manager of Q and VIP sales for Aston Martin. Q is the personalisation department that works in the very best tradition of Aston Martin, in order to cater to the marques most discerning, demanding and exacting clients. As a not so subtle nod to Aston Martin’s most famous literary driver, the division takes the already very exclusive and creates the opportunity to realise something even more distinctive.
As Bennett stands in front of a beautifully crafted presentation case, filled with swathes of the finest leathers, sculpted painted blocks, their shape deliberately chosen to demonstrate the effect of light and shade on the hue, he remarks “Creating a catalogue for Q is almost impossible as new ideas come from every part of the world”. Marek Reichman, Head of Design at Aston Martin, favours this endless opportunity adding, “the only limit is your imagination”.
It’s a tradition that Aston Martin has had since its inception; Reichman notes, “it’s at the very core of our brand”. The hand-made element of Aston Martin’s cars accommodates for imaginative innovations in vehicle design, and the firm only produces a small number of cars each year, with just 65,000 Aston Martins having been built in over 100 years.
“One thing all of our clients share is the experience,” Bennett explains. “The journey of meeting us, talking to us and having some fun is as important as the end product. What is unique about Aston Martin is the close proximity of design engineering and sales, and the fact that the clients’ get to talk to the same guy that designed the car.”
“We assume that this whole idea of personalisation comes from the home, but the car and the automotive industry really started it all, you can even look at that from the perspective of tailoring. A lot of our craftsmen and seamstresses came from the tailoring trade, which is all about people and individualisation” Reichman explains while reflecting on numerous commissions he is personally involved in each year. “Everyone’s a different shape, size and has different tastes. What we do is very much about that. This is about our clients taste. We don’t police it, we advise. We don’t say you can’t have a bright green, we actually say this bright green would work with this bright yellow and this bright red.”
Colour choice is indeed an intensive process and the ideas behind each decision are varied and nuanced. Whether it be blue paint to match a kitchen blender for a Bentley Continental GTC or even a Rolls-royce Wraith painted to echo the Jaguar MKII driven by television detective Inspector Morse. Such demands might seem simple, but Rolls-royce’s Head of Bespoke Sales and Marketing, Richard Collar is quick to note that achieving this particular customers request, meant an investment of time equivalent to painting eighteen Wraiths off the standard palette and two-tone paint process.
Cultural and geographical influences are also a significant consideration for makers. A car destined for a Middle Eastern client might look out of place on a grey British day, but under the shimmering brightness of an equatorial sun, it’s perfect. “The joy of the bespoke offering,” says James Warren of Rolls-royce, “is that we don’t have to second-guess that, we don’t just offer the limited twenty colour palette, there are 44,000 to choose from and that means it can be anything to anyone, no matter where they are in the world”.
It’s something that Reichman at Aston Martin recognises only too well and admits that colour has the power to surprise. “You may happen to be driving down a road in India and see an array of saris hanging up to dry and although you would never imagine those colours working together, they really do look fabulous. We are always working with our designers to create a nuance in our colours. There are so many tonal differences in one colour that you can always get them to blend and match.”
Aston Martin’s bespoke capabilities aren’t limited to surface treatments. A client wanting to celebrate the anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, not only took advantage of a collection of unique leather, paint and fabric options, but also requested that some of the stone from the wall be inlaid into the interior Q badge. There’s little that Aston Martin’s craftsmen and women cannot deliver. Underlining their exquisite ability and upon the marques centenary, the Q division filled the fine slithers between the stylised wings on the company’s badge (said to be derived from a scarab beetle) with the lustrous green shell of its inspiration. Bentley’s Mulliner Division responds to everything from unique leatherwork and wood finishes to champagne chillers, collectively adding to an already arduous manufacturing period reaching up to 400 hours or more. And the price? No one really asks.
In the current market there’s increasing demand for individualisation and simultaneous demand for exclusivity. Aston Martin’s One-77 project from 2009-12 has built just seventy-seven exclusive Aston Martin hypecars with a £1.2 million price tag. Each, says Reichman, was unique. One client famously loved the cars aluminium structure so much that he purchased a chassis to display on his wall as art. “Projects like One-77” says Reichman, “are where the real potential is. It’s not simply colour and materials, it’s shape and form, stance, style, attitude and feeling.”
“Our clients almost always have very good taste. And while industry standards can often dictate that adding up to 30 percent in specialised options results in the depreciation of the resell value of a vehicle, to some it’s not an
issue. It’s the same as engraving your initials on the back of your watch. You’re in this for the long term, you’re creating something that’s special to you. Our clients understand value, with value being defined as style, exclusivity and something that has never been before - that adds huge value to the experience. In the end that’s the bit that drives the decisions and not the final cost” admits Bennett. The process is enjoyable for the clients and as well as those working on the project, Bennett explains, “the experience is fun and challenging because you gain so much inspiration and there are no restrictions to the creative vision. In the end that’s what provides unique value to our clients”.
This is something Mclaren’s Special Operation (MSO) department has witnessed with its P1 supercar project. There is so much opportunity for the creative vision. James Banks, Head of Commercial Operations at MSO says, “one of our key mantras is ‘never say no’. We’ll do what you like whenever its possible within the law and available budget. One of the first questions I always ask of clients is whether you’ll be taking it to the racetrack or the opera. And then you’ve got to think about how that might change in time, a car you wanted to race becomes the car you take out for an evening”.
There’s no greater example of Bank’s thinking and the scope of MSO’S ability for one-off bespoke cars than the Mclaren X-1, a retro-deco-inspired fantastical car based on the 12C. Its anonymous Mclaren-dedicated owner wanted something completely different, with none of the exterior panels or lights carried over from the original car. Never to be seen again after its 2012 unveiling at Pebble Beach, the X-1 might not be to everyone’s taste but it does indeed represent the zenith of hand built bespoke production.
While Bentley and Rolls-royce might not deliver such overt and ostentatious one-off creations, Bentley’s 2008 Continental GTZ Zagato, a series of just nine cars, harks back to an age where coach builders and design houses created unique bodywork on running chassis. Zagato’s most prominent relationship remains with Aston Martin and the Z badge is still synonymous with the marque. The collaboration has produced iconic outcomes such as the 1960’s DB4 GT Zagato and the most recent 2011 V12 Zagato, Virage Shooting Brake Zagato, DBS Coupe Zagato Centennial and Spider Centennial with the former three celebrating Zagato’s ninety-fifth anniversary.
Cars like Aston Martin’s CC100 Speedster of which only two were built, were cars very close to Reichman’s heart. “The CC100 is a kind of spiritual embodiment of our DNA and to be able to do that for a client is very rewarding.” Such machines are inevitably expensive, but Reichman suggests that with their clients, it has little to do with money. It’s the realisation of a dream and in the world of collectables these vehicles are rightfully considered investments.
As enjoyable as the process may be for clients, it’s clearly liberating for Reichman to be given the outlet to channel his creativity. “We do things that we sometimes show as experiments; invariably they capture someone’s imagination so much that they must have one. That for me is the biggest buzz, as it adds credence to your imagination and validates your desire to inspire, to generate interest and to enthuse your own team. Should a client see our thinking and love it, then in the world of bespoke cars, they can have it.”