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Profit versus playing hard-to-get: What makes a modern-day supercar exclusive?

Once a hallmark of a genuine supercar, exclusivity has become more elusive in recent years. But manufacturers have come up with a clever – and expensive – solution, writes Michael Stahl.

There’s a wonderful old story in the motor trade that’s still cited by sales staff at Aston Martin, the exclusive sports car brand. It was the early 1960s, and a potential customer was nosing around Aston Martin’s then-new DB5 coupé – destined to be immortalised in the James Bond movie franchise.

The hand-built DB5 was sleek, brutish and very British. But so was the new Jaguar E-Type – and it was half the price. The customer shook his head and departed for the Jaguar dealership. The following Monday, he was back. At the weekend, he’d driven his new Jaguar to the golf club. After his game, he’d spent a long and frustrating time attempting to unlock his car … before realising it was someone else’s almost identical E-Type.

Jaguar produced more than 72,500 E-Types; Aston Martin built just 1,059 DB5s, which today command an average of $3 million at auction. The customer concluded that exclusivity, and the avoidance of embarrassment, was cheap at twice the price.

Little has changed, except that buying a car that few others have is today more elusive – and expensive.

Interior of Ferrari Monza SP1
Interior of Ferrari Monza SP1
LaFerrari Aperta
LaFerrari Aperta
Aston Martin Vanquish Zagato
Aston Martin Vanquish Zagato © Max Earey

For any luxury brand, survival is a balancing act of increasing profits and playing hard-to-get. There for the taking is a steadily increasing, ultra-high net worth (UHNW) global population, estimated in 2019 at more than 265,000 individuals with personal fortunes of more than $44 million.

Ferrari’s production has more than doubled since the 1990s, when it built only around 4,000 cars each year. Lamborghini’s annual figure in the same period has risen from hundreds to rival Ferrari’s, at 8,000 to 9,000. Rolls-Royce delivered a record 4,100 cars in 2018, quadruple that of 20 years earlier. And newcomer McLaren has, in just 10 years, accelerated from zero to 5,000 cars. It’s not hard to work out that the odds in the golf club car park are a lot shorter these days.

These and other carmakers have been quick to come up with a solution that is proving extremely satisfactory for all parties. ‘Limited edition’ cars such as the McLaren Elva, the Bugatti Divo, the Porsche 935 and the Aston Martin Zagato series, among others, are heavily based on existing (or even recently outdated) production models. They’re fitted with different and distinctive bodywork, perhaps tuned for more power and produced in a strictly controlled production run. The theme and styling are often linked to a significant historic model or anniversary, and thus will tug at the heartstrings of the brand’s passionate followers.

Ferrari Monza SP1 and SP2
Ferrari Monza SP1 and SP2

With their underpinnings already available and paid for, and ‘exotic’ hand-laid carbon-fibre actually a very cost-effective material at low volumes, these special models aren’t much more expensive to produce. Yet their manufacturer list price may be as much as five times that of the production model on which they are based.

In buying one, it’s not enough to be a mere multi-millionaire. Ferrari and others maintain ‘VIP lists’, from which customers must be invited to order a ‘build slot’ for the new wondercar – usually still unseen, years from delivery and with a price tag marked ‘TBC’. The customer will pay a substantial deposit and ongoing ‘stage’ payments (thereby helping cover the carmaker’s up-front costs).

The customer will also be required to sign a contract forbidding them from selling their build slot. In fact, some of Ferrari’s No Resale contracts extend two years from the date of delivery. This is an attempt to combat the speculation that has become a whole sub-industry among these limited-edition models.

For those speculators, or other would-be buyers denied anointment by the factory, there’s still hope. Among a few hundred legitimate customers, some will be willing to risk VIP-blacklisting and succumb to offers of two to three times list price for their build slot. Special brokerages will introduce buyers and sellers and covertly transfer ownership.

Bugatti Divo logo
Details of Bugatti Divo © Max Earey
Porsche 935
Details of Porsche 935
Interior of Bugatti Divo
Interior of Bugatti Divo © Max Earey

This isn’t just about overpaid, insecure boys and girls needing the latest self-esteem generator. They’re also good business for the buyers. With its future value appreciation virtually assured, a limited-edition car is as good as a loyalty gift, which is what the manufacturers intend.

Ferrari has long been the master of managing exclusivity. Its founder Enzo Ferrari, who died in 1988 at the age of 90, once revealed his calculation: “Ferrari will always deliver one less car than the market demand.”

Ferrari – consistently ranked as the world’s most powerful brand – was understandably a pioneer of the limited-edition market. Since the 1980s, its production supercar range has been sporadically spiced with batches of ‘hypercar’ performance flagships, such as the F40, Enzo and more recently, LaFerrari, typically in numbers of 300 to 500.

Ferrari has parlayed that into recent, production-based limited-edition models such as the 2016 LaFerrari Aperta (a convertible version of the LaFerrari) and the 2018 Monza SP1 and SP2, a roadster re-body of the 812 Superfast – which, listing at €1.4 million ($2.3 million) and with Australian taxes to come on top, is almost five times the price.

The Aperta was built in an edition of just 210 units, with a list price of €1.85 million ($3 million). A handful of build slots were privately sold, at up to €4 million ($6.48 million). Now outside the two-year No Resale agreement, Apertas change hands at around $10 million.

Nice work … if you can get it.

Porsche 935
Porsche 935

This article originally appeared in volume 36 of Signature Luxury Travel & Style magazine. To subscribe to the latest issue, click here.

Lead image: LaFerrari Aperta

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