October 17, 2011
Over the weekend, my Dad went on a joy ride in a buddy’s brand new Ferrari California, a rare and exquisite moment in any car guy’s life. It’s enough to turn any grown man into a bumbling, drooling kid. It’s got perfect lines, an elegant interior and a motor to die for. My Dad was in heaven.
The Ferrari 458 Italia is the reigning champion of my own Ferrari dreams. I got to see a couple in person recently at the Baltimore Grand Prix. The sounds they make are otherworldly. Their shape is fiendish yet beautiful. They met my expectation and I was in love. I was ready to put on my linen pants, half-open polo shirt and leather moccasins and fly down the Cote d’Azur to Monaco for a night of gambling and high living.
But I realized recently that I’ll never own one. I’ll also never own a Pagani, a Rolls Royce, a Lamborghini or any number of other exotic and rare luxury sportscars. And I think the reasons why are important.
People overvalue stuff. In the past when simply building any car was a highly innovative achievement, the higher end marques had significant advantages in build quality, beauty, and performance. They don’t anymore. The cars that Ferrari and Rolls Royce produce are made from either currently expensive technology or handmade craftsmanship. Technology has made the production of almost all cars completely streamlined. The average sedan is CAD designed, wind tunnelled and has far more technology than a Ferrari of even the mid-90s. As Jeremy Clarkson says, “handmade is just a clever way of saying the doors will fall off.” You can’t duplicate handmade, by definition, but machines today are actually better than hands. The idea of handmade craftsmanship is simply a measure of exclusivity. Technology on the other hand is evolving at a faster and faster rate. The average Kia today has far more and better features than the super exclusive cars of twenty or thirty years ago, and a very affordable sportscar today is probably faster than a vintage Ferrari.
What super luxury cars do have is style. They are bold and beautiful, sexy and erotic, elegant and sumptuous. Unfortunately, it’s not technology that creates this difference, it’s the abilities and flexibilities of their designers. Even the carbon composite body of the McLaren F1, that heavenly bastion of racing-induced design in the 90s, is old hat. I know people that make carbon door skins in their garage now. Of course, cheap cars can have style. The only reasons a cheap car is ugly today is shoddy committee-driven design or the belief by the maker that the average consumer actually wants a beige Camry. GM pioneered this mentality and they’ve been dealing with it for decades. They make cars lazily. They’ve survived this long because most people actually don’t care. That and branding.
I’m probably being a little unfair to the exotic cars. They are amazing machines with incredible technology. Carbon ceramic brakes, double clutch gearboxes, magneto-rheological shocks, launch control, amazing differentials, carbon everything, etc. A lot of this is still too expensive for lesser cars. But it’s all coming very soon.
And that’s the problem with my fantasy Ferrari. The root of a Ferrari’s utility is exclusivity, and it’s a facade built on the perception of performance. A Ferrari is actually a harbinger of the future.
In other words, what your exclusive $350K buys you is a glimpse into what the technology of the future might be. And quite frankly, I can get what I need of that by watching the cars get flogged on Top Gear.
Which is why I love that show along with the rest of the automotive population. I got to watch them absolutely thrash a 458 Italia. If I owned that car, I would almost always baby it. I would expect it to be less reliable than a fast car a fifth of it’s price. I would drive it less. Like most owners, the reality would be far less exciting than my wonderful built-up fantasy. I’d still wear a prancing horse hat of course, and leather moccasins.
For the same reasons, I don’t really understand the Barret Jackson collector crowd either. It’s like a more upscale and focused Pawn Stars. For various historical reasons, people overvalue the crap out of these bygone rocketships. The prices get remarkably inflated in the same way as a Picasso or a Klimt painting: brand. When you buy a COPO Camaro you are effectively buying a remarkably large objet d’art based on a brand name. If you have fond memories of the 60s and you are incredibly rich, it gives you a glimpse into the past instead of the future.. and maybe it’s worth it. I doubt it.
In popular culture, the allure of the Ferrari, the Rolls Royce, and the COPO Camaro to the automotive masses are all driven by branding. Aside from rattling off specs, people don’t actually have a clue about any of these Things. They never really get to experience them. They know them because their branding is so incredibly strong that they’ve become famous.
Branding is what actually sells today. In a world where stuff is so prevalent and overvalued, brand is what separates Chateau Mouton Rothschild at $500/bottle from Stag’s Leap at $40/bottle. It’s what keeps Louis Vouitton, Dom Perignon, and Rolex in business and rolling in high prices. In a world of atomic clocks and quartz movement, who needs a Patek Philippe? Brand drives exclusivity, and cost. *1
So I’m a performance nut. If not a Ferrari, what would I buy? Well I’ll tell you. I want a car that can perform unbelievably well. But I also want to be a better driver. I want to learn how to use everything the car has. So I’ll stick with a cheaper car that I don’t feel bad bruising up a bit in the pursuit of performance. Those ALMS Ferrari race teams can keep their 458 Italias and multimillion dollar budgets. You know what I want? I want a 58 Bugeye Sprite. This, ladies and gentleman, is one of my favorite cars in the world, and most of you have never laid eyes on it.
That’s Jeff Keisel’s 58 Sprite. It has a Mazda 13B rotary motor with upwards of 400 hp. It runs Goodyear slicks from a Formula Atlantic and weighs 1800 lbs. It’s a complete rocketship and one of my favorite cars on planet earth. I’d much rather have it than a Ferrari. For SCCA Solo, an amateur form of motorsport that lets you push the limit of a car, this is about as good as it gets. It’s maybe a fifth of the price of a new Ferrari and way faster.
I’m not quite ready for that level of prep or budget. In the meantime, I’ve got (part of) this:
It’s a 2002 BMW 330 prepped for SCCA Solo. It’s built to be run hard and performs really well. It’s common enough that we don’t mind if it gets a beating. When it comes right down to it, I’ll take the smell of rubber and competition over a lazy afternoon drive in my leather moccasins any day.
Interestingly, car companies seem to be converging towards a really fascinating middle ground of luxury, performance and technology. BMW, Mercedes, and Porsche have started on the topside of this layer and moved downmarket. Toyota, Nissan, and Honda split off Lexus, Infiniti, and Acura respectively to move upmarket. They’re all driving towards the same segment - a sweet spot where a car has every need you could ask for, including style and class, and exudes a craftsmanship that provides the same facade of exclusivity. You can still see the origins of this movement in the relative brand perceptions. Here the consumer sees the amalgam of all the style, technology, image and speed they want along with the reliability, lack of concern and everyday quality they need. And the topside of this market is still a harbinger of the future. A Mercedes S550 shows the quality and features of a more average sedan ten years from now, where a Rolls Royce shows it twenty five years from now.
Of course, if everyone converges to this class of vehicle, the exclusivity and class arguments get tossed out the window, but I wonder if the average consumer will ever really notice? We’re far richer than ever before, and we all can afford nicer cars than we used to. We’re happy, or will be if we can avoid the problem of brand. Functionally, all of these cars are so advanced that the only way they differ is in brand and style.
This also leaves an interesting niche market at the lower end of the spectrum. You probably won’t see a ton of it in the States, but in India, Brazil or other places around the world it could explode. It’s the extremely cheap “transportation only” market. In this segment, cars can be bare-bones, reliable boxes that get a set of people around. No power windows, locks, fancy stereos, navigation, or leather. Tata Motors is starting up and they might have the right idea. I bet they won’t be the last.
In the meantime, I’m happy to sit in my relatively normal band of motoring. Despite whatever wealth I get lucky enough to accumulate - even if it ends up being millions of dollars - I will never own that Ferrari. I will stick to BMWs or Nissans, Mercedes or Hondas, and relish in a much cheaper and still extremely fast real car to satisfy my hunger for speed. The real thing is always better than a wet dream.
*1 It’s possible to drive brand on cheapness too, like Walmart.