Normally sedate Rolls-Royce attracted many onlookers at The Quail with a Wraith painted candy apple red.
September 14, 2015 - 12:01 am ET
MONTEREY, Calif. -- The scene is the alfresco luxury auto show held here every August, known simply as The Quail. Bentley designer Brett Boydell is trying to explain to a consumer from Los Angeles that the racy EXP 10 Speed 6 two-door coupe concept that Bentley has on display is not for sale.
At any price.
"How much will it sell for when it is for sale?" persists the visitor.
"This is only a design concept," Boydell tells him with English cheer. "We first have to decide whether we're going to build it."
"So when will it go on sale?" another visitor joins in.
If people with money seem more eager than normal to spend it on high-end autos, it's because they are. The U.S. ultraluxury brands are going strong. Maserati, Bentley, Lamborghini and Rolls-Royce are all bullishly planning crossovers.
But trend-watchers believe something bigger is happening in the luxury world. They believe a new demographic is rising into place in the upper levels of auto prices. And it is a demographic of people who care little for the reserved routines of the past, who often want something bold and different, who want it right now and who want to show it off.
"Kylie Jenner: Blue Hair, Pink Shoes and a Bright Green Bentley," screams a headline from celebritycarsblog.com. The accompanying photo, from the reality TV personality's Instagram flow, which has 34 million followers, shows what may or may not be her feet and shoes with the tail end of an acid-green Bentley, as though it was just another fashion accessory.
"Ice-T and Coco Throw Some Chrome on Their Rolls Royce," hollers another Web headline. The accompanying bling shot is enough to make a silver-haired Rolls dealer blush -- or smile with dollar signs in his eyes.
But the larger point? Luxury makers have duly noted the noise.
"There is a lot of new wealth out there today," agrees Gorden Wagener, global vice president of design for Mercedes-Benz parent Daimler AG. "People are looking for good places to invest their money, and we are asking, 'What more can we do to fulfill that desire for luxury?'"
Wagener points out the return of Daimler's elite Maybach subbrand this year. The new 2016 Mercedes-Maybach S600 starts at $191,975, including shipping and the U.S. gas guzzler tax -- twice the starting price of Mercedes' most expensive sedan, the S class.
A very red Rolls
Just across the perfectly clipped greens of the Quail Lodge & Golf Club from Bentley last month, a real-life hubbub was going on at a display by the normally sedate Rolls-Royce. A crowd has gathered to look at a Rolls-Royce Wraith painted in a very un-Rolls-Royce candy apple red. The automaker's marketing department officially calls it St. James Red, but to the flock of people who want to talk to a salesman there, it is clearly a candy apple red that is drawing onlookers like bees.
"We are attracting a new customer," says Gerry Spahn, Rolls-Royce Motor Cars' North America spokesman. "We're seeing a change in our customer profile, from people in their 60s to people in their 40s. They want something new from us. New interiors and more vibrant colors."
Near the bright red Wraith sits an electric blue Wraith. The marketing department calls it Salamanca Blue, but it is as electric blue as a London rave club on a Saturday night. A third Rolls on the lawn is a more traditional classic white, but inside? Lime green.
The Wraith nameplate represents the taste shift within Rolls. Pitched to younger buyers, the fastback four-seat coupe is marketed with two-tone paint and glitzier-than-normal wheels for around $300,000. Rolls-Royce now plans to introduce a convertible, called Dawn, that shares the Wraith's footprint.
"We're noticing a shift in the marketplace," Spahn says. "When you go to the auctions where collectors are looking for cars that make a statement, you're seeing new faces. They're not necessarily buying the old classics now -- they're paying big money to acquire vehicles from the 1970s and 1980s.
"We want to be that car 30 years from now, for the teenagers who came here today and were excited by this," he says, touching a candy apple red door panel.
Other luxury brands ought to be watching the trend, too, says Eric Lawrence, director of specialty products for Black Book. Lawrence monitors auction activity for fine cars and oversees publication of Black Book's Collectible Vehicle Value Guide. He believes the best indicator of the roiling luxury market is at the auction.
Selected models are exploding in value this year, he says. Ferrari 275 GTS models from 1966-68 that sold for $675,000 just three years ago now sell for more than $2 million, he says.
A 1989 Porsche 911 Speedster that sold in 2012 for $42,500 jumped sixfold to $275,000 this summer.
'The Instagram Effect'
A McLaren F1 from the late 1990s that was already untouchable for $3.5 million in 2012 -- now $11 million.
"We're in a new era," Lawrence says. "It's not Frank Sinatra in 1965 with a gorgeous Cadillac -- it's the new-money guys. It's the athletes. The guys in the entertainment business, the Wall Street people, the tech company people who are suddenly worth $300 million. They've suddenly made a lot of money, and they want to spend it suddenly."
Lawrence calls the trend in the auction markets and the luxury retail segment "The Instagram Effect."
It's not enough to acquire an ultraexpensive car and leave it in your garage, he says. "You've got to put it on Instagram or Tweet it. Look at me. Here's a selfie of me in my garage with my two new Lamborghinis.
"It makes everybody you know want to play the game -- no matter how much it costs to play. So we get pictures of entertainers hitting golf balls off the roof of their Maybach."
Hitting golf balls off the roof of a Maybach?
Indeed, photos circulated on the Internet last year after rappers DJ Khaled and Rick Ross released a music video in which they teed off from the roofs of an older Maybach 62 S and a Rolls-Royce Wraith.
"A new car culture is taking over," Lawrence says. "And if I were planning models for the future, I'd be looking for ways to bottle it up. Have a more over-the-top option list. Don't be afraid to make a car that's expensive. There will be enough buyers for it.
"And I'd also go a lot further to embrace my brand heritage," he says. "Car companies say, 'Why should I care about what's happening at the auctions with my 30- and 40-year-old models?' But people are literally competing to buy them. It's driving excitement in the brand today."
Back at Bentley's display at The Quail, designer Boydell points out design features on the EXP 10 Speed 6 intended to appeal to younger buyers looking for something out of the ordinary.
The Bentley logo on the car contains bright copper, and there is a flash of copper coloring in the wheels and brake calipers. The interior door panels are done in inlaid cherry that has been milled to look like leather.
The brawny door hinges -- rarely noticed on any car -- have been etched with the pattern of the British flag.
"We're seeing among our customers a new sense of 'I want it, and I want it right now,'" Boydell says. "It's a sense of, 'We know the Bentley brand -- just give us more of it.'
"Our challenge is to satisfy those people who are coming into the brand now for the first time by creating what's new and different but still hold true to what makes the Bentley brand. We want to show people how young and bold Bentley can be."