Gold has always held a special charm for India's wealthy. Now, the jet-setters are using it in the unlikeliest of places - their cars, with some going as far as to add their favourite jewels, too. The attempt is to extend to cars a concept that matured in 19th century European tailoring shops - bespoke, or customised, manufacturing to match the tastes of the super rich. Makers of luxury cars, such as Rolls-Royce and Bentley, are only too happy to oblige.
In fact, the companies do everything possible to shape the car into a piece of art. They are ready to replace the all-chrome interiors with bejewelled gold, emboss the customer's family crest on gear knobs, key chains, and seats and seat belts, if the customer so desires. Even the colours can be matched with the owner's favourite shirt, scarf or lipstick shade.
Money takes a back seat, as in the case of Bentley's new sports utility vehicle, Bentayga, one of whose owners asked for a Tourbillon clock, which cost as much as the car.
Roland Folger, Manging Director and CEO, Mercedes-Benz India, says they transform raw materials selected by customers into designer creations through their exquisite handcraftsmanship."Customers can choose from a wide range of exclusive features ranging from carbon fibre exteriors to seat massagers. They can also enhance the exclusivity of their vehicles by creating multiple options for upholstery, wheel alloy and designer belts," he says.
Indians, say remodelling experts, are the most conscious about their vehicle's interiors. Also, almost every buyer wants a height-adjustable suspension so that he can have a smooth ride while off-roading. Some of these car models even have a grab handle on the central pillar to lend support to the old and the infirm.
The basic engine options, though, remain the same in most machines, from the sporty and nimble V8 to the energetic W12. But this is made good through the wide range of external kits buyers can choose from for getting their preferred riding experience.
The preferences depend on the age, too. While the more mature buyers go for opulence, the young prefer smart, advanced carbon-fibre materials such as 'forged composite' for roofs.
"We have a range of kits, including racing exhaust that enhances performance, and aesthetic kits that include colourful brake calipers, fine strap lines and logos for giving the car a personalised look," says Sharad Agarwal, Head, Lamborghini India. The potential buyers can even fly out to factories in places such as the UK (Bentley and Rolls-Royce) and Italy (Ferrari and Lamborghini) to see if the work is going on as per the plan.
Satya Prakash Bagla, Managing Director, Bentley India, says every fifth customer in India prefers personal supervision. "The tradition of shaping these cars continues to enthrall our well-informed and privileged clients. Indians are one of the biggest travellers to the 90-year-old Bentley factory in the railway town of Crewe in north-west England. The options we give range from intricately hand-stitched upholstery to preferred dash of body paint to wooden steering wheel to personalised seats and seat belts for spouses," he says. Indians, say most manufacturers, have a special liking for retro interiors, hand-sewn natural leather upholstery and fine wood.
The list of gadgets, too, is pretty long, and includes systems for movie watching, Net surfing and creation of a Wi-Fi hotspot in the car. In some models, such as the Bentayga, owners can control the in-car systems through their Apple watch. The watch can also be used to format the entertainment system and manage the climate in the car.
The market for luxury cars in India has been swelling in spite of high duties of up to 189 per cent. The market size is estimated at 500-600 units a year, growing at more than 25 per cent per year. Still, India is a small market compared to China, where more than 10,000 such cars are sold every year.
The Rolls Ride
Rolls-Royce, with its unique century-old 'Spirit of Ecstasy' mascot made of stainless steel, continues to have the highest bespoke quotient. Prices start from Rs 4 crore, depending on the level of customisation, with additions such as rare jewellery often doubling the basic price.
"The new-age affluent Indians are well-read and widely travelled. They are exposed to global luxury brands," says Yadur Kapur, the owner of Select Cars, the largest retailer of super cars in India. "Bespoke luxury is about getting them to feel the brand in its state of elegance. There is no piece of metal like Rolls-Royce. It's not just hand-crafted. The attention to detail is so high that the cars sold in India come with a standard fitment of a humble umbrella," he says.
Most companies hire people who are experts at reconfiguration at their dealerships. The work is difficult and demanding. However, of late, they have got a big boost from the iPad-enabled 'Designo Apps' that throw up hundreds of design combinations at the click of a few buttons. This helps experts enhance customer experience through multiple options and instant price quotes. Mercedes-Benz, for instance, uses 3D imagery for its Maybach series to determine the possibilities before processing the order.
The cost of personalisation is at least $3,000. It can go up to $150,000 (as was the case with an Aventador model with racing livery that was sold in the US in 2015), says Agarwal of Lamborghini India.
The rising demand for these luxury rides has made several brands take notice. Mercedes-Benz recently brought back Maybach in India after a gap of four years. The super luxury limousine comes with V8 Bi-Turbo five-litre petrol engine and generates 523 BHP power. It has exclusive advanced features such as air suspension, Nappa leather upholstery, 24-speaker surround sound system, night vision and a seat massager.
Others bespoke marquees, Aston Martin and Maserati, also re-entered the market last year. The primary targets of these new brands are Indians in their mid-30s.
Another category where these companies have done well is bullet-proof cars, also called Super Guards, around 100 of which have been sold in India till date. The price tag is Rs 5 crore and above. Buyers include both politicians and corporate honchos. This veritable fortress on wheels can withstand attacks from AK-47s and crude bombs, and comes with a high-tech night-vision system, steel wheels and bullet-proof glass.
A similar car became a part of the entourage of the prime minister when he graduated from Mahindra Scorpio SUV to bulletproof BMW 7 Series. RIL Chairman Mukesh Ambani and Airtel Chairman Sunil Bharti Mittal are also reported to travel in these top-end machines.