As the gap between automotive haves and have-nots continues to grow, ultraluxury automakers are exploiting fresh ways to lure the sorts of well-heeled car aficionados who would rather spend their spare time shipping exotic sleds to private tracks than sitting on a beach in the Maldives.
This rarified air presents a daunting challenge to boutique carmakers attempting to distinguish themselves, especially when they're vying for attention amidst voluptuous Paganis, Koenigseggs, and Brabus G63 AMG 6x6s. When the stakes are this high and the competition this fierce, you need a novel approach to peddle your four-wheeled wares – even if you're Bugatti.
Playing The Numbers Game
The Bugatti Veyron EB 16.4 bowed in 2005 as an audacious gesture of ego and hubris, spearheaded by Volkswagen boss Ferdinand Piëch. When tasking his engineers with creating the Veyron, Piëch famously gave numerical marching orders: the car should produce no less than 1,000 horsepower, hit 60 miles per hour in under three seconds and claim a top speed of over 250 mph. Oh, and it had to be capable of transporting two adults to the opera without a trace of vulgarity.
Piëch knew a thing or two about cars when he set those goals in 1999 – he is, after all, the mastermind behind the absolutely bonkers Porsche 917. But even a genius couldn't anticipate the crushing global recession that struck in 2008, stunting the Veyron's sales cycle three years after its debut.
Nine years later, the Veyron's production run of 450 cars is nearly complete. To date, all 300 coupes – 253 Veyrons and 47 Super Sports – have found owners, and of the allotted 150 Grand Sport and Grand Sport Vitesse open top cars, just under 20 remain unsold. "It's a good thing that there are no real alternatives to a Veyron," one Bugatti employee confided, "but you're still battling short attention spans." While it's certainly been a long, drawn out run for the Veyron, the end is finally in sight.
Wanna Buy A Hypercar?
White-glove treatment is par for the course when it comes to hawking six-figure cars. But when the purchase price hovers around the $2.5-million mark, the expectations – and subsequent tactics – become extreme. In order to move its remaining allotment of Veyrons, Bugatti has curated a test-drive program intended to flaunt the Veyron's stratospheric performance capabilities at exotic locales. The so-called Dynamic Driving Experience kicked off several years ago at Circuit Paul Ricard in Southern France, a track presumably picked for its large-scale potential for speed and its proximity to European bajillionaires who were flown in if they didn't happen to hail from the nearby Côte d'Azur. The program later expanded to Formula One circuits in cities including Abu Dhabi and Shanghai, and it launched Stateside in Las Vegas last year. Four dates followed in 2014, among them an event I attended in Palm Desert, CA. More on that later.
As one might expect, the cultural experience can be dramatically different across foreign borders, and potentially harrowing for the professional drivers who place their lives in the hands of would-be buyers who may or may not have pitch-perfect driving skills. "It's been a bit challenging, to be honest, in Asia where people own Lamborghinis and Ferraris but don't have that long of an experience driving super sports cars," one Bugatti official told me. "We had a bit of sweat there," he said, "but we always make sure we use racetracks with runoff."
The Eccentric One-Percent
First-class travel and five-star hotels are de rigueur perks for potential buyers of cars that cost as much as a sweet spread in Beverly Hills, and not surprisingly, the Bugatti program has seen plenty of eccentric behavior from the deep-pocketed players considering these megapurchases. Take, for instance, a certain Eastern European customer who already owned several Veyrons and planned to spend a day at Paul Ricard sampling three new models on Bugatti's dime. According to Bugatti board member Dr. Stefan Brungs, the gentleman was en route to the French track on his private jet with his family when he changed his mind mid-flight and ordered his pilot to head to Monaco instead. "He had a day of fun there, and then headed [back home]," Brungs explains. However irksome it might seem to plan such an elaborate event around a flighty billionaire, the diversion evidently didn't leave hard feelings with Bugatti brass. "He showed up a half a year later and he actually bought several cars," Brungs says. "We have quite extravagant customers."
There's no shortage of absurd behavior at the top of the financial food chain, like guests who demand absolute confidentiality and discretion, only to bring an entourage of photographers who share snapshots on social media. And then there are those who use high-end automotive experiences as backdrops for lavish parties, like the group who visited Bugatti headquarters in Molsheim and organized an intimate concert with Chinese superstar pianist Lang Lang.
To glimpse a day in the life of a would-be Bugatti buyer, I visited a Bugatti Dynamic Driving Experience in Palm Desert. Though I drove myself there and made the return trip home later that night (in a Kia press loaner, no less), actual prospects enjoy the whole nine yards, including round-trip flights, car services, five-star accommodations and lavish meals.
My day begins at the Bighorn Golf Club, a high-end Palm Springs resort with landscaping that makes the sprawling property resemble a steroidally enhanced version of Disneyland's Big Thunder Mountain. On a reserved patio at the resort's restaurant, a small group of Bugatti reps and test drivers Andy Wallace and Butch Leitzinger mingle with a small group of auto writers, using an afternoon slot normally reserved for potential buyers.
The press gathering piggybacks onto a three-day regional event that showcases the Veyron Vitesse Grand Sport to 25 prospects from the Los Angeles, San Diego and Bay Area. But our group isn't quite representative of typical customers, as evidenced by our questions: "What's the conversion rate for prospects, and what's Butch's daily driver?" (The take rate is anywhere between 20 percent and 40 percent and Butch's regular steed is a Volkswagen Jetta TDI wagon. Go figure.)
When called to the valet area for my first drive, I'm met by a stunning orange-and-black Vitesse Grand Sport. Unlike potential customers, an Infiniti QX70 camera car serves as a chase vehicle (which, it turns out, has a miserable time keeping up with the 1,200-horsepower Bugatti). It isn't my first stint in a Veyron, but the car still feels special, even with an astronomical 13,997 miles on the clock. I later learn that another test car was put out of commission at the last minute due to a transmission issue, which required the logistics team to ship the orange Veyron overnight from Miami. Yikes.
Say what you will about the Veyron's middling styling or lack of driver involvement, but there's nothing quite like knowing that 16 cylinders, four turbos and 1,200 horsepower are commanded by your right foot. Even driven at two-tenths, the Veyron accelerates with effortless impunity, accompanied by a fascinating symphony of whooshes and wheezes from the turbochargers, wastegates and exhaust. It doesn't deliver the steering feedback or throttle response of a driver-focused sports car, but the Veyron's charisma lies in the Wagnerian scale of its performance envelope and the mindwarp of how little effort it takes to stir such drama-free athleticism. Though slow traffic spoils much of the drive on the switchback-heavy Highway 74, a brief dip into the throttle offers an intoxicating tease, triggering seat-pinning thrust that feels nothing short of immense. For all my enthusiast-biased skepticism towards this status symbol, I can honestly say that within that split-second of obscene acceleration, I want a Veyron.
Later that afternoon, our group migrates to Jacqueline Cochran Regional Airport in nearby Thermal, where we are greeted by a lounge-style hospitality tent outfitted with snacks and a small wait staff. A few hundred feet away, the Veyron is getting its wheels and tires swapped for a fresh set, an $108,000-task performed with nothing more than hand tools and a heavy-duty jack stand.
Once the car is ready, I'm taken for a reconnaissance run down a 4,000-foot taxiway, which would be plenty of real estate for most cars, but is barely enough space for the Veyron. When it's my turn behind the wheel, I'm encouraged to floor it off the line but brake when told – easy-enough instructions that bookend the vehicle's difficult-to-comprehend performance capabilities. From a standstill, there's a moment of anticlimax before the turbochargers kick in and an aircraft carrier-style catapult makes the car feel like it's being propelled by afterburners. Gearshifts are knocked off in smooth, rapid fire succession, and in a few brief seconds, my passenger and I are barreling down the tarmac at about 175 mph, with my responsibility to hit the brakes arriving far sooner than I would have expected. The rear spoiler acts as an airbrake, and working in conjunction with the four massive carbon-ceramic binders, the Veyron doesn't demand much pedal effort to come to a dramatically short stop. Just as quickly as it started, it's over, and I'm pulling a U-turn to return to the tent.
Few modern cars have polarized automotive enthusiasts like the Bugatti Veyron, but one fact is hard to ignore: we're unlikely to see another similarly ambitious engineering accomplishment from a mainstream manufacturer in our lifetime. However, despite its four-figure horsepower, king-of-the-hill spec sheet, and seven-figure price tag, some enthusiasts remain unaffected by its charms. "The Veyron has a massive amount of power and engineering," one serial collector told me, "but at this level, I want a visceral experience – pure speed is but one aspect of what I expect. This or my [Porsche] 918? No contest."
Ed B., another car collector who happened to participate in the Palm Desert program, came away more swayed by the Vitesse Grand Sport. "I had never experienced anything so powerful," he says, evidenced by his subsequent purchase of a triple-blue 2006 Veyron originally owned by publishing magnate Bob Peterson.
Ed has a collection that includes four Ferraris, and even though he didn't purchase a new Veyron, he was invited to visit Bugatti's headquarters in Molsheim, France while visiting Paris. "They are very genuine and they take care of you," he says of the Bugatti team, who welcomed him to the company's factory and the Château St. Jean, hosting him and his family for a test drive and luncheon. "I've [been hosted by] Ferrari, and they put you on a bus... to be honest, it was nothing special," he says, adding that the personal attention by the Bugatti team was "really, really wonderful."
"I think they were hoping I'll buy another car from them," he adds, "which I will."