Newest Toy for China’s Rich Is the SUV Lined in Sharkskin

Leather seats and a champagne fridge used to be the ultimate in car luxury. Now, it’s Tiffany blue bonnets encrusted with Swarovski crystals.

In China, where millionaires are being minted daily and displays of excess are still easily found despite a crackdown on extravagance, the bar for conspicuous consumption is being raised ever higher.

Enter the Prombron Black Shark, a bespoke luxury vehicle from Latvia’s Dartz Motorz Co. that in addition to armor-plating, crowd-suppression lasers and anti-paparazzi electrified door handles, offers exotic leather interiors, a Bang & Olufsen A/S sound system and, yes, as one customer has requested, that famous blue paint job. Costing in excess of six figures, these cars are clearly for people who want to do more than just get from point A to point B.

“Our customers have everything in their garage already and they want something no one else has,” said Dartz founder Leonard Yankelovich. Five of the planned 11-unit Black Shark production run will go to China, he said. “Chinese like big cars and they like expensive cars. They also want to show their wealth and their uniqueness.”

President Xi Jinping’s pledge to stamp out graft among government officials might have hurt the mid-range luxury market, hitting brands like Prada SpA and Remy Cointreau SA, but the boom in its upper echelons shows no signs of slowing.

True Professionals

“The luxury brands are saying things have definitely slowed in terms of growth but what they’re selling is much more high end and less about logos,” said Deborah Aitken, a London-based luxury goods analyst at Bloomberg Intelligence. “It’s moved more toward innate objects that only a true professional would know the value of.”

The ranks of China’s millionaires swelled by almost a million last year, according to Boston Consulting Group Inc. That’s helping support demand for vehicles like Volkswagen AG’s Bugatti Veyron, the world’s fastest production car that retails for a minimum $1.85 million, and Koenigsegg Automotive AB’s models starting at $1.4 million.

McLaren Automotive Ltd., of Formula One racing fame, expects to sell about 150 cars in China this year, or 10 percent of global deliveries, Mirko Bordiga, the carmaker’s Asia-Pacific regional director, said in April. China accounts for about 25 percent of vehicle sales for Koenigsegg, which makes 15 cars a year, said Andreas Petre, director and head of sales for the Middle East, Asia, Africa and Australia.

Riga Factory

Daimler AG’s Mercedes Benz unit, whose AMG G63 was the inspiration for the 1,500 horsepower Black Shark, said in April it plans to produce GLA-model crossover sports utility vehicles in China, starting next year.

Brilliance China Automotive Holdings Ltd.’s venture with Bayerische Motoren Werke AG boosted its sales fivefold from 2009 through 2013 alongside a nationwide luxury car boom that’s outpaced the overall passenger vehicle market, BI analyst Steve Man said in a report today. The new 5 Series sedans and the X1 SUV led sales, he said.

Yankelovich founded closely held Dartz in 1988 at 22. The company claims a heritage to the Russo-Balt carriage works, which made cars in Riga near the beginning of last century before being nationalized after the 1917 revolution. Dartz produced a $1.8 million homage to the historic brand for the 2006 Villa d’Este Concourse d’Elegance.

“I make money but I’m not near a stage where I’m showing it by buying $100,000 watches or $100,000 phones,” Yankelovich said.

Booming Sales

The number of SUVs sold in China jumped 33 percent in the first nine months of the year, data from China Automotive Information Network show. Sport utility sales rose 37 percent in October from a year earlier, according to figures posted Nov. 7 on the website of China’s Passenger Car Association.

That dwarfs the 4.6 percent growth the state-backed China Association of Automobile Manufacturers predicts for the overall car market in 2014, a forecast that was itself cut from 8.3 percent in July and 10 percent in January. China, the world’s second-largest economy, is set for its weakest growth since 1990 this year.

Dartz’s Chinese customers will be offered a range of options to make the vehicle “even more luxurious,” including traditional lettering and an imperial gold color scheme, according to Yankelovich. While the price depends on the options chosen, each Black Shark will be “more than a $1 million” and take from four to eight months to complete.

Dartz partners with Vertu Ltd., the maker of mobile phones that start at $10,000 -- you get two with the Black Shark as well as a subscription to Vertu’s concierge service -- and Italy’s Kolonial Touch, a unit of the Luxpel Group that promises “100 percent bizarre” leather products, including elephant skin wall coverings.

Unique Aspirations

“Brands and producers are finding ways to collaborate and give cash-rich individuals, particularly in Russia, the Middle East and China, something bespoke that makes a statement about who they are,” said Helena Warren, managing director of the Luxury Network for Hong Kong and the U.K. “It’s about having something a bit out of the ordinary, about a money-can’t-buy experience or product you can talk about with your friends.”

Shark and ostrich skin interiors aside, when it comes to an everyday drive, an SUV, even one costing north of $1 million, makes a certain kind of sense when compared with vehicles like the Veyron, which can clock 62 miles per hour in 2.6 seconds but has no back seat and limited room for shopping totes.

Muscular Look

“It’s not so convenient to drive a Bugatti,” Yankelovich said. “It’s not easy to sit down in or get out of, that’s the same with any sports car.” The Black Shark on the other hand is “very practical,” he said. “It’s more than practical because it’s bespoke. We make it special for the customer.”

While Dartz offers the option of armoring the Black Shark to the B7 standard, which will repel anything up to an armor-piercing round from a standard light machine gun, Yankelovich says most units will only “appear armored.”

That “muscular” look is sought out by customers, he said.

“It’s not for protection,” he said. “People who are afraid of something, they don’t make such a show. When you drive this car, everybody sees you.”

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