As I’ve just come up from a Michelin two-star dinner in the dramatically lit cellar of a neoclassical nineteenth-century Viennese palace courtesy of Rolls-Royce and its new Wraith — and, before that, having risen from the prone position on the lawn (I tripped) at the 63rd Annual Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance while a guest of Infiniti and the new Q50 — forgive me a lingering bout of luxuria in cerebrum, or luxury on the brain.
For my condition, I blame all the resurgent luxury and would-be luxury automobile brands out there, each with an absurdist price tag to explain, an ethos and lifestyle to sell, and an invitation to join them somewhere fabulous. Live life in the champagne-drenched lap of fanciful, beautiful, eternal luxury? It’s an invitation I graciously accept. A cameo appearance on Planet Rich beats no appearance at all. And whilst there, one gets to peer deep into the psyches of those who inhabit the moneyed star and those who wish to vend to them — the relationship between them as old, intriguing, and sometimes creepy as great wealth itself.
Owing to economic conditions that have made quite a few of the world’s citizens notably wealthier and rather more even poorer, carmakers have identified the upper end as a growth market. It’s paradoxical. Exclusivity is one of luxury’s key signifiers, yet they’re all stepping up production and the pace of model launches and quickening the beat of deluxe invitations clattering into my inbox. To help reify their luxury credentials, any brand with even the most remote claim to grandeur believes it must summon the world’s automotive- and lifestyle-press fraternities — in general, as schleppy a bunch of schleppers as you could hope to meet — to ever more exotic locales and the posh dwelling and sumptuous dining experiences they offer.
Pebble Beach lasts four days as opposed to the typical car launch’s two, making it the indisputable Ironman triathlon of luxury-car-launch endurance tests; no one gets out without having been gorged and pickled. From its humble beginnings as a casual event held by impecunious millionaires for their own amusement, Pebble Beach has morphed into a combination ultra-high-end car show and giant automobile-industry trade fair, snooty concours meets the New York auto show, minus the middle class and the poor. The lanes are jam-packed with millionaires. Nearly everyone in the luxury-car business is present, some with their own pop-up showrooms. Auction houses set records selling classic cars.
Yet something is seriously wrong in the land of luxury.
For in this company, no new Bugatti or Lamborghini can stand out, much less any Mercedes, Rolls, Bentley, Porsche, Jaguar, Infiniti, Cadillac, or, heaven forfend, Lincoln. They cost more than ordinary cars, they tend to be very good, but they are no longer special. Rather, they’re a dime a dozen. And the companies keep trying to sell more. So they bring more variations. They market foolish, mass-produced SUVs. They dilute their brands’ essences.
Luxury is drowning in its own luxury.
In branding, authenticity rules. And no authenticity is purer than real exclusivity. So with super-low-production and one-off editions bagging the biggest millions on the auction block ($27.5 million for a 1967 Ferrari 275GTS/4 N.A.R.T. Spider!), the answer to this conundrum stares industry in the face. Superluxury brands need to return to their roots and build a few truly bespoke automobiles. Not just jade-encrusted sill plates made to order, but one-off cars. They will be expensive. But for the dick-wavers in this crowd, that’s no bad thing. “Yes, I paid $75 million for my Rolls, and there’s only one,” will roll off some well-heeled tongue nicely. And it will probably be worth something in fifty years.
Makers have a responsibility to guide the tasteless through our new gilded age. They should sell their own sense of style, not chase the popular culture’s, which is invariably vulgar. As the upcoming Bentley SUV and a host of others have already shown, luxury too often equals vulgarity. It’s a perverse incentive for purveyors of style and class. Chasing new money, the makers have to check themselves before they wreck themselves.