Autos as Acquired Tastes

One of the more poignant moments in American cinema occurs in the 1987 classic Tin Men, when aluminum siding salesman Danny DeVito tells his wife, Barbara Hershey, about the importance of driving a Cadillac. A less substantial vehicle, DeVito’s character explains, would not instill confidence in his clients, but “a Cadillac means you’re dealing with someone of importance.” Audiences laughed; the movie was set in 1963, and American tastes had changed dramatically since then. Upwardly mobile baby boomers no longer aspired to Cadillacs. Success meant a Mercedes, a BMW, or a Jaguar. The desire to turn heads was fueling a bull market in Ferraris and Lamborghinis, the ultimate in high-powered sex appeal.

Even then, the more things changed, the more they remained the same, says Syracuse University professor Robert Thompson, president of the Popular Culture Association. “In a nation without an established class system,” says Thompson, “where people aren’t born to aristocratic titles, the way most of us identify our station in life is by the trappings of refinement: gracious homes, art collections, cellars stocked with fine wines.”

Yet none of these—however rare and costly—signal success and taste as effectively as an automobile. “Relatively few people will ever come to our homes, see our art collections, sip our wines, and admire our horses,” says Thompson. “But everyone sees what we drive. Next to our physical being, nothing identifies us to the world at large as much as our cars. It’s the perfect big-ticket item: It’s portable, and it’s in evidence everywhere. With the right car, you don’t have to explain your tastes or your rank on the food chain. The car makes your statement for you.”

Thompson adds, however, that it’s a fine line separating sophistication from cliché. “These things have a way of coming around on themselves. Once everyone understands the message you’re sending, once they’ve become familiar with it, things tend to lose their mystique.” Thus, though it is all well and good to drive a vehicle that announces your status to everyone, there is far greater cachet, among those in the know, in driving a car whose statement appeal is less obvious to the masses. “It’s like a secret handshake,” says Thompson. “The man on the street won’t get it.”

As a result, a whole new genre of car has evolved, virtually unheralded, to offer a more discreet statement, a more subtle allure. And as their owners are the first to admit, these vehicles are not for everyone. Au contraire, they are acquired tastes.

How else, for instance, does one explain the BMW M coupe? The average motorist might find its quirky, ugly-duckling silhouette amusing, but vintage racer and car collector Sandy Sadtler, proprietor of restoration specialists Madden & Ryan of Radnor, Pa., was enthralled. “The moment I saw it, I thought anything that looks this homely has to have great performance,” says Sadtler, who bought one.

BMW does not describe its $45,000 coupe in precisely these terms, but the carmaker admits that, along with its 315-hp engine and 155-mph top speed, the M coupe offers an idiosyncratic charm. “So many cars look similar to each other, but the M coupe dares to be different,” says BMW M Brand and Motorsport manager Tom Salkowsky. “It’s not a mainstream car. We’ve been selling about 1,000 a year since it was introduced in 1999. The owners’ psychographics are more important than their demographics. M coupe buyers are architects, creative people. They understand joie de vivre. They’re not afraid to make a statement.”

To be sure, with its long hood, raked windshield, and boxy bobtailed cockpit, the M coupe looks like nothing else on the road. The car rides low, its beltline seeming to flex between its drilled, five-spoke wheels as if poised for action. “It’s designed to evoke the lines of the Gran Turismo cars of 40 or 50 years ago, the old MGB GT, the Jaguar Fixed Head coupe,” says Salkowsky, “but in a thoroughly modern, thoroughly authentic interpretation.”

The coupe’s authenticity is more than skin deep, says Rex Parker, vice president of AutoPacific, the Orange County, Calif., automotive market research firm. “The key to the coupe’s performance is its structural integrity; it delivers a driving experience the roadsters can’t match. It’s an iconic vehicle.” And if its styling is not for everyone, well, that is just the point.

Perhaps no marque so vividly illustrates the vagaries of taste as Jaguar, makers of the XK8 convertible and coupe. For the connoisseur, the most exciting Jaguar on the road is the British carmaker’s XK8 Coupe. “This is the car James Bond should have driven in his last movie,” says car collector Gordon Wangers, managing partner of Automotive Marketing Consultants Inc. in Vista, Calif. “It has more Jaguar-ness to it than the convertible.”

AutoPacific’s Parker concurs. “The XK8 Coupe’s styling is more arresting than the roadster’s. It’s lighter, the body is more rigid, and it’s an intrinsically better car.”

Yet in the eyes of the mass market, the coupe takes a backseat to the convertible, which outsells the coupe by 10 to one in the United States. The reason, says Parker, is that the hardtop and soft top target different markets. “The XK8 convertible is more a lifestyle vehicle,” he says. “It makes a stronger statement when you pull into the country club. The XK8 Coupe, on the other hand, is designed for the enthusiast.”


Or, one might add, for the more highly educated. According to Jaguar’s own research, American XK8 Coupe owners are 33 percent more likely than convertible owners to possess an advanced degree.

Soon to come is the most exclusive iteration of the XK8, the $100,000 Jaguar XKR 100 Silverstone built to commemorate the 100th anniversary of Jaguar founder Sir William Lyons’ birth. “We’ll build about 255 for the North American market,” says Jeremy Barnes, communications manager for Jaguar North America. “Of these, 225 will be convertibles, 30 will be coupes.”

Both will be identifiable by the high-performance look of cross-drilled Brembo brakes subtly visible through the 20-inch spoke wheels, louvers on the hood, and a unique anniversary-series color scheme: anthracite gray, with Recaro racing seats in charcoal-gray leather upholstery.

Alas, even in a color scheme as subdued as this one, the hardtop grand tourer is likely to attract an inordinate amount of attention from onlookers—but that’s the price of understatement.

In Germany, even more than in England, form tends to follow function, and for good reason, says Mark Rask, author of American Autobahn (Vanguard Non-Fiction Books, 1999). “It’s the autobahn. When there are no speed limits, carmakers build cars that go fast, not just look fast.” 

Few vehicles express that philosophy of understated high performance as handsomely as the most recent addition to Mercedes’ S-Class series. A casual glance reveals little—besides badging on the rear deck—to set it apart from others in the carmaker’s vaunted luxury lineup. But as Robert Allan, product manager for AMG and special vehicles, Mercedes-Benz USA, points out, “The S55 is Mercedes’ first true factory hot rod.” If there ever were any doubts as to whether discerning car buffs were waiting for a 4,000-plus-pound luxury sedan with a 5.7-second zero-to-60 time and top speeds of 178 mph (155 with electronic speed limiter), they were quickly dispelled with the S55.

“I don’t think Mercedes even needed to market the car,” says Automotive Marketing’s Wangers. “They just said, ‘Here it is,’ and people lined up to buy it.” Among these customers, he says, were several of his fellow supporters of the Petersen Automotive Museum in Los Angeles. “As soon as the S55 was announced, they ordered them sight unseen.”

Such faith—especially when it carries a $100,000 price tag—deserves to be rewarded, and the new owners have not been disappointed. “It’s the car for the very serious enthusiast,” Wangers says. “It’s for the person who simply wants the best of everything.”

The S55, which is built by AMG, a German subsidiary of Mercedes, owes much of its appeal to its 355-hp engine, hand-built in the little German town of Affalterbach. This ensures the S55’s exclusivity, because those old-world craftsmen can crank out only two to three engines a day.

And anyone who has to ask why the S55’s handcrafted powerplant is preferable to a computer-built engine doesn’t deserve to own one.

It requires more than money to acquire a new RUF Rturbo, and more than a passion for speed to fully appreciate the $205,000 Porsche-based supercar. “You can’t just walk into a showroom and buy one off the floor; you have to wait months for it to be built,” says Estonia Ruf, RUF vice president of marketing and wife of the carmaker’s founder, Alois Ruf.

The end result of the RUF craftsmen’s labor is a car with a built-in roll cage, aerodynamically functional wings, a 520-hp engine, top speeds in excess of 200 mph, and a striking resemblance to a production model Porsche Turbo.

“RUFs aren’t built to turn heads,” says Delta Air Lines pilot and RUF owner James D. Poste of San Pedro, Calif. “They’re made for the true aficionado. They’re very civilized, the engines are surprisingly quiet, and they’re remarkably easy to drive. But unless you know what to look for, you’d never know it wasn’t a Porsche.”

Alois Ruf had been converting Porsches for 10 years before gaining acclaim in 1987 for his Yellowbird. Virtually identical to the ubiquitous Porsche Carrera, its 211-mph top speed earned it the title of the world’s fastest road car. Ten years later came the 512-hp CTR-2, again proclaimed the world’s fastest, with a projected top speed of 230 mph.

Today, some 30 Porsches each year undergo the transformation from sports car to supercar at Alois Ruf’s fac-tory in Pfaffenhausen, Bavaria, where each car is fully disassembled, its engine rebuilt, and its body modified, strengthened, and lightened by some 400 pounds. Yet there is more than engineering to hold the connoisseur in thrall; there is also the car’s artistry. Surfaces do not merely meet on a RUF; they flow into each other. Windshield pillars are welded to the roof skin rather than joined, and the rain gutters above the door are removed for the dual purpose of enhancing aesthetics and aerodynamics. Nothing extraneous exists.

The Rturbo emerges from this process with enlarged cooling scoops at its nose, a redesigned wing that deploys at 75 mph over its tail, 100 more horsepower than the original, and a registration that identifies it as a RUF rather than a Porsche.

It’s harder to tell what to make of the Bentley Continental R four-seater coupe. On the one hand, it’s a stunning luxury vehicle. Where other cars have lines, the Continental R has presence. It rides sleek and dignified as a four-masted schooner on sculpted, five-spoke, 18-inch wheels. It is exquisitely crafted, its Connolly hide upholstery sewn together and the timber veneers matched and mounted by hand in Crewe, England. The pace of constructing a Continental R dictates exclusivity. Only four dozen are made each year, of which two dozen are destined for American shores.

Yet the Continental R’s wire mesh grille and winged badge are not mere flights of whimsy. They bespeak a racing heritage dating to 1924 when a Bentley won the second 24 Hours of Le Mans, then swept four in a row from 1927 to 1930, a feat that still gets them misty-eyed in Jolly Old. For that matter, however majestic and serene, the modern coupe is no slouch. Its 6.75-liter V-8 powerplant puts out 420 hp, sufficient to launch its 5,400 regal pounds from zero to 60 in barely six seconds. Given this level of luxury, performance, and rarity, it is little wonder that the Continental R carries a price tag in the neighborhood of $310,000.

Yet however stylish and powerful, for the experts, the Bentley coupe poses a conundrum. “It’s not really an enthusiast’s car,” says Parker. “True, the factory care is beyond reproach, and ownership admits you to an elite motoring fraternity. But you never see them being driven close to their potential. In fact, the only place I see them is along Rodeo Drive. It’s more an ownership experience than a driving experience.”

Wangers sees it much the same way. “I love the old Bentley Continental R, the one made in the 1950s. But the current model has become the car of the glitterati. People buy it because it’s more hip than a Rolls.”

Yet on some level, says professor Thompson, owning a rare, superbly crafted vehicle like the two-door Bentley may be the first step toward connoisseurship. “It’s like art,” he explains. “Some people start collecting art before they’ve developed the ability to understand it and appreciate it. After a while, they become more perceptive, more sophisticated. Ultimately they acquire their own taste.”

If this is true of the man hanging a Picasso on his wall, why should one assume any less for the man at the wheel of a Continental R?

Of course, given the choice between a shiny new Bentley coupe and impeccable good taste, it’s not hard to tell which one most of us would choose.

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