Have We Hit Peak Supercar?

This article first appeared in The Edge Financial Daily, on September 5, 2019.
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At the Frankfurt Auto Show this month, Lamborghini will unveil a V12 hybrid supercar called the Sian.

The Bologna, Italy-based brand will make 63 of them, all already spoken for.

Lamborghini had hinted at its importance publicly in recent months and described in past detail how such special projects form an integral part of the business. Though unconfirmed, early reports set the price of the car around US$3 million (RM12.63 million) — an astronomical though increasingly common amount.  

“The Reventon prompted the big discussion about the dimensions of this segment,” Maurizio Reggiani, Lamborghini’s chief engineer, told Bloomberg Pursuits during an interview in his office at company headquarters, noting that Lamborghini “started” the segment with its Lamborghini Reventon in 2007. “We were the first to do it like this. As we scouted more and more during that time, we started to see how, in this market, you can stretch in terms of price and in terms of demand. The Reventon coupe was US$3 million; the [Reventon] roadster was US$3.2 million; the Centenario was US$2 million. So in this segment, we know there is a marvellous market.”

The mid-engine V12, all-wheel-drive Reventon famously hit 220mph (354kph) on a test in Dubai, an astounding figure for a production car at that time. Only 20 were made, plus one marked for the Lamborghini museum.

Should it happen, the new hybrid will join a burgeoning field of extremely limited-edition hybrid and electric supercars from such luxury powerhouses as Aston Martin, Ferrari, Koenigsegg, Lotus, Mercedes-Benz, and Pininfarina. They have been flaunted recently in dazzling hues on golf courses and during private parties at seaside villas, heralded on Instagram fanboy accounts and Rodeo Drive parades orchestrated for YouTube.

Where it used to be that a company would have only one ever, or at most, one per year, now it seems they are whipping them up as fast as possible. In the past year, Aston Martin alone has debuted and promised supercars in spades: The super-lightweight 1,160-horsepower (hp) Valkyrie and the 986hp Valhalla hybrids, plus a Vanquish Vision concept and Valkyrie AMR Pro concept, not to mention the electric offerings from its Lagonda department. They follow the precedent from the One-77 and Vulcan supercars that came in the years before. It is quite a different mood for what used to be a staid, small automaker tucked into the verdant hills of England’s Cotswolds region.

Many supercars, such as the US$2.72 million Mercedes-AMG Project One limited-to-275 hybrid supercar based on Mercedes’ Formula One (F1) car, are sold as concepts, or very rough prototypes, and require six- or seven-figure deposits years in advance to ensure delivery. Others are sold with even less — a few sketches, a rendering, a foam-filled shell at an auto show. That is if you can even get on the list to buy one. The official party line for most, like the Lambo, is that they have sold out before they are even seen.

Some collectors are starting to find the rigmarole rather tedious.

“We need an awakening and cleansing soon to get everyone back into reality,” says Dan Kang, the well-known car collector based in Southern California, who owns a McLaren Senna, a Guntherwerks Porsche 911, and Lamborghini Centenario in similar carbon fibre livery, among other supercars. “It’s not even the new companies, but the current heritage brands as well, who feel they can demand the new price points without much substance. They need to support what they have already sold — not what [car] they can shovel up next.”

When manufacturers are unveiling cars that cannot be driven for years to come, and the very people able to afford them are over the hype anyway, it raises the question: Have we reached peak supercar?


Supermodels in car world

Modern supercars, and their higher-end cousins, hypercars — both relative terms defined largely by whom you ask — are latecomers to the thread of automotive history. First, there were the rockets of their time, such as the Mercedes-Benz Silver Arrows of the 1930s and 300SL Gullwings of the 1950s. In the 1960s, the Ferrari 250 GTOs dominated countless races and reached automotive immortality as the ultimate auction house blue-chip buys. But the supercar as we know it really came into its own in the late 1970s, 80s, and 90s, when hedonism reigned supreme. Such early examples as the Lamborghini Countach and Ferrari F40 set major precedents for design and performance. They were like spaceships, compared with the mundane and affordable metal boxes of the day. Everyone has a favourite; just ask the guys down at the weekend coffee klatch about the Vector, the Ferrari Enzo, or the Porsche Carrera GT. You will get a reaction.

They were duly expensive. A Countach sold for US$72,000 at the time, or the equivalent of US$375,000 today; the F40 cost US$400,000, or the equivalent of US$884,000 today.

Supercars tend to age well if you have the patience, luck, and financing to get your hands on one: On Aug 16 in Monterey, California 1994 McLaren F1 sold for US$19.8 million, obliterating the previous high-price paid for a McLaren: US$13.75 million in 2015. (Its MSRP [manufacturer’s suggested retail price] was around US$1 million.) You will not be surprised to learn that the man who designed that car, Gordon Murray, is now designing a round of 100 new supercars tentatively called the T50 and priced near US$3 million.

The role of the supercar used to be to act as the halo for the brand, to attract media attention and consumer hype to a marque. Even if only a few people could afford to actually buy the exciting, sexy car, they would know about the brand because of it and then buy something more affordable. Automakers figured that if you loved, or at least knew about, the Acura NSX that F1 champion Aryton Senna helped develop, you would be more likely to buy an Accord. It seems a stretch — but the basic awareness of a brand is half the battle, marketers say. And an NSX is a lot more likely to grab headlines than an Accord is.

Supercars also carried the advanced driving technologies consumers could expect to see seep into the rest of the product line-up in succeeding years. The SF90 Stradale that Ferrari debuted in May is the first plug-in hybrid in Ferrari’s history, with a 679hp twin-turbocharged 4.0-litre V8 paired to the brand’s first-ever hybrid motor. Its gasoline engine and trio of electric motors combined make it the most powerful Ferrari ever, totalling 968hp.

In fact, the SF90 is the latest in an onslaught of supercars that has taken a slightly different tone.

Supercars are increasingly electric, rather than powered by the galloping V12 and W16 engines of old. The Aston Martin Valkyrie, Koenigsegg Jesko, Lotus Evija, Mercedes-Benz Project One, and Pininfarina Battista, among others, all use electric motors to help boost them to ever-higher feats of speed and strength. They all have yet to hit the market in production form.

They are coming from all sides of the market, too: Such big, old heritage brands as Lamborghini and Ferrari, of course, but also from namesake novelty brands such as Gordon Murray Automotive and just-minted start-ups dotting the US, Europe, the Middle East, Korea, Japan and China. These boutiques tend to have obscure names and opaque origins, blending the lines among automotive companies, tech companies, and software start-ups. Witness the British Dendrobium D1 and Ariel P40, the Chinese XING Mobility Miss E, the Croatian Rimac Concept_One, and the Japanese Aspark Owl. They come and go in the automotive consciousness, many making a splash at a car show with a foam mould or rendering, trotting that same car around for a year or two, then quietly merging with a larger auto or tech company, or shutting down altogether.

Rather than loss-leaders for the brand, they are now a big part of the business model — or the business model.

“Basically, [the deposits to the supercar start-ups are] seed money to get operations up and running — applied to the cost of the car,” says Kevin Tynan, senior automotive analyst at Bloomberg Intelligence. “Think of it as venture capital, with the return being a supercar instead of a percentage.”

In November, Lamborghini announced the one-off Lamborghini SC18 Alston, created for a single customer at a multimillion-dollar cost.

It was a strategy that took cues from the Lamborghini Reventon: When it debuted, its almost immediate sell-out success of all 20 models to Middle Eastern sheikhs and Russian billionaires proved to Lamborghini brass that the market could handle the extravagant price and exclusivity of vehicles heretofore considered too wild for it to bear. This paved the way for the US$4.5 million Veneno and the aforementioned, 759hp Centenario, rare-as-plutonium supercars that came several years later.

Reggiani characterised the one-offs as a not-insignificant part of Lamborghini’s bottom line, though he declined to give a percentage.

Elsewhere, Ferrari, which announced a Special Projects Division 10 years ago, has built one-off cars such as the Superamerica 45 and the P540 Superfast Aperta. Aston Martin has quietly made such one-offs as the CC100 and Valkyrie hybrid; McLaren made the 1,035hp hybrid Speedtail.

“The sky is the limit,” Bugatti chief Stephan Winkelmann said this summer at the Villa d’Este Concours d’Elegance. The company had just unveiled the La Voiture Noir car purchased by Ferdinand Piech, the notorious Volkswagen boss who died on Aug 25. The car cost nearly US$19 million, after taxes and fees.

Values of the first supercars are slumping. The McLaren F1 that sold in Monterey set a record — but failed to match even the low end of its estimated value before the sale. At the Gooding & Co auctions in Arizona earlier this year, a 1990 Countach failed to reach even its low value estimate of US$275,000; so did a Ferrari Testarossa listed for US$250,000 to US$300,000 that sold for US$221,200.

The automakers themselves remain notoriously cagey about exactly how supercar sales have been faring. Many blast instant- or near-immediate sell-out numbers in press releases, while other say that roughly half sold very early, and the rest are expected to sell in the coming weeks. Bugatti, one of the more forthcoming of the lot, has said that this applies to its Centodieci. It famously had to sell only one of the La Voiture Noire cars, anyway the one that went to Piech. — Bloomberg