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What kind of person spends half-a-million bucks on a car?

Just what kind of person spends a quarter-million dollars on a car—and why?

Published November 15, 2012

The Rolls-Royce salesman leaned a little farther forward in his chair as he explained the challenge of his job.

“You know, it’s one thing to try to sell a car for a quarter-million dollars,” he said. “There are plenty out there, and they’re very good cars. Really very good indeed. But when you’re asking a half-a-million for a car — well, that really separates the men from the boys.”

Who spends that kind of money on a car, and why?

“Not the people you’d expect,” he said. “Some names you might recognize, but most you’ll have never heard of. Once, I took a guy on a test drive in a Phantom in New York City. We were crossing one of the bridges and he said, ‘You see all those bolts holding these girders together? My company made those bolts, every one.’ He was very rich, but you’d never have known it.”

The Rolls-Royce Phantom II lists for $470,000 in Canada. You can buy it in the United States for considerably less, but the dealers here know this and so they build in some wiggle room to negotiations. Their customers know it, too, and most aren’t used to paying full price for anything — it’s one of the reasons they got to be so rich.

You can buy the smaller Rolls-Royce Ghost for about a quarter-million dollars, which the maker developed to tap into the more accessible market that still craves a Flying Lady emblem on the hood. However, as more than one observer has noted, smaller versions of such exotic cars often serve just to let people know you can’t afford the original.

The Phantom gives you soft lambs-wool carpet throughout the cabin’s floor, with every part of the interior insulated and coddled by either smooth leather or luxurious wood. The leather comes from Bavarian bulls — Bavaria because barbed wire is uncommon there, so the hides aren’t scratched, and bulls because the hides won’t be stretched by pregnancy.

It’s this attention to detail that justifies separating the men from the boys with a car’s price tag. The $400,000 Maybach 62, for example, includes an optional “electrotransparent glass roof,” which can be set to allow varying amounts of light into the rear cabin. It’s powered by solar panels in the front of the roof and is far more adjustable than the “Magic Sky” feature that tints the sunroof on a Mercedes-Benz SLK.

The forte of the big Maybach is its discretion — if such a word can describe a car that is 6.17 metres long. As with the Rolls-Royce, there’s a smaller version available, the Maybach 57 that is 5.73 metres long and cuts the amount of full-recline leg space in the rear, but it’s not obvious which is which to onlookers. They’ll be too busy trying to identify the unusual Maybach hood ornament, anyway.

These luxurious cars are expensive, but there are still others that cost a lot more. Currently, the most expensive production car in the world is the Bugatti Veyron, which lists for about $2 million (the price varies with the value of the euro). A “Grand Vitesse” version is available for another quarter-million dollars on top of that; it boosts the 1,001 hp of the standard 16-cylinder engine to 1,200 hp, giving bragging rights to a top speed of more than 430 km/h.

In such a car, there’s a limit to the amount of luxury that can be fitted in its two-seater cabin, dominated by the huge engine behind and the roaring air intakes above its passengers’ heads. So Bugatti created a separate company, Bugatti Diamond Luxuries, to help the cars’ owners spend their money.

It’s possible to order a diamond to be fitted in the centre of the steering wheel that’s cut with 16 facets, to match the unique number of engine cylinders. And the size of the diamond? That depends on what you want to spend. “It might cost more than the car,” explained a spokesperson.

He told the story of a Middle Eastern sheik with a fleet of Rolls-Royces, one for each of his half-dozen wives. Each car has a diamond in the steering wheel that reflects the light from its facets as it’s turned. The head wife has the largest diamond, the second wife the second largest and so on.

“He’s not too worried about the price, more about keeping his wives happy,” said the spokesperson.

But not all exotic cars come with such potential for accessories. I once drove around the Bridle Path in an orange Lamborghini Murciélago convertible with Robert Herjavec, TV’s likable Dragon, when he took me on a tour of his neighbourhood. Of the eight or 10 cars in his garage, which included a Rolls-Royce Phantom, he told me the half-million dollar Murciélago was his favourite.

We roared back and forth, slowing down for the speed bumps and to wave at the few people out for a walk.

He admitted that for all the satisfaction the car gave him, it did have one major failing: “I like my Tims, but there are no coffee cup holders in the Murciélago,” he told me. “I like my Lambos, too. That’s one of the reasons why I also have a Gallardo. It has coffee cup holders.”

The smaller Gallardo may be only a quarter-million dollars, but in this case, Herjavec could afford both. He just really liked to start his day with a coffee, just like the rest of us.

Maybe the rich aren’t so different after all.

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