by eugene l. meyer | February 24, 2014 | Lifestyle
A new golden era of luxury and classic car culture has arrived in DC.
The silver Aston Martin with red leather upholstery roars up the Dulles Toll Road, the noise from its dual exhausts signifying power and prestige. Getting only 15 miles per gallon on the highway, this is no green car, and it carries a “gas guzzler” tax of $1,600—chump change to anyone who can afford the car’s $318,000 price tag.
In the shadow of the elevated Silver Line, the car rapidly accelerates as if this were a James Bond film (in which this iconic vehicle regularly appears) and not suburban DC. The man behind the wheel is not 007, but a silver-haired Georgetown lawyer named William Shawn, a high-end car enthusiast and one of six partners in the Aston Martin and Bentley dealership at Tysons Corner. They recently added a $320,000 McLaren—a high-performance British make—to their sales inventory; soon thereafter, the partners would also be selling the Bugatti, possibly the world’s most expensive car, with prices starting at $2.3 million.
Dealers of luxury cars are flocking to the metropolitan area—and why not? The wealthiest households (at least $191,469 in annual income) are here in abundance. In fact, the DC area contains seven of the nation’s 15 richest counties, according to figures from the 2010 census. There are also 164,400 millionaires who call the area home, and the region ranks fourth in Capgemini’s US Metro Wealth Index, with more than 166,000 high-net-worth households (those with at least $1 million in investible assets). According to a 2009 Forbes survey, Virginia ranked fifth in the nation in the percentage of cars sold that are luxury brands (7.2 percent), with BMW the most popular, followed by Mercedes-Benz; Aston Martin, with 20 cars sold, was the most popular “niche” luxury brand.
For those lusting after such cars, it helps to be a top earner. Consider that the entry-level Aston Martin—the Vantage model—sells for $130,000 to $140,000. The high-end Aston Martin Vanquish costs as much as $320,000 to $340,000. But in our metro area, that’s no problem.
“There’s much more affluence and people willing to spend money on valuable cars,” says William Shawn, 66, who drives a four-door Aston Martin Rapide, “just the most gorgeous car ever made,” a bargain at $230,000. “Over the last 20 years there’s been terrific growth in the upper end of the market. There are more unique, more expensive, and more rare cars. The Mercedes in the Washington area is almost as common as Fords in the Midwest and South.” The trend, Shawn says, has only accelerated. “We think we’re going to be in for a very good spring season for our exotic cars.”
Partner of DC’s Aston Martin and Bentley dealership, Shawn says affluent Americans have never been shy about showing off their luxury cars: “It’s not that people were reluctant to show tangible evidence of their accomplishments. It’s just now more people are more successful and like cars.”
William Shawn takes pride in his special-edition Aston Martin Rapide, a 5.9 liter V-12 four-door sports saloon, one of 25 made.
William Shawn, 66, a Washington lawyer, comanaging partner in ShawnCoulson International Lawyers, and part owner of an Aston Martin and Bentley dealership, admits to an “obsessive mentality about these cars.” For 35 years, he owned a succession of Porsches and now drives an Aston Martin. “We had a Bentley, recently sold, and we have a little Ferrari,” he adds.
Shawn enjoys taking his fast cars to Summit Point Motorsports Park in West Virginia. After his Porsche “got sorely whipped” four years ago by Aston Martins, he bought his first, a Vantage V-8—James Bond’s car, considered entry-level. Now he drives a four-door Aston Martin Rapide, “the most gorgeous car ever made.”
With a current fleet of five cars and only a two-car garage, the Georgetown resident says storage is a problem. “We’ve rented garages from neighbors,” he says, adding that his love of exotic cars is hereditary, with his father and grandfather as aficionados. “It gets in your blood.”
Shawn and his partners opened the Tysons Aston Martin dealership in March 2012, two months after finalizing the agreement. The time in between was spent hiring employees, preparing the showroom, and taking delivery of cars. They spent $10 million in start-up costs, including $2 million in partner equity. In bidding for the franchise, Shawn says, his group was up against competitors with far more car sales experience.
“The Aston Martin people flew in from London,” he recalls. “We were a group of aficionados with no dealership experience. One of the things we said, which gave us a decisive edge, was that people who buy these cars are our friends, our peers. We’re connected with people who can afford to buy them.”
Last summer the group added Bentley to its showroom, acquiring the franchise from Bethesda’s Euro Motorcars, which continues to sell Mercedes and other luxury cars. Shawn said his dealership has been selling four to six new Bentleys a month, plus a number of used models. The partners poured an additional $12 million into the Bentley dealership, including buying the cars to sell, Shawn says.
Declining to give precise figures, Shawn says his dealership is in the top 10 in North America in sales of new Astons. “This is a stunning market, one of the best in the world for these cars,” adds partner Jim Walker, a veteran dealer in luxury cars who supervises day-to-day operations. “If we do what we’re supposed to do, we’ll do about 50 sales for Aston Martin [annually] and two or three times that for Bentley.”
The luxury car business is also built on resales. “Every time we sell a new one, we like to buy the used one,” Walker says, no matter the model. And it’s not unusual for purchasers to trade in their new cars for even newer ones after only a few months, says Shawn. “It happens all the time. We’ve had people trade in their cars after almost 1,000 miles, because they want something else. We have people who’ll buy three or four cars a year from us.”
Thu Stubbs’s 1968 Silver Mercedes-Benz 280 SL (Pagoda) still has its original German sheepskin seats.
“Men have come and gone,” says Thu Stubbs. “The car stays. It’s the longest relationship I have.” The car she clings to is a 1968 Mercedes 280SL she bought in Stuttgart in 1986. The Vietnamese-born founder and chief executive officer of Technology Science Corporation, a government IT contractor in Reston, is a self-described “gearhead.” The Sterling, Loudoun County, resident commutes via her BMW. (She also owns a 1935 convertible child’s electric Rolls-Royce toy that resides safely inside her house.)
She says her “lust affair” with cars began at age 12 when she saw a 280SL convertible in Frankfurt. She acquired her dream car later when she returned to Germany as a US Army communications officer. “My car is very sleek, very timeless, not a lot of accoutrements,” she says. “I’ve done very little to it but replaced the upholstery. Last year, I treated myself to having all the dials cleaned.”
Ron Walker has owned three Aston Martins since 2009, having purchased his last one in September 2012. He had brought in his current car—with the Virginia license plate 007—for upholstery repair last November.
“This is a lifestyle people are buying,” Jim Walker says. “We have to conform with their lifestyle. We want them to call us if there’s a ding, a rip in the upholstery, or [if they] need an oil change. We just sold a [traded-in] Volvo to one of our customers for his personal assistant. We’re not a Volvo dealer, but we’re in the customer service business. Service sells the second car.”
“I like to think of these cars as works of art,” Shawn says, as he drives off in a 2012 two-door Bentley Continental, a trade-in, with 5,250 miles on it. It will sell for $200,000 to $250,000, he says, not much less than a new car, reflecting demand and strong resale value.
Thus, the luxury car market is expanding in the DC metro area. For instance, Tesla, the all-electric car, built in California since 2008, has recently come to Washington. The car itself must be ordered online, with deposits ranging from $2,500 to $40,000 on the cars costing $71,000 to $130,000. Uniquely, there are no dealerships, only “galleries,” where customers can learn about the car, at three locations locally—in downtown Washington since 2011, in Tysons Corner, and Montgomery Mall since last year.
Bugatti? It’s a limited-edition car for a limited market, but the demographics here are favorable, according to John Hill, sales director for the Americas of this car that sells for $2.3 million and up and is produced in Alsace, France. “There is an excellent car culture here,” he says. “We see quite a bit of potential in the DC metro area.” The Bugatti, blending craftsmanship with space-age technology, is said to be the planet’s fastest production car, capable of speeds up to 256 miles per hour.
Granted, purchasing such high-end cars new is not within everyone’s means. For those on a budget who lust after luxury cars, there is Classic Motors of Washington, DC, in Friendship Heights. Owner Rob Peacock recently sold a slightly used Maserati to a Bethesda man for $41,000. “It was a very nice, one-owner car with 25,000 miles on it, a great value for someone who doesn’t want to spend $130,000.”
Bob Morris’s 1952 British Allard K2 two-seater roadster is equipped with a high-performance engine suited for competitive racing.
Bob Morris, 66, has a pretty extensive collection: “I just don’t flaunt it,” he says. The Great Falls, Virginia, resident who cofounded and owns Billy Casper Golf, which operates golf courses throughout the US, turns heads when he drives one of his exotics, such as a cream colored 1954 Kaiser Darrin convertible.
What he drives on any day depends on his mood. “If I feel like Driving Miss Daisy, I might take out an old MG. If I’m feeling more aggressive, I might take a car with more horsepower, like an Allard or an Austin Healy.”
Morris keeps his collection at home in a custom designed garage. His wife, Candace Campbell, explains, “Bob had a growing car collection in a warehouse in Sterling, but it was inconvenient. He couldn’t just wander out and tinker with a car.” The original plan was to build a garage for five or six cars, but, like most construction projects, it changed along the way to include a home office, small gym, and room for more cars.
Says Morris, “A lot of guys in this town have beautiful collections, wonderful garages nicer than most homes. We’re all kind of car guys. I don’t think we’re into it to be braggadocio, but more as caretakers for these beautiful old cars.”
The luxury car community has burgeoned so significantly that an entire social network has emerged, extending even to public events, like Katie’s Cars & Coffee in Great Falls, Virginia, which draws crowds of enthusiasts. For hanging out around a variety of luxury, exotic, or classic cars in the DC area, there’s no place like Katie’s Cars. The village of Great Falls is an epicenter of high-end car ownership, with the median household income topping $206,000 and the median home value at $1 million, according to the U.S. Census Bureau—some garages are bigger than the houses to accommodate car collections, according to Bob Morris, a golf course management executive who lives in Great Falls and is credited with starting the Saturday morning tradition at Katie’s Coffee House four years ago. What car he shows up in cannot be predicted. “I get up Saturday morning,” he says, “go to the garage, and one of them says, ‘Come drive me today.’” One autumn Saturday, around 7 am, he arrives in a cream-colored 1954 Kaiser Darrin convertible. It’s one of only 435 manufactured by Henry J. Kaiser from the design of Howard “Dutch” Darrin, and one was recently for sale for $225,000. But Morris won’t say what his cost. “I don’t talk about that. I’m just a car guy,” he says.
The cars are often conversation starters, evoking memories as well as awe. “There’ll always be a flashback [car] story, about a date with a girl,” says Morris. “Or, ‘I owned that right out of college.’ Those cars bring back wonderful memories. It’s a time-warp thing. It makes everybody smile. [Cars & Coffee] has turned into a social gathering that includes cars, which is really nice.”
As many as 300 vehicles crowd into the Great Falls Village Centre lot and adjoining parking areas, with early birds claiming the prime spots closest to Katie’s, according to Dino Andreatos, 56, an employee benefits consultant who is there with his 1965 Shelby Daytona Coupe—one of eight cars he owns, “a small collection.” What’s his favorite? “Whatever I’m driving.” His Shelby can do 205 miles an hour, he says. “I’ve driven it to 150,” he adds, “but not around here. On back roads.”
As always, there’s a story to tell. Andreatos bought the car five years ago and sold it to a man in Texas who said he had 18 months to live, on the condition he would buy it back from his wife after he died. “He lived two and a half years. We stayed in touch. He drove it 3,000 miles. Then I got a call from his widow and bought it back. And here she is,” he says while standing by his Shelby in front of Katie’s. “I love her more now than ever.” Proud to show off its innards, Andreatos raises the hood on the Galaxie blue–colored car with Wimbledon white stripes. Raised hoods are a staple of Cars & Coffee. But it’s strictly for show, not for engine repairs.
Andreatos, who lives in Clifton, also comes for the camaraderie. “I’ve met so many [people] here, made so many friendships,” he says. “I’m here every Saturday, except in rain or snow. We don’t care if it’s 10 degrees, you’ll see us. Five degrees, you’ll see us. He adds that it’s often an early morning gathering of husbands without wives. “The wives haven’t even woken up yet,” he says. “My wife has never been out here with me, not once. She has no desire to drive any of my cars.”
Not to say that women aren’t welcome; there just aren’t many to be seen. “Testosterone at C&C is pretty high, and I heard women shy away from the Saturday hours of 7 to 9 am,” says Thu Stubbs, a Mercedes owner who, as a woman, is a unique regular at Katie’s. “I’ve met only two women driving classics since Bob [Morris] started C&C. The majority of women are wives of car owners.”
Grandsons are more common. That would include Micah Simonds, 6, there this past fall with his grandfather, Dan Huthwaite, of Great Falls, who’d driven in his 1998 Carrera S Porsche. “He’s been a gearhead since he could talk,” Huthwaite says proudly. “He loves cars.”
And Cars & Coffee can surprise even the most seasoned aficionados. “You never know what’s going to come down the parking lot,” notes Chuck Viggiani, a DC policeman who has arrived in his red 1966 Morris Mini Countryman woodie wagon, a small car that resembles a Mini Cooper.
One Saturday, an “airplane” car pulled in—a fuselage minus the wings on a Toyota chassis. Then there was the Saudi prince who was staying at the Four Seasons in Georgetown last summer. “The doorman advised him to go to Katie’s. “He sent out two security guys here at 5 am on a Saturday,” says Katie’s Coffee House owner Mike Kearney. “They were driving two Porsche Cayennes. They left here at 5:30, drove back to Georgetown, got the prince and his car. The prince was just touring the country. He drove out in a Bugatti.”
Occasionally, too, dealers will bring their most luxurious cars to show, such as a McLaren or a Bugatti—to get customers and feedback. “Whether it’s a $1 million Lamborghini or a $1,000 Rabbit, people just enjoy the cars,” says Kurt Hackmeier, a 60-year old defense contractor from Great Falls whose ride today is a 1962 Porsche 356 that is “all original except for the exhaust system.”
On this chilly Saturday there are maybe 10 cars at 6 am and nearly 200 cars by 8. “By 9 am, it’s all over,” says Kearney, also a self-described “car guy” and proud owner of a 1969 Austin woodie wagon. “You’d never know it happened.”
Photography by aaron clamage