A BMW Vision Concept car at the Beijing Auto Show in Beijing, China.
It is difficult to take your eyes off an £800,000 automobile, which perhaps explains why the Rolls-Royce Phantom at this week’s Beijing Auto Show was that rare thing, a car attracting more avid attention than the skimpily-clad models preening over the bonnets of lesser brands. “We sold that car this morning,” Rolls-Royce’s new German chief executive, Torsten Muller-Otvos observed casually. “I can’t say who bought it, but a client known to our Beijing dealership will take it after the show.”
It is this kind of impulse-purchasing power that brings the top-brass of the European and American car industry to China this week in the hope of capturing a slice of the world’s fastest-growing car market.
At a time when sales are stagnating at home, car sales in China surged by 45pc last year to 13.6m vehicles, easily eclipsing the 10.5m sold in the US and the growth story has continued this year with first-quarter sales up 63pc on 2009.
The vast majority of these will be the identikit, knock-off saloons that clog the roads of all China’s major cities, but for super-luxury brands like Rolls-Royce the boom in Chinese car sales is, if anything, even more spectacular.
Sales of Rollers in China are up 300pc in the first quarter of 2010, says Mr Muller-Otvos gleefully, predicting that at the current rate China will overtake Britain this year as the marque’s second-biggest market after the US.
The secret of the success, it seems, is that the faint whiff of naff excess that Arthur Daley bequeathed to the Rolls-Royce brand plays well with new breed of super-rich Chinese for whom, when it comes to cars, biggest is usually best.
Indeed so big is the Phantom that last year it fell foul of China’s 2009 Truck Law which restricted vehicles over 19.5ft from driving in cities in daylight hours, forcing Rolls to trim the behemoth’s bumpers by a few inches last year.
“What amazes me is how young many of our Chinese customers are, many are still in their 30s and the youngest was just 28 years old, which is very different from what you see with the Rolls-Royce brand in other countries,” says Mr Muller-Otvos.
“They are usually highly successful entrepreneurs in property, construction or retailing who also have a very keen knowledge of luxury brands – watches, jewellery and cars – they have a strong appreciation of the latest developments and the best quality.”
In the case of this particular special edition Phantom, that means deep maroon leather seats and shag-pile carpets topped off with a “night skyinterior” of LED stars that twinkle above the passenger as he sips champagne from a bottle that fits snugly into a cooler concealed in the arm-rest.
“We see no top end to the luxury market in China,” concludes Mr Muller-Otvos, whose clients think nothing of having their three-ton vehicles air-freighted direct from the company’s Goodwood factory where they are being built to ever more exultant specifications.
For China’s very rich, customisation is king. Among the busiest stalls in Beijing were the specialist out-fitting companies such as LongboHummer, who take the world’s most vulgar car, stretch it and then vulgarise it still further.
“The coal mine owners like this one,” says a sales assistant, opening the door to a £260,000 stretch Hummer H2, with its chrome logo picked out in diamonds.
Inside, the vehicle is the ultimate in bling-chic, with electric curtains, massaging seats, plasma TVs, racks for glasses, decanters and – most importantly of all – a safe in which real estate or coal mining barons can store the sky-scraping piles of banknotes that drive their businesses.
With billions of pounds of stimulus money still sloshing through the Chinese economy, luxury carmakers find Chinese customers with a level of discretionary spending power perhaps not seen since the City and Wall Street bonus-booms of the late-1980s and mid-2000s.
Chinese media reported over the weekend that an unnamed 35-year-old has already splashed out £4m on a Bugatti Veyron, only the third of the absurdly fast supercars to be purchased in China.
With sales flat or falling at home, other more mainstream luxury brands such as Mercedes and BMW are now also working hard to ramp up production in China which, as well as huge potential sales volume, also offers much fatter profit margins.
BMW, which already sells twice as many of its top-of-the-range 7-Series in China than anywhere else, announced this week it was raising its 2010 sales target to 120,000 vehicles after seeing February sales up 96pc this year. It plans to make 200,000 cars a year in China by 2012.
“The real profits are coming from China,” said John Zeng, an auto industry analyst for IHS Global Insight. “China is now very important for global automakers both for profits and sales volume.”