Asia's rich crave luxury hand-crafted cars from Malaysia

KUALA LUMPUR (Reuters) - The global economic doldrums may have weighed on businesses around the world, but in Malaysia a luxury hand-crafted carmaker struggles to keep up with demand as orders pour in from China and the Middle East.

Bufori owner Tan eHong sits in her Bufori Geneva, which is fitted with a tea-making feature, at her residence in Kuala Lumpur September 27, 2012. REUTERS/Bazuki Muhammad

Some customers are willing to wait nearly two years for their Bufori vehicle, which costs anywhere from $150,000-$350,000 and can contain unique touches at the buyer’s request, ranging from built-in vaults to pearl-studded interiors.

One such customer is eHong Tan, a Malaysian green technology entrepreneur and tea connoisseur, who asked for her Bufori to be fitted with tea-making and aromatherapy features.

“I love drinking Chinese tea. The car allows me to make tea and drink it while I’m travelling,” said Tan, adding that both are “unique and satisfying” creature comforts that she had always wanted.

The hefty price tag does little to dampen the car’s popularity among Asia’s rich, whose number of high net worth individuals overtook North America for the first time last year as wealth in Thailand and Indonesia surged almost ten percent, according to the Asia-Pacific Wealth report.

Bufori’s founder and managing director, Gerry Khouri, said he first started the company in his native Australia in 1987, but decided to move to Malaysia in the early 90s when demand from the region began to jump.

In the past three years, orders for his Buforis, which he says is the only fully handmade car produced in Asia, have steadily risen 15-20 percent each year.

“China and Middle East are probably our two biggest markets right now,” said Khouri, adding that he also gets orders from Southeast Asian countries, Hong Kong, Japan and Europe.

“There’s a lot of promise here -- that’s what brought us to Malaysia and kept us here,” Khouri said. The country hosts Bufori’s only plant where customers can visit to see their cars being made. Showrooms are found in Sydney and Shanghai.

“The beautiful thing is I get to see it built from the beginning to end, like watching a baby growing up,” said Tan.

Khouri, who built his first car in his backyard at only 21, says that while the Bufori kept its trademark classic designs, the cars’ performance itself is “in a class of its own”.

The Geneva, a 4-door luxury limousine with elegant curves and a long running board, is powered by a 6.4-litre V8 engine boasting up to 470 horsepower and 630 Newton meters (Nm) of torque.

“These are exclusive, very elite. You’ve got to be very special to own one of these cars,” he said.

But Khouri admits that the long waiting list can push some customers to competitors such as Bentley and Rolls Royce.

“These cars are made by hand. No machines -- look around you, it’s just people,” he says, gesturing around the 50,000 square foot (4,645 square meter) factory in the outskirts of Kuala Lumpur where workers are busy fitting custom-made parts and moulding the Bufori’s classic body.

Upstairs, in the upholstery and interior section, leather is cut and stitched by hand while engineers put together electronic controls.

“You can’t speed up people like a machine,” he added.

With around a hundred workers, the factory makes only 60 cars worldwide per annum -- a fraction of its 300 target, with the limited workforce and the long hours it takes to complete a car dragging down production.

“Our problem is our demand exceeds our capacity. We’re not in the situation where we can produce enough vehicles to meet the demand worldwide,” says Khouri.

“It sounds like a crazy problem to have - but it’s serious because we are losing sales everyday.”

Khouri wants to set up more factories to speed up production but is wary, wanting to preserve the quality.

“Bufori cars are very labour-intensive and dependent on people. We might compromise the quality which is something we don’t want to do,” he added.

The Bufori La Joya coupe takes 3,500 man hours to complete while the Geneva saloon needs 9,000 man hours.

“That’s ridiculous in the overall scheme of things. If you look at a mass producer carmaker, even 50 man hours is taking too much,” says Khouri.

But customers who chose to be patient have no regrets.

“It is worth the wait,” says Tan, whose car took 20 months to finish. “It’s more than a car. To me, the Bufori is an art.” (Reporting By Anuradha Raghu,; Editing by Elaine Lies)