“Rolls-Royce sold 4,000 cars last year.”
Carlos, a handsome, Cuban gentleman sitting across from me wanted to make sure that I understood this fact. He said it so intensely that I never even thought to question his number (which was accurate). “Four thousand. That’s it. Do you know how many of them were sold to people on my street?”
I shook my head.
“Six.” He leaned back in his chair for dramatic effect, puffing on a cigar that had been handcrafted by one of Castro’s own private cigar maker’s proteges. “Six. That’s why I have to have the latest one. That’s why I have my friend, Manuel, looking for a very specific car for me.”
I was having this conversation with this distinguished, impressive caballero on the patio of Zuma, perhaps the finest Japanese steakhouse in all of America, overlooking Biscayne Bay. It’s nestled snugly into the first floor of Epic, which is, in addition to being the crown jewel of the Kimpton hotel chain, the place to see and be seen when it comes to exotic cars in Miami. The valet circle is an ever-rotating display of the latest and greatest from Lamborghini, Ferrari, Bentley, Rolls-Royce, McLaren and even Bugatti.
If you want to get premium placement at Epic, don’t bother showing up in something so pedestrian as a Nissan GT-R. Don’t roll up in that old Gallardo to Epic. Don’t you realize that’s Mark Cuban’s yacht sitting right there at the dock, bro? That thing can actually store another yacht inside itself. Don’t bring your busted up ride in here.
On any given night, Zuma, or the neighboring jazz club, Lilt Lounge, plays host to members of the Miami Heat, Dolphins and Marlins, as well as businessmen from all over the globe. If you aren’t somebody, or if you at least don’t know somebody, you’re going to have a tough time getting a table. I’m definitely not somebody, but I have spent enough nights resting my head in Kimptons around the world that they are kind enough to treat me like I am.
And that’s how I ended up sitting next to my new friend, who was kind enough to inquire what I did for a living as we sat next to each other at the bar, drinking matching jalapeño martinis. When I mentioned that I write for a few car blogs, he immediately became fascinated.
“What’s hot? What’s new? Tell me about something that’s coming out,” he said.
Turned out that he definitely knew more than I did about the exotic car market. He gave me a name to call when I was in town: “Call Manuel. He’s my ‘car guy.’ He’d love to talk to you.”
Well, he was partially right. He was happy to talk to me, but Manuel didn’t want me using his name. You see, everybody in Miami has got “a guy.” They have their secret ways of getting the hot cars, and they aren’t particularly keen to tell them to people.
I called Manuel in the early morning the next day. He’s an exotic car dealer who ships cars to every state — even internationally.
“Yeah, I get cars for him.” He seemed a bit closed off, at first.
“Where do you get them?” I asked.
“Well, speaking modestly as possible, I’m one of the very few guys in the country, let alone Florida, who has the cash to buy these cars in any sort of quantity. Dealers get these cars in on trade, and they call me up immediately. The customer thinks that he’s selling his car to the Mercedes dealer, but the Mercedes guy is strapped for cash. So he calls me up, and I agree in principle on a number. They write the customer a check for the car, I write them a check for that same number, and they bring it to me. Only if I’m interested in it, of course, or if I have a buyer lined up.”
“Tell me about some of the more interesting cars you’ve gotten lately.”
“I’ve got a lime green McLaren 650S right now that’s pretty cool. There’s an Audi RS7 in my garage that has a ten thousand dollar custom factory matte gray paint job and an additional two hundred horses under the hood. Guy kept it for less than two thousand miles before he was bored with it. There’s a black BMW i8 that gets more attention than anything I’ve ever had on the lot — until you start it up. Damn thing sounds like a lawnmower.” I could clearly hear the disgust in his voice.
“What percentage of your customers are paying cash for the car?” I asked. I figured that it was a fairly high number.
“Virtually nobody. We do a lot of financing. I’ve got lenders that will go up to 144 months on exotics, as long as you’ve got a 700+ credit score with no late payments in the last five years. You’ve got to make sure that you’re not trying to finance more than you make annually.”
“Do people try to do that?” I wondered aloud.
“Absolutely. I get guys who make less than a hundred grand a year trying to finance stuff that costs almost twice that. Well, let me clarify that. They report less than a hundred grand a year.”
Ah. That makes sense. “So the money is real, they just can’t prove it.”
“Correct. They get mad at me, but there’s not much that I can do about it. The bank is going to ask for tax forms showing good income for at least the last two years. If you haven’t got that, you’ll need to have a lot more money down. Normally they want about 20 percent, but I’ve seen them ask for 50 percent if the customer can’t prove his income.”
This all seemed really difficult to navigate for both the customer and the dealer. “How often do deals go bad?”
“It happens. I’ve done deals that I had to personally sign on for people — including your friend,” he said.
“I mean that I’ve personally guaranteed loans before. Let’s say I write paperwork on a car on a Saturday, and the deal looks good to me. Well, the bank isn’t open, so I do the deal based on my history with the lender that the deal will likely be approved. Every once in a while, the banks come back and say no. Typically it’s something we can overcome — proof of income, residency issues — but there have been a few times where the bank has asked me to personally guarantee the loan.”
Fascinating. “So you’ll sign for a car for your friend?”
“Listen. He’s bought a dozen cars from me in the past six years. He knows a lot of people. He sends them all my way, and they’re all buyers. It’s worth the risk.”
“So you live off of referrals?” I couldn’t imagine his cars doing particularly well on classified sites.
“I advertise, but I definitely need my repeat customers. If I treat just one person wrong, just one person … I’m screwed.”
“Are exotic customers tough to deal with?” I wasn’t sure what the exotic market customer expected from a dealer. “Do they want to negotiate?”
“Not typically,” he replied. “These guys are educated. They know what their cars are worth. They know what my car is worth. They don’t want to spend a lot of time haggling. If the price is fair, they buy.”
“So what’s our buddy got you looking for now? He mentioned something specific.”
Manuel laughed. “He loves Rolls-Royces. Did he tell you that there are six on his street?”
“I’m not surprised. Well, he wants a Wraith with that special headliner. The Starlight headliner. There aren’t many of them, you know. But I found one.” I could sense the pride coming through my iPhone.
“Nice. Congrats on that. I’m sure he’ll love it.”
“I think he will.” He paused. “This business … we don’t sell Corollas. I don’t sell a hundred and fifty cars a month. I have trusted relationships with my customers. If they want it, I go get it.”
We talked for about an hour, and I think he would have talked more, except that he had an appointment with a customer to sell a ’15 Mercedes SL65 AMG. He graciously apologized, invited me to visit his store the next time I was in town, and hung up so he could make yet another loyal customer happy.
That night, I coincidentally ran into Carlos again — this time in the Brickell District, where he was shopping for more of his favorite hand-rolled cigars.
“So … a Wraith, eh?” I laughed as I shouted to him across the plaza. He merely laughed, winked and gave me the thumbs up. “I want a ride when you get it!”
“You got it, muchacho.” He then returned his attention to the stunning young Paz Vega-lookalike at his side, who laughed a little too heartily along with him. She didn’t know that his credit score was damn near the Mendoza line. She didn’t know that his income wasn’t even enough to make him a fabled “one-percenters.” All she knew was that when Carlos gave his ticket to the valet, he came back with a Ghost.
Welcome to Miami. Bienvenido a Miami.