Not Quite Cash for Clunkers: The $2,000-a-Day Lamborghini

Even in a downturn, some can't live without their fast, exotic cars.

July 30, 2009, 1:41 PM

HASBROUCK HEIGHTS, N.J. -- July 31, 2009&#151; -- Lamborghini. Ferrari. Maserati.

They are names that epitomize excitement, fun, sex appeal and, of course, expense.

But for some, even in the depths of the worst economy since the Great Depression, they signify a bargain. That's right, a bargain.

At least one New York area exotic car business has slashed prices on its high-end rentals to try to lure customers in. And it seems to be working.

No the recession is not over and the freewheeling days of Wall Street have yet to return. But some owners of exotic cars are now finding it cheaper to rent instead of own. (Sounds a bit like the real estate market.)

"For every customer we lost on the low-end, who is no longer capable of affording the rental, we've gained a customer on the high-end who decided they no longer want to own the car," said Noah Lehmann-Haupt, president of Gotham Dream Cars, which rents out 20 exotic cars.

The rentals don't come cheap.

A Ferrari F430 coupe goes for $1,450 a day. The Lamborghini Murcielago Roadster is $1,950 a day. And at the high end is the Mercedes-Benz SLR McLaren, which rents for a whopping $2,450 a day.

And those are the recession prices, about 30 to 40 percent lower than they were a year ago, Lehmann-Haupt said. (The five-year-old company advertises a 20 percent Web discount, but he said the recession has actually forced prices even lower.)

"When I adjusted the prices, volume went up. Unfortunately it didn't go up enough to offset the drop in prices," said Lehmann-Haupt, 31.

But each of those cars comes with a lot of power. Take the Ferrari F430 coupe. It comes with a 490hp V8 engine. Or the Lamborghini Murcielago Roadster which has a 580hp V12 engine. Now that's power. The roadster goes zero to sixty in 3.8 seconds and has a top speed of 205 mph.

High Speed -- and High Price -- Car Rentals

For the most part, customers are not guys who are looking to impress a date or make a splash at their high school reunion. Most renters are car enthusiasts who just love the thrill of the road.

Owning a new Ferrari or Maserati is not cheap. The cars cost more than $200,000 to buy. Leasing one can cost $3,000 or so a month. Add in insurance and maintenance costs and renting for a day or the weekend starts to make sense.

It's a similar story at the Classic Cars Club of Manhattan. They don't do any daily rentals, but sell memberships from $8,000 to $18,000 a year.

Just two years ago, "people were really buying on emotion," said bookings manager Pearse Daly. "Some people who probably couldn't afford this were buying."

Those folks are now gone. But former car owners are now deciding to rent, buying higher-priced packages. To deal with the recession, the company also changed its price structure, making it more flexible. But again, more people, Daly said, took advantage of the ability to drive the higher-end cars.

Gotham Dream Cars also offers a "Dream Share Program" for high-volume renters where customers pay $18,000 to $49,000 and get 20 to 60 percent off the standard rental rates.

"It's a change of treatment. It's not really that you're renting anymore. It's more that you've bought into this club program," Lehmann-Haupt said. "All of our employees know you by first name. You are really becoming part of the family so to speak."

Well, an expensive family. But your new-found relatives will deliver the car to you and even load your favorite music into the stereo.

"It is an emotional visceral experience like nothing else," Lehmann-Haupt added. "One of the things I like to say is that we are in the entertainment business more than the automotive business. It's like taking everything you know about driving and cranking it up to the maximum."

The Dream Car Tour

The third program -- and one of the most-popular -- is called the Dream Car Tour. Six drivers and six cars head out for a drive and every 20 to 30 minutes the group pulls over to the side of the road at a pre-designated checkpoint and do a little round robin swap.

It's almost like a sampler menu or a flight of wines. And it costs less than a daily rental: $895 for five hours with stops, lunch and photo ops.

You're getting six different cars for less than the cost of renting one car. That's the upside," Lehmann-Haupt said. "The downside, if you consider it a downside, when you come on the Dream Car Tour, you can't go to your high school reunion. You can't take the car out to dinner on your anniversary."

Tom McDermott, a 46-year-old Florida resident who owns a high-end photography business. He used to own several exotic cars but has shifted to rental for practical reasons.

"I love them, but as a daily driver they don't make much sense." McDermott said.

That's why for the last two years he has rented from Gotham Dream Cars' Florida location. Despite the $18,000 or so a year he shells out, McDermott said it's still cheaper than owning and "being saddled with the payments and insurance."

Basically, he gets to "drive new cars and not get hit with the massive depreciation." Plus, the cars tend to be the latest models … and a break from his minivan, Rolls Royce and Mercedes CL coupe at home.

"I just realized that I am not going to drive the car all the time. I already have a couple of other cars that I like," McDermott said. "The club gives me the opportunity to drive what's hot and fresh and interesting and new. That's what's important to me."

A Very Expensive Hobby

George Johnson also uses Gotham Dream Cars to maintain his expensive hobby, and to save money and hassle.

"I use them for what I need and then I bring the cars back and don't have to worry about it anymore," he said. "The best thing is just to let it go when you are done."

Johnson, a New Jersey construction contractor, used to own a few Ferraris but said the expense is not worth it.

The car, he said, "sits all winter and then you are looking at $7,000 to tune it up to take it out for the summer."

Now the 40-year-old pretty much has the "option to choose what you feel like driving that day."

He said he'll often stop by at the last minute, pick up a car and take a long drive up to Connecticut or down to Atlantic City. But don't expect to see him cruising through the neighborhood in a Lamborghini.

"When you drive those cars, you don't want to drive them just to show them off. The fun of having them is driving them," Johnson said. "I could drive them all day. It's a stress reliever."

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