Ultra-performance. Exotic. Supercars. All different nomenclatures that add up to one thing:
Their posters covered our walls when we were kids. They filled our imaginations and were the subject of endless daydreams.
But, how do you actually buy one of these cars?
I went behind the scenes with Mark Wetzel, the Bentley brand manager at St. Louis Motorcars, the finest luxury car dealer in St. Louis.
With over 10 years experience in supercar sales, Mark has worked with such brands as Rolls Royce, Bugatti, Lotus, Aston Martin; he has served as the Lamborghini brand manager; and he currently leads the Bentley team. Not only is Mark an important name is the business, he has firsthand experience having worked with factories around the world and served numerous clients and collectors.
Mark Wetzel has a fascinating view into a rarified world. To set the stage for his interview we sat down together in the Bugatti configuration area. Premium fabric swatches and materials surrounded us along with an engine display and a kiosk for previewing colors and customization. A new Bentley rested quietly in the showroom across from us. It was Saturday morning, a few hours before the store opened, and I had parked my 2004 F250 across the street so that my rusted fenders wouldn't sully the pristine lot. Mark was on his way to his grandson's soccer game and wore jeans, not a three-piece suit. He's a down-to-earth guy who values trustworthiness and doing a great job more than appearances.
I was mesmerized by the millions of dollars worth of cars sitting around us. The dealership is perched right off a Interstate 64 west of St. Louis and is always a subject of discussion when driving in the area, particularly when a Lamborghini passes you in the fast lane while you're driving to lunch on a weekday.
I wanted to know about the process behind the scenes:
What is it like to sell these cars? Can anyone come to dealership to see the cars? Who gets a test-drive?
So, I asked Mark for the answers we all want to know:
1. What's it like to work around these cars?
"There's a reason someone will pay a quarter million to buy a car," Mark said. He noted his time in Qatar and Italy driving Lamborghini's on F1 tracks as part of the brand's driving experience. He says, "I'm not a good driver. The cars make you a very good driver… the guy talking to you, who's an amazing driver, [he's] telling you when to give it full throttle through a turn even if it scares you to death. Driving the cars," he says, "I'm reminded why a person would pay $300K to buy a car, even when it is more expensive than my house…. The people buying these cars, this money is extra, they are not scrimping."
Working in the dealership seems like walking between two worlds: One where people with normal car experience are amazed at how these cars are engineered to be incredible performers, and another where the money to buy them is easily available.
Clients buying supercars aren't financing them, they are paying cash.
Mark doesn't come across with silly giddiness about the cars. He knows and respects these vehicles because he can see the engineering and talent that goes into making them. He uses the word, "breathtaking" several times while talking about the beauty of the design and the power, the performance.
This store's presence has made exotic cars much more common in the St. Louis area, mostly due to the vision of its co-founders, Graham Hill and the late Jim Mills. Mark says, "Graham and Jim had a vision of building the store in this part of the country to be able to provide the service and attention locally for this end of the market." It has helped to elevate west St. Louis and put a little known area on the map.
The dealership's mission is to focus on cars that Mark describes as, "rare, exotic and inspire passion."
These cars do just that. Despite his many years as the Lamborghini brand manager, Mark's recent shift to the Bentley lead was not only for cross training within the store, but also to help lead the 2020 Continental GT release. The new Continental model has been much anticipated but delayed in US release due to additional testing required for the W12 engine. The grand tourer on the show room floor is capable of a 3.9 second 0-60, powered by a twin-turbo V8 that pushes out 550 horsepower for a top speed of 198 mph. It is, as Mark likes to say, "breathtaking." The V8 only lags 85 horses behind its W12 big brother, and many consumers are glad that the more affordable version finally hit the market.
2. Is the process of buying a supercar the same as buying a regular car?
Mark responds, "most people that come here have an idea that they want an exotic car, and it is really just a matter of somebody telling them the process. The usual client has already owned expensive cars, like a Porsche, but not these exotic brands. Understand that people coming to buy these cars are likely not going to finance them…. that's because the finance rates are not like other brands," he says. Large brands with big stocks of cars use finance incentives to move inventory. These brands don't do that. "0% for 72 months!" doesn't live here.
Mark's clients are
"prepared and able to buy a car"
by the time they come in the store.
In fact, Mark says that "most repeat and experienced customers in this end of the business are really aware and attuned to buying cars unseen. So, 60-70% of my personal business," he says, "have never been to the store. If they are buying a used car, they are completely taking my word for it and I value that."
Buying a supercar is similar to purchasing any car, but the numbers are higher and the experience is personal to the taste of the client. The difference is that many clients are running businesses and can't invest a lot of time to work with the factory to make a vehicle and, because of that, Mark explains, "it's a very consultative process that we do, [which] is very different than most car businesses."
3. Does anybody ever buy one of these cars from the showroom, or are they always ordered custom?
Mark says that sometimes people buy a car from the showroom because they simply don’t want to wait for delivery. Factory ordering is often a four or five months process, much longer potentially if the car is in high demand or a new release. So people do drive a supercar off the showroom floor. This often depends on which brand the buyer wants. When St. Louis Motorcars opened in 2002, it was exclusively a Bentley dealer. Since opening they have sold 600 Bentleys and added multiple other brands. Some brands, like Bugatti, almost never have a showroom model because every car is made specifically for a buyer. Plus, the cars are generally about $3M, so stocking inventory would be financially unfeasible.
4. Is there any driver training for buyers?
OK, so my real question is, "has anybody ever crashed an exotic car while driving off the lot?" Mark says he's never had a buyer get in an accident on a test-drive or at the dealership. BUT, the answer for the store in general, unfortunately, is, "yes, someone crashed." The dealership used to carry Maserati, and a prospective buyer once crashed just outside the dealerhsip with another salesman. Can you imagine damaging an $80,000 Quattroporte the first time off the lot? The road conditions were icy. So now, as a personal policy, Mark never takes anybody on a test-drive after dark or in inclement weather.
The real answer here is that there is no driver training from the dealership. In fact, Mark tells me that many buyers don't even conduct a test drive. Some buyers have a proxy buy the car for them. Others might even purchase a car over the phone. For those who desire education, all the brands offer driving experiences that cost a few thousand dollars and provide not only professional training but incredible opportunities to safely push the cars to their limits.
5. Are you concerned about people damaging the cars?
Speaking of one client, Mark says, "he could buy the store if he wanted and was a former race car driver in Europe; but, he's [always] respectful driving the cars." Mark tells me that is very rare that anyone will push the cars hard in a test-drive or leaving the lot. His experience is that everyone understands that they need to follow the law and are part of the flow of traffic.
I had it in my mind that maybe the dealership had worked a deal with a nearby, small airport to allow the use of a runway to open up the cars. But, that is not the case. Drives are usually a normal circle around the area. Nothing too fancy. In fact, even if the drivers did want to open up the cars, there is little reason to fear damage to the cars. Mark said, "these are so well engineered today, they are not the Rolls Royces or Lamborghinis of 20 years ago." He says that Lamborghini, for instance, "hot tests" all their engines on a stand, running them at 80%, under strain, to ensure that engines are "broken-in" and fully capable before installation and delivery.
6. Why buy from you at St. Louis Motorcars?
Mark said that "the common denominator with [clients] and me is that they don't want to do this through ten different people." Mark's motivation appears to be providing a relational, respectful, and truthful service where he strives to earn trust from his customers. Mark mentioned trustworthiness multiple ways. Mark tells me that the shop values the heritage and loyal following of the brands that they sell and you can see this in every detail of store.
I ask him how someone could get a job like his. He says, "I couldn't have done this in my 30's, I don't think." He cites the demanding time requirements of the job and the absolute need for steadiness and consistency. He says that people are "really buying service... young salesmen don't always understand that."
Mark says, "People buy from people."
Clients need to like you and know with confidence that you will deliver on your word.
That's important in any business, but in a store where someone can make a half million dollar purchase over the phone; the stakes are high. He looks at me seriously and says,
"I don't take advantage [of people's trust]"
He continues, "there is a whole lot of the opposite: terrible service, inexperienced people, outright liars… [attempts to] cheat people…. It's not ever my role to talk somebody into a purchase." By the time buyers are talking to Mark they have already decided to purchase something, and he sees it as his job to help them get what they want and work through the administrative process. The cars may be glamorous, but behind the scenes is a lot of phone calls and organization.
7. OK, so how does somebody get a test-drive?
Mark makes it clear. If you aren't able or prepared to buy the car, you're not getting a test drive. He says, "people may think it is uppity or whatever, but it is really a business decision. These cars are very mileage sensitive and our insurance just doesn't allow it." Sorry.
8. What do you want people to know?
Mark thinks hard about this and laughs a bit. Finally he says, "I can't buy these cars, I just happen to work in the industry." He realizes that he's like the proverbial kid in a candy store, but that the candy is out of reach. Mark is a family man and takes his job seriously. He says, "I am an average guy who loves my family, and my God, and now my grandkids, which is unbelievable." Mark obviously has his priorities straight.
For we enthusiasts out there, Mark wants us all to know that the public is always welcome to see - but not touch - the cars. The public is welcome in the showroom. There is a hotel right next door to the dealership and every Monday morning the shop has to clean the windows from all the hand and forehead prints of people trying to peer through the glass at the cars.
He assured me, "You're welcome to visit."
If you're in St. Louis and you want to see some jaw dropping cars, go to St. Louis Motorcars. You don't have to squint through the windows to see the cars. If you are blessed to actually buy your dream car, ask for Mark, he's going to earn your trust.
I run around the dealership taking a few more pictures while Mark waited for me by the door. I shake his hand and thank him for the opportunity. Mark jumps in his vehicle to make it to his grandson's soccer game. Rolling down the window he laughs and yells, "The Lamborghini salesman drives a Honda Element!"
(Interview was conducted on October 19, 2019 at St. Louis Motorcars in Chesterfield, MO., Article updated December 16, 2019)