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


By Anuradha Raghu

KUALA LUMPUR, Oct 11 (Reuters) - The global economicdoldrums may have weighed on businesses around the world, but inMalaysia a luxury hand-crafted carmaker struggles to keep upwith demand as orders pour in from China and the Middle East.

Some customers are willing to wait nearly two years fortheir Bufori vehicle, which costs anywhere from$150,000-$350,000 and can contain unique touches at the buyer'srequest, ranging from built-in vaults to pearl-studdedinteriors.

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

"I love drinking Chinese tea. The car allows me to make teaand drink it while I'm traveling," said Tan, adding that bothare "unique and satisfying" creature comforts that she hadalways wanted.

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

Bufori's founder and managing director, Gerry Khouri, saidhe first started the company in his native Australia in 1987,but decided to move to Malaysia in the early 90s when demandfrom the region began to jump.

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

"China and Middle East are probably our two biggest marketsright now," said Khouri, adding that he also gets orders fromSoutheast Asian countries, Hong Kong, Japan and Europe.

"There's a lot of promise here -- that's what brought us toMalaysia and kept us here," Khouri said. The country hostsBufori's only plant where customers can visit to see their carsbeing made. Showrooms are found in Sydney and Shanghai.

"The beautiful thing is I get to see it built from thebeginning 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 curvesand a long running board, is powered by a 6.4-litre V8 engineboasting up to 470 horsepower and 630 Newton meters (Nm) oftorque.

"These are exclusive, very elite. You've got to be veryspecial to own one of these cars," he said.

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

"These cars are made by hand. No machines -- look aroundyou, it's just people," he says, gesturing around the 50,000square foot (4,645 square meter) factory in the outskirts ofKuala Lumpur where workers are busy fitting custom-made partsand molding the Bufori's classic body.

Upstairs, in the upholstery and interior section, leather iscut and stitched by hand while engineers put together electroniccontrols.

"You can't speed up people like a machine," he added.

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

"Our problem is our demand exceeds our capacity. We're notin the situation where we can produce enough vehicles to meetthe demand worldwide," says Khouri.

"It sounds like a crazy problem to have - but it's seriousbecause we are losing sales everyday."

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

"Bufori cars are very labor-intensive and dependent onpeople. We might compromise the quality which is something wedon't want to do," he added.

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

"That's ridiculous in the overall scheme of things. If youlook at a mass producer carmaker, even 50 man hours is takingtoo much," says Khouri.

But customers who chose to be patient have no regrets.

"It is worth the wait," says Tan, whose car took 20 monthsto finish. "It's more than a car. To me, the Bufori is an art."

(Reporting By Anuradha Raghu,; Editing by)

((anuradha.raghu@thomsonreuters.com,)(+603 2333 8040,)(ReutersMessaging:anuradha.raghu.thomsonreuters.com@thomsonreuters.net))