What do you get for a man who has already achieved everything and owned everything? The family of Yeoh Tiong Lay, the chairman of Malaysian conglomerate YTL, faced this dilemma when the man - considered one of the richest individuals in Malaysia - turned 80. The answer? A custom-made Bufori luxury saloon.
"Our car is more a lifestyle product than a means of transport," says Gerry Khouri, the founder of one of the world's premier boutique luxury carmakers. Bufori cars are for the elite and Khouri's customers include high-profile tycoons, celebrities, company executives and collectors from Malaysia and around the world. Last year, the company opened a showroom in Shanghai, hoping to tap into China's growing luxury car market. "[Our customers] come from all walks of life, and what they have in common is their passion for fine cars and the necessary pocket money, although you would be surprised that not all of them are millionaires," he says. "These are people who dare to be different, who are not afraid of showing what they have, and who appreciate the finer things in life."
Customers purr over the Bufori's sleek lines and excellent performance, and Khouri has certainly turned carmaking into an art form. The Khouri signature is apparent as the distinctive "B" symbol of the Bufori, which represents B - Beautiful, U - Unique, F - Funtastic, O - Original, R - Romantic and I - Irresistible. The handcrafted Bufori cars can be worth as much as US$350,000, and Khouri is involved in every stage of the production process.
The Lebanese-Australian built his first car by hand at the age of 21 in Sydney, and then used his skills to launch a business with his two brothers.
In 1998, Bufori operations moved to Kepong, an industrial area of Kuala Lumpur. The move was largely inspired by former prime minister Mahathir Mohamed's enthusiasm for a red Bufori V61, which was displayed at the Langkawi Air Show, and because Khouri felt strongly that the Asian market was booming at just the right time for luxury cars, and Kuala Lumpur would provide an ideal base. Khouri is proud to describe his cars as "Made in Malaysia".
Indeed, Khouri has a personal involvement in all cars built at the Kepong facility, and his devotion to perfection remains as strong as it was when he handcrafted his first car, back in 1986.
Inspired by the classic coupes of the past, the vehicles are made of modern materials using state-of-the-art engineering techniques, yet with a 1930s vintage appearance that exudes style and opulence.
Bufori cars are built to order, which means Khouri and his team of about 100 specially trained craftsmen and engineers do not start on a vehicle unless a customer has asked for it. Once the go-ahead is given, there is a 25-stage process. In an ideal scenario, the car would move from one stage to the next every day.
"Our factory has an installed capacity of 300 vehicles per annum. However, we don't have the manpower to produce these volumes. Our current target is just 60 vehicles per annum," Khouri says. In the case of Yeoh's Luxury Saloon, he and his team had to scramble. Yeoh's family needed the specially built car in three months. "We had our guys working on it around the clock to get it ready in [that time]," says Khouri, who adds that he is "flat out" every day, ensuring orders are fulfilled.
The Bufori factory seems dark and haphazard, very much the oversized workshop it was meant to be. Moulds, frames, and benches are manned by workers poring over minute details.
It is almost like an unfinished Batman cave, which is appropriate, given some of the hi-tech materials being used to manufacture the Bufori cars. The car's body is made from a composite of carbon fibre and Kevlar, which is the strongest man-made material in the world. "The only thing stronger is a spider's web," says Khouri, who peels off a thread-wide strip of Kevlar, which proves to be impossible to snap by hand without the material cutting into flesh.
While many carmakers use the same combination, "what we use comes from 26 years of experience", Khouri says.
Bufori offers customers a variety of colour and material swatches to help them make their choices. The company has specialists at every level of the production line, with a master craftsman working full-time with door moulds, others taking care of wiring and electrical aspects, and experts in leather for seating and specially trained engineers to ensure that the car fulfils its promise to go 100,000km without the need for a major service.
Bufori cars have been exported to more than 40 markets, including Britain, Germany, Spain, Czech Republic, Russia, Romania, Kazakhstan, China, Hong Kong, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Bahrain, Oman, India, Thailand, South Korea, Indonesia, Australia and New Zealand. The Middle East is the company's main market. Customers buying a Bufori outside Malaysia do not have to worry about transporting the vehicles, taxes and duties. Bufori takes care of all export issues and documentation.
Bufori's major models are high in demand. They include the MKVI Geneva, launched at the 2010 Geneva Motor Show, featuring a front-mounted V8 engine with rear-wheel drive, five-speed sequential-shift transmission with steering-wheel gear-shift paddles, a dual-exhaust system and a 6,400cc engine capacity.
The Bufori La Joya was previously the only model in production in the company's line-up, and is a hand-crafted two-seater coupé with a rear-mid-mounted 2.7-litre V6 Quadcam engine.
The company is also launching its first sports car, the Bufori CS, which is in the final stages of development. Although the full specifications remain confidential, Bufori says it will roll out an "entry level" version with a 3.6-litre, V6 engine offering around 320hp, and the high-output 6.4-litre V8, with about 470hp to the rear wheels.
Apart from the stock specifications, Khouri and his team are often asked to include quirky features custom-made for their customers. These include seat massagers, tea-making facilities, a coffee-maker and a shisha dispenser, for those who enjoy the Middle Eastern tobacco machine in which the smoke is passed through fragrant water, among others.
The rear lounge can also be turned into miniature offices, with fold-down tables for laptops.
"The possibilities are endless. We are open to everything," Khouri says. "Basically, the car is a status symbol. We are talking about people with a lot of money to spend and who enjoy being seen in these cars."