GIVEN THE LARGE number of luxury cars on Hong Kong roads, one would imagine things are going rather well for the luxury vehicle market. And they certainly seem to be: the market for prestigious vehicle brands has taken off in the past two years as the city has recovered from an economic recession and the outbreak of Sars, which had taken a toll on almost all luxury goods. Robby Niermann, general manager, Porsche Centre Hong Kong and Macau, said: 'We introduced two new lines in 2004 and 2005, when our business approached an all-time high. The outlook for business looks stable this year too.' Porsche is opening a service centre in Macau and developing its business in the mainland, especially in Shanghai, and is looking to recruit staff. If Hong Kong's car buyers turn out to be as brand conscious as its fashion buyers, the number of luxury automakers sharing Mr Niermann's optimism will grow. The industry is trying to prolong the city's love affair with luxury vehicles by emphasising vehicle customisation for greater comfort, style and security. Eric Wong, chairman and chief executive of Richburg Motors, which customises vehicles, said this trend was more advanced in Hong Kong than on the mainland. Modifications typically involve luxury seats, networking features such as Bluetooth, LCD monitors, and bullet-proofing. 'People who want to buy expensive cars are far more selective today and want more than just a brand,' Mr Wong said. For example, there has been an increased demand for multipurpose cars such as sports utility vehicles that can also serve as city cruisers. Richburg Motors started with just two employees several years ago, and has grown into an organisation with 150 employees and offices in Macau and Singapore. The company typically relies on a European partner to perform many of the modifications demanded by its customers. Vehicle customisation demands strong technical skills, but Richburg also requires its employees to be highly enthusiastic. 'We look for people with engineering skills, good credentials, enthusiasm and the ability to speak in Japanese,' Mr Wong said. Mr Niermann agreed with Richburg's observations about the Hong Kong luxury car market and said the business here was more attractive than in Singapore. 'Singapore's regulatory regime and tax structure can multiply vehicle costs,' Mr Niermann said. In contrast, Hong Kong's open market and low taxes are an advantage. This is not the only difference, though. As in the case of any luxury good, differences in lifestyle and connoisseurship affect the luxury car market as well. 'Hong Kong is more receptive to new launches and the market for sports cars is stronger here than in Singapore, which prefers sedans,' Mr Niermann said. Both Porsche and Richburg are optimistic about the future of their businesses, but the luxury car market in Hong Kong is becoming as competitive as it is in other parts of the world. For example, when new cars are launched, owners of competitors' cars are specifically targeted for custom. Those who want to work in this competitive industry must have a keen interest in cars and a strong commitment to customer service. 'Our sales and marketing people should enjoy driving on Hong Kong's roads, and their passion for vehicles must come across clearly to customers,' Mr Niermann said. 'They need to be knowledgeable about the cars and the company, since customers are becoming better informed.' Richburg articulates its needs through 'CATER' - C for customer orientation, A for attitude, T for teamwork, E for execution and R for Richburg professionalism. Buying a new car is an emotional purchasing decision. So intangibles such as customer service, professionalism and enthusiasm are important differentiators in the market. Another trend that is catching on is the collection and maintenance of classic cars, some dating back to the early 20th century. The hobby, popular in Europe and the United States, is spreading to other regions because the value of classic cars is appreciating and there are a limited number of such cars. The city, in fact, has enough enthusiasts and owners to have a Classic Car Club of Hong Kong. Owning an old car, however, is not as simple as keeping a Sung dynasty vase or a Ming dynasty chair. Keeping a classic car is a labour of love. David McKirdy, an independent classic car mechanic, said: 'Keeping a classic car involves more than just storing the vehicle. The owner must use it sometimes; and then there are Hong Kong's high parking costs, which can offset any appreciation in value.' Vehicle technology has changed dramatically over time and a lot of functions are electronically controlled now. Mechanics working on contemporary vehicles use a lot of expensive, specialised equipment such as electronic diagnostic tools to repair and maintain them. 'As a result, mechanically competent car repairmen who can take care of older cars are not easy to find today,' Mr McKirdy said. He maintains and repairs cars for individuals and for hotels with classic fleets and limousines. The luxury and classic cars market in Hong Kong seems headed for good times. Driving the market Customers in the luxury car market are becoming more selective about the features they want. Sales of luxury brands dominate, and a market for customised vehicles is emerging. Hong Kong is a more profitable market than Singapore because of regulation and tax structure. A commitment to service, product knowledge and enthusiasm is needed.