DALLAS — Big money rolls down the streets of Dallas — literally.
Bentleys, Ferraris, Maseratis and even a Bugatti or two regularly grace some of Dallas' more gilded boulevards.
Long known as a city sweet on luxury cars, Dallas' fascination with six- and even seven-figure vehicles is reflected in the high-end area of the Dallas Auto Show, which opens Wednesday.
This year, the high-end display — probably the only one of its kind — will feature such million-dollar star cars as the Aston Martin One-77 and Pagani Huayra, as well as a McLaren 650S, Bentley GT Speed convertible, Rolls-Royce Wraith and others.
"The New York show doesn't do it, Chicago doesn't and Detroit doesn't either," said Lee Chapman, president of the Dallas-Fort Worth Metropolitan New Car Dealers Association. "It is the area of dreams, a place where you can see and touch these fantastic cars."
Ultra-luxury cars aren't the only vehicles at the show, of course.
Hundreds of new cars, trucks, crossovers and SUVs will fill 650,000 square feet of the city's Kay Bailey Hutchison Convention Center through Sunday.
Among them are the all-new 2016 Nissan Titan pickup, the 2017 Ford F-150 Raptor, 2016 Mustang GT 350, 2016 Cadillac ATS-V Coupe and 2016 Buick Cascada convertible.
Also on display will be the all-new 2015 Lexus RC-F, the 2015 Lincoln MKC crossover, 2015 Ram Laramie Limited with its controversial new grille and tailgate and the all-new 2015 Porsche Macan crossover.
But much of the shine at the show will radiate from the high-end section.
The ultra-luxury segment was once made up of giant old-school European sedans that cost more than $100,000. Over the last decade, it has evolved into a vibrant, diverse niche that generates big profits.
With margins shrinking on many mainstream vehicles, one ultra-luxury cruiser can earn as much profit as 10 regular vehicles, and they don't need incentives or advertising.
Moreover, the segment — though tiny in terms of overall sales volumes — is expected to grow 34 percent by 2018, faster than the overall industry.
That may partly explain why the Volkswagen Group owns Lamborghini, Bugatti, Bentley and Audi.
"The buyers for these cars are the same people who bought regular and near-luxury cars prior to 2005," said Heath Strayhan, general manager of the Park Place Premier Collection, which includes Bentley, Bugatti, Maserati, McLaren and Rolls-Royce.
"It was the emergence of better products and cars' becoming sensible that attracted them to the higher segments," Stayhan said.
Last year, Ferrari and Maserati accounted for less than 1 percent of Fiat Chrysler's sales but provided a combined $754 million in operating profit — 21 percent of the group's total, according to Automotive News.
Bentley doesn't disclose its revenue, but the automaker says it sold a record 3,000 vehicles in the U.S. last year and had its fourth straight year of profits.
Likewise, Rolls-Royce sold 900 vehicles in the U.S. last year at a minimum of $265,000 each, a 5.3 percent increase.
"In 2000, we sold like 12 new and used cars our first year," said Kurt Fegraeus, managing partner of Aston Martin of Dallas, where an entry-level Vantage coupe costs $116,700. "We're at about 10 times that number now."
Moreover, Aston Martin of Dallas is also a Pagani dealer — exotic Italian super-cars that cost $2 million — and has sold five of the super-cars.
"Every single one sold to buyers from Dallas or Houston," Fagraeus said. "I wish I could get more."
Some of the seeds for the growth of the ultra-luxury segment got planted more than 15 years ago when Volkswagen bought Bentley and BMW purchased Rolls-Royce.
Both English brands possessed Old World style and charm but the cars could be unreliable and finicky, often lacking the overall build quality of a mid-level Lexus.
In addition, the big sedans' hand-built assembly took months, keeping production so low that the cars rarely earned much profit — even at their staggering prices.
"There was no profit built into the system," Strayhan said. "They were artistic and definitely the work of craftsmen, but they were devoid of any practical engineering."
Volkswagen and BMW brought modern assembly practices to the storied brands, giving them better engines, transmissions and other components as well.
"You had cars that were sort of occasional weekend drivers become something that was truly viable and had great performance," Strayhan said.
Of course, the increase in striking new six-figure cars coincided nicely with substantial growth in the number of super-wealthy people in the world. The combined wealth of the people on Forbes list of the 400 richest Americans last year was up 13 percent, to $2.29 trillion.
The car that best embodied all of the segment's changes — and sparked its growth — was probably the 2005 Bentley Continental GT, a big, fast, shockingly stylish coupe powered by a VW-derived 12-cylinder engine.
"The car was so different from anything people had seen from Bentley I had a list of buyers a mile long," Strayhan said. "We stayed sold out for 18 months."
The unusual Continental GT also encouraged ultra-luxury manufacturers to stretch out and offer more vehicles.
Rolls-Royce and Bentley, for example, plan to build their first SUVs — a vehicle Rolls-Royce calls its "high-body car."
The multimillionaire buyers for the vehicles tend to be in their early to mid-50s, and they own five or more cars and luxury SUVs and two or three homes.
They don't need another car.
"Buyers in that segment may be thinking about spending $500,000 on a car or a condo in Vail or some other luxury item," said Stephanie Brinley, senior analyst at IHS Automotive. But they also want unique vehicles at least as reliable as the S-class Mercedes-Benz sedans many of them drove for years.
"Dallas is a great place to be selling these cars," Strayhan said. "But even in Dallas — and I don't care how much they cost — the cars have to make sense."
Most buyers still pay cash for the cars, but some manufacturers now offer leases on high-end vehicles and a few will even finance them.
"These cars are profitable and lend to the credibility of a manufacturer," Brinley said. "But they also are great proving grounds for new technology. They really are important in the development of automobiles.
"It's a nice place to be," she said of the segment.
©2015 The Dallas Morning News
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