Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Postmortem #Luxury : Maybach meets its maker - Why Daimler's Ultra-Luxe Brand Couldn't Compete With Bentley And Rolls

What was intended to make a big splash in the premium luxury car market has ended with a dull thud. Almost exactly a decade after it lifted the first of the big cars into New York by helicopter, Daimler AG has pulled the plug on its Maybach marque. And the odds are that few, if any, of the affluent motorists it was targeting will even notice the brand's departure.

Maybach was intended to go up against the most elite nameplates in the automotive market: Rolls-Royce and Bentley. But, in hindsight, it appears that Daimler took hubris to a new level believing that it could simply invent a new brand that would be taken seriously by the sort of buyers who want the Spirit of Ecstasy or Flying B hood ornaments on their cars.

Of course, it didn't help that the parent of Mercedes-Benz thought it could get away with using an outdated platform and then gussy it up with such features as a crystal perfume atomizer that would automatically give the car a spritz every 15 minutes.

The Maybach brand actually did have a once-glorious history. The original company was founded in 1909, just three years after Charles Rolls and Henry Royce came together, and a decade before the upstart W.O. Bentley arrived on the scene.

In its original incarnation, the company was known as Luftfahrzeug-Motorenbau GmbH, and it produced engines for Zeppelin airships. But by 1919, Wilhelm Maybach's factory began rolling out some of the biggest and most elegant products ever to grace German roads. It continued through the early days of the Second World War before its plants were turned over to tank production. It never got back into the car business.

Not for 60 more years, anyway. But Maybach presented an appealing option for Daimler AG – actually, DaimlerChrysler back in the days just before the start of the new Millennium. The parent of Mercedes-Benz was the odd man out in a three-way bidding war for the Rolls-Royce Motor Co. when it was sold off by its British parent. In a confusing whir, Rolls landed with BMW, Bentley with Volkswagen AG. And, not to be left out, Daimler decided to revive the ancient Maybach.

A concept was shown in 1997; the production model, however, did not arrive until July 10, 2002, when the very first car was shipped to the States aboard the old QE2. Shortly after dawn, as the liner sailed into New York Harbor, a big Sikorsky cargo lifter swooped down, hooked up to a cargo container on the ship's deck and shot off for Manhattan, a "Maybach" banner flapping underneath.

Or, at least trying to flap. It never properly unfurled, perhaps an omen of things to come.

"We are not just presenting the car, but the brand. After this, the world will know Maybach is back," proclaimed Juergen Hubbert, the longtime head of Mercedes. But if potential luxury car buyers knew, they apparently didn't care. The ever-optimistic Hubbert, long known as "Dr. Mercedes," confidently predicted the brand would sell 1,000, perhaps even 2,000 cars, annually. In the end, Maybach struggled to find buyers for 100. In its entire decade run it barely sold as many as Daimler had hoped for in a single year.

Of course, the upper end of the luxury car market hasn't matched the optimistic expectations that abounded at the turn of the new Millennium. Back then, the industry was selling perhaps 7,000 vehicles a year priced at more than $150,000 – more than half carrying the prancing pony of the Ferrari brand. Hubbert and others anticipated sales would surge as more competition entered the market, perhaps reaching 25,000 or more.

The demographics seemed to support that expectation. The number of global billionaires was growing faster than Apple or Google stock and, certainly, they would all seem to want a Rolls, Bentley, Maybach – or something more exotic, like a Ferrari or Lamborghini – in their 10-car garages. At least, that's how it played out on paper.

Ultra-premium sales did grow, Bentley nudging the 10,000-annual mark, at its peak. But the segment, overall, failed to deliver. Why? That's anyone's guess. Tom Purves, former head of Rolls, once cautioned that many potential buyers were reluctant to be seen in something that exclusive. In some markets that would make them a target of kidnappers or terrorists. In others, it would be embarrassing, he said, to roll up to a factory you're about to close driving a Rolls-Royce.

Maybach had its own set of problems. Despite its once-proud heritage, the Double-M hood ornament simply didn't carry the gravitas of a Flying B or Spirit of Ecstasy, for one thing. And then there were the questionable technical decisions Daimler made in preparing its first Maybach models. Instead of developing a unique, state-of-the-art platform, the German maker lifted the prior-generation S-Class architecture. True, Maybach tried to overcome that deficit with fancy features like the M62's business jet-style back seat and a trick glass roof that could be switched from clear to opaque with the touch of a button.

But even that cut crystal atomizer in the recent Zeppelin model couldn't make the Maybach smell sweet enough to get many one-percenters into its showrooms. By late 2011, Daimler had had enough. The maker announced it would phase out the brand – which it has now done quicker than expected with last month's quiet end to Maybach production.

Mercedes' new U.S. boss, Steve Cannon, is optimistic the brand can cover the loss of the ultra-luxury line with additional versions of the all-new S-Class coming next year, including the S600 Pullman slated for 2014. He admits a few of those existing Maybach owners might go elsewhere when it's time for a trade-in. But considering how few were ever sold, it's likely Daimler won't even notice.

Written by Paul A. Eisenstein
Paul is Publisher of TheDetroitBureau.com and a 30-year veteran of the automotive beat. His editorials bring his unique perspective and deep understanding of the auto world to Autoblog readers on a regular basis.

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