BEIRUT: What began as a hobby in Australia 25 years ago has now become a niche business of custom-made luxury cars in Malaysia – fitted with everything from hot tea dispensers to multimedia systems.
In 1987, Gerry Khouri, a second-generation Lebanese expatriate then living in Australia, made a classic-style car from scratch for his two brothers in his garage, the first model of many to come that he dubbed the Madison.
After some rave reviews from friends, family and passers-by, he made another car, and then another. It was a new concept in the making, which his two brothers – Anthony and George – eagerly joined.
Together the brothers founded Bufori, which make handcrafted cars reminiscent of 1930s designs while using futuristic technology.
“I wanted to prove that I could make a car by hand,” said Khouri in a telephone interview from his office in the Malaysian capital of Kuala Lampur.
A trained carpenter with a love for cars, this was the perfect challenge for him. “When the first one was completed, everyone wanted to be a part of it.”
The name Bufori is an acronym for what the car company’s founders say were the initial reactions of people after seeing the first car: beautiful, unique, “funtastic,” original, romantic and irresistible.
It wasn’t long before the classically designed car caught the eyes of international dignitaries ready to try a new form of luxury with customized personal features.
One of them was the Malaysian prime minister, who bought a car in 1994, with several of his family members following suit.
With the support of the Malaysian royal family and the prime minister, in 1998 Khouri and his family relocated their business to Kuala Lampur, where they have been ever since.
With good weather, modern infrastructure and a skilled workforce, he considers Malaysia a good place to live and do business, although he admits it could do with a little less bureaucracy for businesses, especially in terms of obtaining bank loans.
There, at what Khouri calls the “human factory,” his staff of around 100 can take up to 9,000 hours or three months to make the custom-made cars.
Both inside and out, the cars exude a unique luxury, with V6 and V8 engines, good fuel consumption, the capability to go from 0-100 mph in 6.1 seconds, and the option of supercharging for more power.
The body is both lightweight and durable, made from a combination of Kevlar and carbon fiber, and is fitted with numerous airbags. For the finishing touches, there’s no task too tall for their discerning clientele.
“When a customer comes to us with a crazy idea, we take on the challenge,” Khouri says. “We’ve done tea and coffee sets, mini bars, make-up boxes, hot and cold water machines and multimedia systems.”
According to the Bufori website, options also include silk Persian carpeting, precious stones mounted into the interior of the car and a gold emblem.
All Bufori cars come standard with two iPads, 30,000 watts of power, blind-spot detection and adaptive cruise control.
Of course, these long man hours and customized designs do not come cheap. The lowest-priced model, the La Hoya, starts at $151,000, and the highest end, the Geneva, starts at $340,000.
While these prices might sound exorbitant, Khouri maintains that for what his company offers they are good value for money.
He notes that neither Bentley nor Rolls Royce – considered two of the world’s highest-end luxury car manufacturers – make each of their cars by hand or in the classical style.
There are around 500 Bufori cars in 40 different countries throughout the world. However, he has yet to sell to anyone from his ancestral home (although he does get the occasional enquiry from Lebanon). “That’s the saddest part of the story,” he says.
Born to Lebanese parents who emigrated from the town of Majlaya near Tripoli, Khouri visits Lebanon approximately every two years. His last trip was with one of his customers who took him to Lebanon on his private jet.
“Our cars are literally built according to the demands of the client,” he says. In fact, the Bufori MKII, released in 1992, matched the body of the car to fit the owner. “We don’t have the luxury of time.” Khouri estimates that 99 percent of his clients are “someone special.”
Still, he says that he doesn’t want his cars to become a trend among celebrities, instead hoping to appeal to real car enthusiasts.
“I don’t want to target superstars,” he says. “If I wanted to target someone, it would be someone who would appreciate the car.”