Meet Mark Nichinson, 57, a Russian immigrant and buyer and rehabber of distressed properties in Philadelphia - and now the 18th customer to drive away from Bob DiStanislao's new dealership on West Chester Pike in Westtown Township in a McLaren MP4-12C, created by the famed British racing company.
"Who wouldn't want one?" he answered when asked what possessed him to spend a small fortune on a car, especially when he said he already owns a 2007 Ferrari that he keeps in Germany, where he occasionally conducts business.
The real estate investor, who lives in Philadelphia, is far from the only self-indulgent American luxury car buyer these days. At a time when some Detroit carmakers are still in the shadow of a government bailout, U.S. sales of high-end, high-priced automobiles are in a "launch control" mode of their own.
The research company IHS Automotive forecasts that sales of top-of-the-line luxury models in the $200,000 to $400,000 price range will skyrocket by 59 percent this year, and 2011 wasn't shabby, either. BMW, Porsche, and Mercedes-Benz all reported accelerating sales, and Lamborghini found a secretive buyer for its one-of-a-kind Aventador Jota, worth roughly $3 million.
Joe Innaurato, general manager of F.C. Kerbeck & Sons in Palmyra, said sales of Rolls-Royce, Bentley, Lamborghini, Aston Martin, and Maserati autos - which cost up to half a million - were "dramatically up."
In fact, Rolls-Royce reported its most sales ever in 2011, he said, and demand for luxury cars may exceed supply by the end of the year.
All in all, it seemed like an auspicious time for DiStanislao, owner of Porsche of the Main Line, who doesn't think twice about flying along West Chester Pike at 110 m.p.h. in his own black McLaren, to open in January one of what will be just nine McLaren dealerships in the United States.
Nichinson is the first to admit his new orange sports car is "a toy," adding: "I haven't had much until recently, so I want to indulge myself."
But his Russian business partner, Vic Trub, the shorter and stockier of the duo, who drove Nichinson to the dealership in his dented Mazda, told a different story. "He likes nice things," he confided, noting that his friend's everyday ride is a BMW. "I'm not as vain."
Though most McLaren buyers have the dealership deliver their news car to their homes, Nichinson picked his up at the showroom. There was a giddy, partylike atmosphere as sales manager Chad Sierer showed off all the features to the blue-jeans-and-Luminor-watch-wearing Russian.
He and Trub shot pictures and videos and practically cooed at the seven-speed transmission, the aluminum rear-mounted engine block, the dashboard that looked like it should have a flux capacitor and the three driving modes: "normal" (navigating city potholes), "sport" (to liven things up), and "track" (full-blown race car).
Someone asked the separated Nichinson, balding and low-key, whether he thought the sports car would help him meet women.
"He needs all the help he can get!" Trub interjected.
Nichinson said he would probably take the car to Florida and local racetracks. The fastest he's ever driven was 190 m.p.h. in his Ferrari.
"I will drive this fast enough that I don't touch the ground," he joked - hopefully.
He ordered his McLaren in November without ever driving one: maybe a good idea, because in 2004, he totaled a BMW on a test drive in Doylestown.
McLaren's American business plan for this year calls for selling only about 400 MP4-12Cs, just the second road model the firm linked to late racing great Bruce McLaren has marketed here. The Westtown dealership expects to have 36 to 40 sales.
Although McLaren Philadelphia hasn't seen celebrities like Jay Leno and the NBA's Dwyane Wade, DiStanislao said he could more than sell his allotment.
Philadelphia's economy, he noted, is powered by the University of Pennsylvania and its affiliates and pharmaceutical companies, and is not dependent on manufacturing or Wall Street.
Another plus: "There are 46,000 registered attorneys in the state," he said.
So far, a surprising number of the One Percent who become local McLaren customers are orthopedic surgeons – six in all. All but one are men. Boys, actually.
Fortunately for dealers like DiStanislao, none seems to have commitment issues when it comes to $300,000 sports cars.
DiStanislao, who was going to become a veterinarian when he got a job selling Mitsubishis and realized he'd found his true calling, had done so well selling Porsches that he lobbied his high-ranking industry contacts in England for the opportunity to offer McLarens in Chester County.
Even with plans to deliver an average of less than one model a week, he hired a staff of 10 and built a 2,000-square-foot showroom that's airy and futuristic – like an automotive Apple store – with exacting requirements right down to the size of the floor tiles (597 square millimeters) and the width of the grout (3 millimeters).
Of course, that same attention to detail is what makes a McLaren automobile so valuable. In an age of robotics, each MP4-12C is manufactured in England by hand, which buyers can watch online. The F1 road model that was built in the 1990s – 106 manufactured with 90 still on the road – was initially priced at $1 million and now sells for as much as $3.8 million.
New owners like Nichinson may be hoping for a similar return on their investment. Many will gather at an invitation-only grand-opening party Wednesday where they can meet the car's designer, Frank Stephenson, as well as Antony Sheriff, managing director of McLaren Automotive and a Swarthmore College graduate. Those who buy MP4-12Cs sign a privacy agreement saying the company may not use their names for promotional purposes.
"They don't want their names plastered all over the place," Sierer said.
They may not be into sharing, either.
One of the fancy features Sierer showed Nichinson was the memory seat that automatically adjusts for three separate drivers.
"I'm not letting three people drive this," he replied.
Contact Kathy Boccella at 610-313-8123 or email@example.com.