The Ultimate in Understated Luxury

An interview with Howard Becker, President, Becker Automotive Design, Inc., Los Angeles

Reprinted from Leaders Magazine, April, May, June 2001

"When we first started designing these vehicles," explains Howard Becker, referring to his specially equipped SUVs, "my initial intent was for the owner to enjoy his commute." And in recent years, even as sport-utilities have become what he terms "the elite vehicles in today's world" and "popular with almost every segment of the population," they still serve that purpose. In fact, they serve three: "The first is discretion, the second is basic - and in this case, chauffeured - transportation, but the main purpose is luxury." As the president of Becker Automotive Design elaborates, luxury can be subdivided into entertainment (the likes of 28-inch LCD monitors and audio systems that can "literally take your breath away") and "utility from a business standpoint" (which begins with a high speed computer and ends, essentially, with one's imagination). Becker concedes that his limousine-outfitted "SUVs certainly aren't inexpensive vehicles," but "they're not overly pricey either," he adds. Plus, "if you consider the value of a businessman's time gained by his commuting in one of these," he astutely points out, "it virtually pays for itself."

After graduating from the University of Southern California with a B.A. in psychology, Becker went on to earn an M.B.A., teach entrepreneurship, and work in his father's car-radio shop - from which his present-day company was eventually launched.

Why should the CEO of a major company want to buy what is, essentially, a sport-utility vehicle?

Well, it's not that a stretch limousine, a Town Car, or a Mercedes-Benz isn't a good vehicle; it's simply that sport-utility vehicles have an incredible number of attributes. In fact, they're generally considered the elite vehicles in today's world. They're cutting edge in every sense, and they're extremely popular with almost every segment of the population. Indeed, popularity is one of the remarkable attributes that make and SUV such a favorable option for a top corporate executive: Everyone identifies with an SUV, everyone accepts it, and everyone admires it. I think that adds a common bond among people across all classes. And although SUVs certainly aren't inexpensive vehicles, they're not overly pricey either.

Your vehicles look discreet on the outside, but they're certainly luxurious on the inside.

That's the whole idea. And while our vehicles are discreet on the outside, they certainly aren't stock vehicles. We dress up the exterior a step or two above the original factory model - with monochromatic bumpers, various trims, and so on - to make the vehicle more elegant. We also change the tires and wheels, not so much for appearance's sake - although we do improve the look - but because this improves the ride tremendously.

As for the interiors, the factories really don't hit the mark from the standpoint of, say, a top corporate executive or famous personality. Therefore, we try to emulate what those kinds of people are used to in daily life, which is, generally speaking, something along the lines of a European luxury car.

For the past 20 years, we've been working with European luxury brands - Bently, Rolls_Royce, Mercedes-Benz, BMW, Ferrari, Porsche, and all the others - so we understand our customer's tastes. When we convert these SUVs into limousines, we do it with the intent that, when our customers get inside, they'll feel that they're in their natural element.

In addition to the luxury aspect of the conversion, the back of the vehicle - where the passenger sits - is equipped with a complete office on wheels, with everything from telephones and computers to stereophonic audio equipment and LCD television, correct?

Correct. Our custom-built SUVs serve a number of purposes. The first is discretion, the second is basic - and in this case, chauffeured - transportation, but the main purpose is luxury. We want the vehicle to fit the mindset of the owner and thereby reduce stress. This luxury can be divided into two categories.

The first category is entertainment. One of the best ways to take stress out of people's lives is to allow them to watch a DVD on the highest-quality, 20- or 28- inch, flat-panel LCD monitor while sitting in a very comfortable seat, with or without the massage system and heater on. It's the ultimate "home"-theater experience. And our 5.1 audio systems could literally rake your breath away. A few minutes of listening to The Three Tenors, for instance, is priceless in these vehicles. The amount of relaxation, piece of mind, and indeed, stimulation that the music gives a human being within this environment cannot be found in other modes of transportation.

The second luxury category has to do with utility from a business standpoint, and this is where the new economy is really coming into play for us. Obviously, we have to offer several different forms of cellular communications, and we have to make them easy to operate. But that's not where it stops; in fact, where everything really begins after that point is with the installation of the computer. We run everything in back with a powerful, 1,000-watt, pure-sine wave, 110-volt inverter. You can operate everything you would in your home, including a hair dryer and electric shaver. You can plug in your laptop instead of switching to battery power, but you probably won't because we also install a permanent high-speed computer. It uses the video screen, a wireless keyboard, and a wireless mouse. So now, with wireless Internet access available, that 30-minute traffic jam isn't such a problem anymore.

Is videoconferencing also possible?

Yes, of course.

I recently met with the chief credit officer of our bank, and I arrived in one of these vehicles. He became so excited that he ran upstairs and brought down the chief financial officer. They both jumped in back, and the CFO calculated that, if you consider the value of a businessman's time gained by his commuting in one of these vehicles every day, it virtually pays for itself.

I didn't go to the bank to try to sell one of these vehicles, by the way. However, the "test drive" certainly demonstrated my creditworthiness!

What about security features? You provide tinted glass. Is bulletproofing also available upon request?

We routinely provide bulletproofing. At our facility we do bulletproofing up to what's known as NIJ Level 3-A, which safeguards all the way up to .44 Magnum. Thus, you're protected against the most powerful handguns in the world, as well as a lot of rifles.

What about the threat of bombs underneath the carriage?

We do bomb blankets constructed of Kevlar, which is the material used in bulletproof vests. Upon occasion and mostly in Third World situations, people want a high level of security: protection against automatic rifles, armor-piercing weapons, etc. Although we don't go to the extent that would be appropriate for a head of state, we do offer an exceptional level of protection.

The .44 Magnum level seems to be very appropriate, especially for the domestic U.S. population. People are concerned less about the threat of assassin that they are about acts of random violence, such as carjacking. This type of armoring is very unobtrusive, which means that they windows sill function. At 22 millimeters, the window glass - which, by the way, is supplied by the same company that supplies the State Department - isn't so thick that you feel as though you're in a fish bowl. And while there's armor on the doors, floor, and roof, for all intents and purposes, you aren't consciously aware that you're in an armored vehicle.

And when the CEO isn't conducting business, his family can use the vehicle just as they would any other SUV.

That's absolutely true, and I must admit that the number of people who actually do that used to surprise me. They put the kids in the back, switch on a movie, and boy, are those kids happy!

How much does one of these converted vehicles cost?

Our base price is $85,000, which gives you suspension modification, a digital navigation system, and the basic type of interior I've described, with a modest music system and a 15-inch, flat-panel video screen. More often that not, however, the final bill is more in the neighborhood of $120,000, once customers check off their preferred options. These include everything from sunroofs to upgraded audio systems, larger LCD screens, heated massage seats, and lumbar systems.

That's roughly the same price as a top-of-the-line BMW, and yet you offer more.

That's true, but I don't necessarily want to compete with cars of that kind.

When we first started designing these vehicles, my initial intent was for the owner to enjoy his commute. However, they're such a non-ostentatious mode of transportation that I see them being used for many other purposes. For instance, they're great for taking the kids to school. Wealthy parents sometimes feel very self-conscious about sending anything fancy to school, the park, a ball game, and so forth. These vehicles give them a much more discreet option.

When I recently delivered a vehicle to one of our very well-known clients, his wife came out to admire it. She was so excited, I felt as though I'd hit a grand slam. And when she said, "Honey, why did we ever get the Bentely?" I almost did a backhanded flip! The reaction to our vehicles, almost universally, is wonderful. I never hear, "Why did we get this?" They're just so darn practical!