At Our Beck and Call

At Our Beck and Call

by Christian Gullikse

Reprinted from Robb Report Worth, October 2004

Behind the nondescript facade of an obscure Oxnard, Calif., shop, Howard Becker transforms mundane SUVs and vans into ultraluxe transport for the likes of Edgar Bronfman Jr., Tiger Woods and King Abdullah of Jordan. His clients want the accoutrements of a Rolls-Royce or a Maybach, but would rather do without the attention those cars tend to attract-at least some of the time.

Almost nothing blends into the crowd more easily than a Ford Excursion or E-350 Super Duty van-Becker's usual platforms-but there is not anything ordinary about his interiors. The typical layout of an SUV conversion calls for the removal of the second- and third-row seats, replaced by two large chairs and up to three-rear-facing jump seats, all upholstered in high-grade leather. Beautifully finished wood trim accents the cabin. A large flat-screen monitor doubles as a divider that can be raised and lowered, and can be linked to entertainment and computer systems. Satellite links, a wireless keyboard, telephones and a collapsible desk allow us full connectivity during our journey. For relaxation, the seats fully recline and CDs and DVDs provide entertainment. (With the emergence of Wi-Fi networking, in-car entertainment options are expanding. We will soon be able to enjoy media downloads from our home computers.) Thanks to proprietary suspension modifications, the quality of the SUV's ride is much better than we night expect, and it is unlikely we will be jolted awake from a nap. Vans - generally Fords or Mercedes-Benz Sprinters - offer an even greater measure of room and versatility - individual chairs or sofas, for instance. And as they are lass fashionable than SUVs, vans can also achieve an even lower profile.

Different levels of stealthiness can be achieved. Leave the exterior of an Excursion or a GMC Denali completely stock and no one will be the wiser. Specify an all-black exterior with custom wheels and satellite equipment mounted on the roof and other motorists will take notice. Most Becker cars fall somewhere in the middle.

The importance of stealth often hinges on our security concerns. Becker's priority is creating environments that feel as normal as possible. Touches such as full operational windows all-around mean that adults feel less claustrophobic and children might not even realize they are riding in an armored car. We thought the armored Excursion felt weightier that the standard car, and was not nearly as confining as some armored sedans currently on the market.

A Becker SUV or van with every luxury and armoring option can top $365,000, about the price of an unmodified Rolls-Royce Phantom or Maybach. Unarmored examples typically sell just north of $200,000.