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Car Dealerships Adapt to the Times

Aston Martin lounge

By Jerome Weeks

Dallas, TX – Almost a dozen luxury car dealerships - Maserati, Porsche, Cadillac -- line Lemmon Avenue in Dallas. Of course, many American cities have showrooms like these, but in the past several years, all of these were significantly renovated or built from scratch. So their architecture and interior designs are striking.

They evoke sleek airport terminals. Inside, they're like resort hotels. They have lounges, cafes and wi-fi connections.
Yes, fuel prices are through the roof. And car sales are hurting. But even before those pressures sent auto companies scrambling, the American car dealership has been changing - both its looks and its functions.

In the Aston Martin showroom in Dallas, general manager Kurt Fegraeus pulls out a keycard - like the one given every Aston Martin owner - and slides it through an electronic reader on a wall. A glass door slides back and we enter the owner's lounge. It's a very contemporary apartment, with black leather furniture, a conference room and a well-stocked bar.

Fegraeus: "This area back here, customers can reserve this for parties. We've done poker parties here, Super Bowl-watching. People have done interviews, they've met with attorneys. It's really whatever they want to do. I've had some customers who've just come by and said, hey, I just want to crash for a minute."

This is the car dealership as private club - or as James Bond hideaway. Dan Neill is the Pulitzer Prize-winning car critic of the Los Angeles Times. What has happened, he says, is that car dealers became aware of the psychic and emotional content of architecture. They want people to feel comfortable spending a lot of time there. So they're now a lot more comfortable, they're airier, they're more upscale.

And the buildings have been designed to embody the car's image. For Infiniti, Neill says, that means being "the most Japanese of all Japanese brands, very consciously evoking things like the shape and edge of a samurai sword or the fold of a shoji screen. All of these things are evoked in Infiniti showrooms as one more layer of brand meaning."

With Land Rovers, the emphasis is on adventure with safari-themed showrooms, even though the cars are often used just as station wagons.

Neill: And oh by the way, there's a little mountain in front of the dealership where you can clamber over these rocks with your Land Rover to prove that it can do the stuff it's advertised to do. So it's fantasyland, right?

Many new dealerships may be sleek "fantasylands, Neill says, but they don't compare to what car companies have built in Europe.

Neill: "Mercedes, BMW, Audi, Volkswagen: All have created these palaces. And these places look like some off-world colony. They're very, very futuristic and super-clean. There's one place called the Glass Factory, it's in Dresden. And it's one of the most surreally futuristic places you could ever imagine."

The Glass Factory, where Volkswagen builds its luxury car, the Phaeton, was designed by Gunter Henn. Renzo Piano -- the architect behind the Nasher Sculpture Center - has updated a giant Fiat factory in Italy.

It's not surprising: Expensive cars have been getting expensive buildings. What is new are the roles dealerships are taking on: Fighting fierce competitive pressures or looking for new marketing avenues, they've been expanding into other social functions. They're clubs, community centers and hotel ballrooms.

At Park Place Motors, president Neil Grossman gives a tour of the Mercedes and Porsche dealership that includes the vast service center - where they've held charity fundraisers and fashion shows.

Grossman: "We've had parties here that are unbelievable. I bet we have no less than 50 events a year here.

Why not, says Neill. They're very nice buildings. And they're multi-functional. They've got a lot of floor space. I could easily see a sweet sixteen or a debutante ball there, no problem.

Jerome Weeks, KERA News