Self-made billionaire Stephen Wynn, who owns casino resorts like the Wynn Las Vegas, recently bought his wife Elaine a blue 2007 Ferrari F430 Spyder on a whim during a tour of Ferrari's factory in Milan.
“While we were there, the boys were oogling and ogling,” Mrs. Wynn says, “and then we came across this exquisite blue Ferrari and Steve said, ‘I'm buying you that because it looks like your eyes.’ That's what I got. So naturally I love it.”
Mrs. Wynn also drives a Bentley Arnage and Jeep Grand Cherokee, but appreciates the thrill of the Ferrari, even if it comes with compromises. "It's just a sound unlike any other car and driving it is so much fun, especially with the paddles," she says, referring to the controls behind the steering wheel for shifting gears. "I never complain about it messing up my hair even though it's a convertible — I love a convertible."
Not all billionaires splurge on pricey new cars or weave them into their empires as Steve Wynn does — the Wynn Las Vegas hotel and casino includes a Ferrari/Maserati dealership and Rolls-Royce Phantom sedans for VIP guests, which some say is the largest fleet of these $330,000 limos in North America.
In fact, some of the world's richest people, whose fortunes far exceed Mr. Wynn’s $3.9 billion in assets, don't seem to care at all about flashy rides. Master investor Warren Buffett, worth more than $50 billion, drives a relatively common Cadillac DTS sedan. Wal-Mart heiress Alice Walton, with assets in excess of $15 billion, owns a Ford F-150 pickup.
How billionaires spend their money is more than just a function of how much they have. “It really comes down to age, how the wealth was obtained, where the billionaire’s primary residence is, their upbringing, and what other focuses they may have in their lives,” says Milton Pedraza, CEO of the Luxury Institute in New York. “The billionaires who have a passion for cars are the ones who will have the spending power to build the most impressive collections.”
Few car collections rival Ralph Lauren’s. The fashion magnate and founder of apparel-maker Polo has used his net worth of $4.7 billion to acquire some of the world’s rarest vehicles, including a 1929 Blower Bentley, 1955 Mercedes-Benz 300 SL Gullwing Coupe, 1962 Ferrari 250 GTO, 1996 McLaren F1, and 2007 Bugatti Veyron. All are legendary among auto enthusiasts and many of them command seven figures because of it.
Lauren's stockpile of incredible vehicles is so impressive that the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston dedicated an entire exhibit to his stable in 2005, called "Speed, Style, and Beauty: Cars from the Ralph Lauren Collection.”
“When you get to this level, people like Lauren even have a full-time third-party expert involved,” says Kemp Stickney, president and director of asset management firm Wilmington Trust Florida. Lauren employs an automobile curator who manages the collection and sends requested vehicles to wherever Lauren happens to be.
Experts like these often show up at automotive auctions and at events like the Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance, where high-dollar autos are bought, sold, and shown off. “A lot of billionaires have people that represent them at these events — if you’re at Pebble and it’s one of Lauren’s cars crossing the finish line, then it’s most likely piloted by Paul Russell, his personal automotive representative,” Stickney says.
Real estate tycoon Donald Trump also spends wildly on cars. His $3 billion net worth allows him to indulge in multiple Rolls-Royce Phantoms and a $175,000 Ferrari F430, just to name a few. In past seasons of his television show, “The Apprentice,” Trump was seen rolling up in a Mercedes-Benz SLR McLaren, a rare super car, and a custom Mercedes-Benz S-Class stretch limo.
“Trump is someone who wants to be a trend setter, someone who sports new things to signify to others that he is of refined taste and upper-class privilege,” says C. Margaret Hall, professor of sociology at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. She says that predominant consumerist values in society make billionaires significant for trendsetting and conspicuous consumption.
But it's not just mindless buying — rather, it's spending as a way to build a persona. “Identity in this type of society is garnered from making a mark with your physical goods,” Hall says. “This mark is to own the latest, rarest, and most expensive material goods so as to be seen as innovative, an influencer, and someone skilled with managing money.”
Of all the material goods billionaires might amass, cars in particular seem to be a badge of honor whose importance is growing among the world’s wealthy elite.
Sales of ultra-luxury vehicles sold in the U.S. will increase from 1,762 in 1990 to a projected 11,755 for 2008, says John Wolkonowicz, senior automotive analyst at Boston-based Global Insight. “And by 2013 you’ll see sales of 13,472,” he says.
Wolkonowicz also expects the number of ultra-luxury car companies to grow to 24 by 2013, up from 13 in 1990.
“The number of ultra-high-net-worth individuals is increasing at a record pace, and this trend fares well for Bugatti, whose customers’ minimum net worth starts at $200 million,” says John Hill, market manager for Bugatti Automobiles USA.
The world’s ultra-high-net-worth population has grown 11.3 percent to 94,970 and their combined total assets have risen by 16.8 percent to $13.1 trillion, according to the 2007 Capgemini-Merill Lynch World Wealth Report. To qualify for the “ultra high net worth” category in this report, individuals must have at least $30 million of assets, excluding their residence and any collectibles.
Using state Department of Motor Vehicle records and other sources, we’ve assembled a list of billionaires from among the Forbes 400 richest Americans whose taste in cars is decidedly flashy; people like Ed Lampert, the man who rescued Sears and Kmart by organizing a 2005 merger, who owns an Aston Martin Vanquish.
For all the status they do afford, billionaires don't necessarily see their expensive and rare cars only as fanciful collectibles. Like everyone else, billionaires need to get around too. "I pretty much drive myself all over. I drive several times per day," Mrs. Wynn says. "It all depends on my schedule and if we have a lot of activities and such at the hotel. I'm out quite a bit and I go to visit children and grandchildren."
It must be quite a scene when Grandma pulls up in a blue convertible Ferrari.
Click on the “slide show” link above to see billionaires’ rides.