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‘We see cars as fashion,’ says designer Afzal Kahn

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It takes a slice of audacious design to capture the imagination of the seasoned car retailers, collectors and journalists who attend day one of the Geneva Motor Show.

When Kahn Design rolled a mammoth six-wheel, nine-seat coach-built Land Rover Defender out on to the Cooper Tires stand at this year’s event, it stole at least a slice of the limelight from the assembled car manufacturers, many of whom were showing a new breed of electrified models that could not be further from the creations of Bradford-based designer Afzal Kahn.

For the self-proclaimed “automotive fashion house”, the attention-grabbing exhibit was a key part of generating publicity for its luxury vehicles.

Headquartered in a building off Canal Road, Bradford, with a two-storey showroom, workshop, offices, design studio and a gym, the Kahn empire currently includes a Leeds showroom and boutique stores on the King’s Road in Chelsea and a new facility in Kensington High Street. The properties are owned freehold by a holding company.

The opening of the second Kahn Design boutique in London in October last year saw the business gain another foothold in a key market for its Chelsea Truck Company line of Jeep Wranglers and Land Rover Defenders, along with a growing range of clothing and accessories.

Kahn said: “The new boutique in Kensington has room for two cars and includes downstairs parking for a further 12. To have property like that in London, you have to be very lucky and I think we have been.

“I’ve established the boutiques in London because that is where I now live – I’m down there four days a week – but it’s also where I see us doing a lot of business.”

Kahn believes he has established “a flagship, a model of what could be achieved elsewhere in the country” and said he may open new stores elsewhere, but added that it would also be useful to team up with car dealers.

“At a time where their margins are being tested and the high pressure of mainstream sales can burn them out, our individual products are something they could make money with. A partnership could offer a great opportunity for the right dealer,” he said.

Kahn started out satisfying appetites for aftermarket body kits and wheels for the Max Power generation in the early 1990s, before investment in an Italian manufacturing run of his own iconic RS-R wheel in 1996 propelled his business to new heights.

The story goes that the initial run of 1,000 wheels sold out before they had a chance to reach UK shores and the profits helped to establish the A Kahn Design business and broaden the business’s remit into more significant car modification ventures.

Today, Kahn is the outspoken, passionate, and he admits “occasionally angry” figurehead of a business that has partnered with Aston Martin to create a coach-built Vengeance luxury sports car and is venturing into clothing, accessories and even an electric bike. Times have moved on…

“The thing with Kahn is that here we see cars as fashion. What you drive is more important than what you wear in many ways, because that’s what people see when you drive down the street.

“My success started with the wheels and the key to that was that I was able to create simple, timeless designs which still appeal today. Those original wheels are still our best sellers.”

While Kahn admires Bugatti – he has owned seven Bugatti Veyrons and currently keeps one at his London home – Aston Martin and Bentley, he said the current luxury car market keeps delivering opportunity to sell his modified and coach-built creations.

“A lot of the cars being launched today are very ugly. The more that is the case, the easier it is for us to do what we do,” he said.

Kahn’s Chelsea Truck Company (CTC) is as close to the mainstream as the designer-turned-car-retailer has ventured to date.

Jamie Booth, business development manager at the Chelsea Truck Company, said the business buys every Jeep Wrangler it can lay its hands on to maintain supply of its Black Hawk CJ300 and CJ400 models, which retail from just over £53,999 new, with a conversion available for £26,500.

A new exhaust system is the only change to the vehicles’ mechanicals and, as such, Black Hawks can be serviced in Jeep’s franchised retail network, but each vehicle – which would normally retail from £34,780 in 2.8-litre CRD Sahara specification – receives a coach-built overhaul.

Wider bodywork, a new bonnet, quilted leather interior trim and Kahn Design alloy wheels clad in rubber from the brand’s tyre partner, Cooper Tires, are all part of a thorough reworking.

Despite all the changes, Booth is keen to highlight that Cap HPI recently upgraded the Black Hawk’s residual values by 2ppts, to an average of 37% at three years and 30,000 miles.

Kahn told ID that “99% of our cars are sold on finance”, reiterating the need for strong RVs.

He said the Kahn business sees many of its products come back when customers replace their vehicle, but added that it was essential to keep a close eye on the used market to ensure cars maintain their value.

Kahn said: “I have personally called used car retailers and told them to raise the price of a car. Sometimes they just don’t know what they have got on their forecourt. One guy, in particular, ended up calling me back and thanking me for the call.”

Despite Kahn’s belief that the business could retail up to 1,000 vehicles a year, Booth is happy with the current success of the Black Hawk line.

“On average we retail around 30 to 40 cars a months and 40% to 45% of that is Jeep,” said Booth.

“The Black Hawks really are our bread and butter. The London customer base is very strong. We are the biggest retailer of the Wrangler in the UK – outselling the brand’s official franchised network.”

CTC also trades in coach-built Land Rover Defenders, marked out by their riveted wheel-arch extensions and luxury quilted leather interior. Kahn has partnered with brands such as Harris Tweed to meet customers’ desire for a bespoke finish.

Booth said: “The Land Rovers are more expensive. The Land Rover Defender End Edition we created to mark the end of production retails from £70,000 and with customers keen to add their own bespoke touches, such as Harris Tweed, prices regularly rise above £100,000.”

Among CTC’s more outrageous creations are its long-bonnet Land Rover Defender Huntsman 6x6s, built by a coachbuilding contractor, in Coventry, that supplies vehicles to the Ministry of Defence. CTC showcased a nine-seat, £250,000 version at Geneva this year.

 

Broader horizons

The conspicuous appearance of CTC’s vehicles has even invited calls from Hollywood. Kahn found himself on the set of the 2014 Tom Cruise action movie, Edge of Tomorrow, after producers requested a Black Hawk.

Rowan Atkinson drove another of CTC’s models, a £110,000 conversion of Mercedes-Benz’s G63 AMG, called the Hammer Edition, in an advert for Abu Dhabi-based phone network Etisalat.

Kahn also took a central role in series one of the National Geographic Channel’s Supercar Megabuild series.

Such exposure has helped Kahn’s business grow its reputation overseas and Booth told Independent Dealer the business exports parts to 42 countries across the globe.

Among the business’ most valued vehicle component retail partners are off-road vehicle specialists in Connecticut, Canada; Engin710 Land Rover specialists in South Queensferry, Scotland; and a CTC outlet in Sydney, Australia, which sells the brand’s full range of vehicles.

The Sydney outlet was established by entrepreneur Evan Wilson, owner of vehicle racking specialist Rack-A-Van.

“The Kahn business is growing in influence across the world and we have a lot of trusted retail partners now. It’s proof that there’s a real market out there for modifications and CTC vehicles and I suspect that’s something that is only likely to grow,” said Booth.

In September last year The Yorkshire Post reported that Kahn Design had enlisted the help of overseas trade specialist Chamber International as the company looks to create new sales partnerships in China, where the new car market exceeds 20 million vehicles annually.

 

Supply chain struggles

As the market closer to home evolves, Kahn is looking to move into new territory.

The CTC design team will next work on a commercial pick-up project, which is set to make use of the new Toyota Hilux, but Booth said a CTC Mini could also broaden the appeal of the range as the market shifts away from large, diesel-powered 4x4s.

Kahn said he had looked at Volvo’s XC90 plug-in hybrid and was keen to explore electrified powertrains as he grew increasingly conscious of the evolving needs of customers, particularly in his London retail heartland.

“That isn’t a problem to me. The main thing for me is the design aspect. We are not into modifying engines and delivering all-out performance.”

Another benefit of looking away from the Land Rover and Range Rover products that have been Kahn’s staple for many years now – the Kahn Design side of the business still specialises in JLR – is it opens up a supply of new vehicles at a time when the manufacturer’s relationships with aftermarket modifiers have markedly cooled.

In an interview with Autocar magazine in March last year, Gerry McGovern, Land Rover’s design director, vowed to put third-party tuners and styling houses, such as  Kahn Design, out of business by creating better variants of the brand’s models through the company’s own Special Vehicle Operations (SVO) division.

McGovern did not specify which firms in particular had riled him, but said: “It’s easy to take a product that’s already been created and put a little spoiler on it or whatever, but I’d like to see them design their own car. We see them taking our property and making a bit more profit.

“Well, we’re going to put them out of business through SVO. The opportunities we’re creating there, and the quality of our work, are much better.”

The creation of SVO – with the aim of stamping out businesses such as Kahn Design, Mansory and Overfinch – in early 2017 is clearly a sensitive subject for Kahn.

“Land Rover have just shut the door on us and said ‘right, we’re doing that ourselves’,” he said.

“We have been part of the stepping stone for what they are doing. They have seen our success and decided to do it themselves.

“They’re choking businesses like us.”

While CTC’s Jeep Wranglers are supplied directly from the FCA Group, Range Rovers are now trickier to source, often used or at full retail price.

“We have a good relationship with Aston Martin, Bentley and Mercedes-Benz and we’re starting to talk to Toyota."

Kahn said four of his design team joined JLR following the creation of SVO and he clearly feels aggrieved by the stance of a fellow British business.

His pride in British brands has not waned, however. He is pleased to have created an alloy wheel for the new Bentley Continental GT – with the brand’s approval – and also Aston Martin’s response to the coach-built DB9-based Vengeance and Vengeance Volante.

He said: “The Vengeance was fully designed and engineered in-house and coach-built by the same firm that builds Aston Martin’s One-77.

“It was really me taking the best bits of Aston Martin and applying it to one vehicle and the response when we unveiled it at the Geneva Motor Show was amazing.”

 

‘I’m not greedy’

When ID visited Kahn Design, a tour of the business’s leather works revealed a small team of craftsmen at work, with mechanics working on a Defender just yards away.

In the design studio, a team were working as keenly on an electric bike project as they were on new modifications for vehicles and Kahn himself was flitting in and out of various meetings.

While staff numbers have been cut from about 120 to 60 in the past 12 months, there seems no slowing in the breadth of design projects it is taking on.

In 2016, Kahn Design incurred losses of £1.2 million after the destruction of a neighbouring car storage facility in a fire – and the resulting lack of an insurance pay-out – led to a difficult period which brought the reduction in headcount.

The fire left Kahn Design with an overall financial loss for the year ended December 31, 2016, of £981,807.

Kahn said the business had endured a “bumpy ride”, adding that Brexit and the shift away from diesel cars had also hit the business.

However, he said: “What that has done has brought me back down to earth. Having a big business is a big problem and I don’t want a big problem.”

Without a wife or family, Kahn concedes that his mind is often racing on to the next deal, the next project to work on.

His electric bike is destined to be sold in the London stores and Kahn has also designed a range of jackets, watches and luggage to retail alongside vehicles, sold on the premise that “The road is your catwalk”.

“I don’t think there’s anyone in this country that does what I do,” he said “We don’t buy things off the shelf and add our branding. Everything you see of ours is designed and engineered by the team we have in house.

“I’m not here to get rich and get greedy. I come to work and I get angry, but it’s only for 10 seconds. Once you’ve made it, what then? It’s the journey that’s exciting.

“I do get frustrated when people make my life hard, but we just look the other way and carry on doing what we’re doing.”



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