On the face of it, proposing to write about a van for How To Spend It could be regarded as a gaffe that the late HM Bateman might have considered worthy of one of his celebrated cartoons – but I’ve recently discovered that there are vans, and then there are vans.
You’ll certainly have encountered both types on the road, and you may even have been “cut up” by a white-painted version of the first sort and subjected to a little light road rage by its driver. The chances are, however, that the second type passed by virtually unnoticed as its occupants, shielded from prying eyes by privacy glass, sealed a multimillion-dollar deal, took in the latest DVD or simply enjoyed a snooze in the private-jet-style seating.
Luxury vans, you see, are the new thinking person’s limos – a fact capitalised on by entrepreneur Clive Drake after he sold his $40m-a-year-turnover mobile-phone business in 2005 and later teamed up with noted car modifier Jamie Shaw, who found a degree of fame (and courted a certain amount of controversy) as the star of the MTV series Pimp My Ride UK. Shaw, who served his apprenticeship as a trimmer with Rolls-Royce, is an expert at turning run-of-the-mill vehicle interiors into luxuriously appointed, Tardis-like spaces. He launched his own company, Carisma Auto Design, in 1998, and Drake joined as sales and marketing director in 2011.
Carisma can create bespoke interiors for any vehicle, but Shaw’s skills are applied most appropriately to the three-litre, 125mph Mercedes-Benz Viano van, which is the company’s signature conversion. Since it launched, Carisma has sold around 70 of its conversions – which start at £62,500, plus the cost of the van (from £37,000) – to a variety of high-net-worth individuals around the world, ranging from Premier League football players to Middle Eastern royals.
As you would expect for the price of a luxury car, the Carisma conversions offer something rather special, and Carisma is an approved Mercedes-Benz bodybuilder, meaning, unusually, that the vehicle’s two-year global warranty remains valid even for exports outside the EU.
Clients can have the interior trimmed with any of 400 different leathers, 50 types of carpet and as many types of wood (one client, for example, requested rare, richly patterned South American snakewood). Bang & Olufsen audio equipment can be incorporated, along with Apple Mac Midi stystems, aircraft-style seating, spacious work tables, coffee machines and home theatres. Other options include on-the-road WiFi, computer gaming consoles, video-conferencing systems, fridges, mood lighting and massage seats. It is even possible to specify a lie-flat bed in versions fitted with two, rather than four, rear seats. Very much designed to be chauffeured, the conversions also feature an electric division between the front seats and the rear to ensure total privacy.
“Generally, our clients are looking for limousine levels of comfort, but in the most discreet package possible,” explains Drake. “They are beyond feeling the need to be driven around in an ostentatious car, and often don’t like the fact that they can be seen and possibly photographed. Travelling by van means they can pass unnoticed, while being able to enjoy spacious and luxurious surroundings.”
As well as proving popular with celebrities, the Carisma conversions are also being ordered in increasing numbers by corporations and businesspeople who, says Drake, regard them as being the most practical method of travelling between meetings. “We’ve converted several vans for major companies who use them as mobile offices,” he says. “Many people believe it’s more cost-effective and a better use of time to put four executives in a vehicle in which they can hold a meeting and keep working, than for them to spend several unproductive hours waiting at airports and travelling in planes.”
One corporate client has given up using aircraft for journeys in the UK and even to parts of Europe, preferring to be driven to places because he can work throughout the trip in a calm environment. Others say turning up to meetings in a very expensive car attracts the wrong sort of comments in the present economic climate, so they travel by van during the week and use their Bentleys or Rolls-Royces for private journeys.
The vans have their off-duty uses, too. One owner uses his to pursue a passion for horse racing, travelling to racecourses where he parks up and observes the field from the comfort of the Viano’s hand-stitched seating, before being served refreshments from the refrigerator, coffee machine or cocktail cabinet by his chauffeur. Other clients use the vans for trips to holiday homes, safe in the knowledge that their small children will be fully absorbed on longer journeys by the PlayStation and audio, television and computer set-ups.
To date, the most expensive conversion cost £105,000 and incorporated a vast range of features, including antique brass fixtures, rosewood tables and door cappings, air conditioning, two refrigerators and a built-in Montblanc pen set.
A further option is to ask for your Carisma conversion to be supplied with bulletproof glass, armour-plated sides and a grenade-proof floor – after which you’ll never have to fear the road rage of even the rudest white-van man.