From the outside, Kevin Baer’s 2003 MINI Cooper S looks like a standard model. Pewter gray with a white top and racing stripes down its front, the only visible exterior upgrade is the chrome tire rims.
On the inside, however, Baer’s MINI — purchased for $25,000 and now worth an estimated $43,000 — is anything but standard. The center console, redesigned by Arizona Auto Werks in Tempe, contains a television screen with DVD player (the remote is stored in a rear cup holder, next to a cigarette lighter that used to be up front) and a built-in radar detector that can be transferred to other cars. A subwoofer, designed to take up as little room as possible, sits discreetly in the trunk. The engine was upgraded from 163 to 202 horsepower.
"What we get from the dealers — you get good stuff, you don’t get great stuff," said Baer, a financial consultant and owner of The Baer’s Den in Tempe. "This just enhances everything."
Baer is among a growing number of drivers whose appetites for unique, customized cars has created an industry dedicated to transforming vehicles into VIP rooms with wheels. Car makeover shows like "Pimp My Ride" on MTV and TLC’s "Overhaulin’ " have helped fuel the craze, but so has some friendly competition among the well-off. Darren Young, sales manager at Wheel Specialists in Tempe, said many of the cars’ owners simply want to one-up the next guy. So unlike in past years, when flashy exterior paint and shiny rims were usually seen on midpriced cars driven by teenagers, today’s world of customized cars is a playground for the wealthy.
"It’s a huge market," Young said. "It’s very common for customers to spend between $8,000 to $10,000 (on wheels and tires) today. Before, it was the $1,500 to $3,500 range."
In the garage at Arizona Auto Werks, luxury sedans and sports utility vehicles line the bays where employees outfit interiors with televisions, satellite radios, pricey fabrics, hidden security cameras, and even personal computers (some of the work is contracted to other local companies, such as Wheel Specialists). On most days, the shop has a half- dozen major projects in the works, with costs ranging from $2,000 to $90,000.
The simplest installations — like adding video screens to the back of headrests, which is the most common request — take one day. The most elaborate projects last as long as three months. Sean Young, owner of Advanced Auto Body in Tempe, will wait two months before his Hummer H2 is finished, complete with custom paint job, 14-speaker stereo system, suede door panels, and five televisions that allow each passenger to play video games or DVDs.
Opened six years ago by Gilbert resident Scott Whitefield, 28, and his business partner Kris Pagano, 29, Arizona Auto Werks has a who’s who list of clients that includes prominent local businessman such as nightclub owner Les Corieri and a long roster of professional athletes with deep pockets and a passion for expensive toys. Arizona Diamondbacks pitcher Randy Johnson is a regular customer, as were former teammates Jay Bell and Tony Womack.
"These guys don’t want something that all the other guys can have," said Whitefield, who drives a Chevrolet 2500 HD truck that’s been reupholstered with tan ostrich leather and matching suede. "The guy that buys the big Mercedes, they don’t want it to look like their neighbors’ $120,000 car."
Baer admits one of the reasons he adds postmarket upgrades to all of the cars he’s owned — there’s been 26 since 1996 — is for a love of driving unique vehicles that stand out. But he also sees the practicality in having a television in his MINI.
"We have a second home that we like to travel to. I can put a movie in and my wife can watch it. It’s all used and I enjoy it," Baer said.
As Whitefield said: "There are some legitimate benefits to what we’re doing."