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HOLIDAY GIFT GUIDE

Options for the Desk, Closet Toy Chest, Golf Course . . .

Auto makers see a market for clothing, toys and other items based on their brands, starting catalogs, stores and licensing deals to tap it.

November 19, 1998|PAUL DEAN | TIMES AUTOMOTIVE WRITER

There isn't a back-street boutique worth its weight in knockoffs that isn't selling sweatshirts, tees, even milady's unmentionables, daubed with bootleg automotive logos.

After one wash, that BMW blue turns to puce, the Ferrari label falls off, and your Mercedes trihedral has melted in the dryer.

Ever aware that such imitation is the foulest form of merchandising--to say nothing of the fear that ersatz might rub off on the genuine article--automobile manufacturers have started publishing their own glossy catalogs, opening their own expensive boutiques and licensing their own sacred emblems to some of the world's most respected producers of fine stuff.

So Ferrari gives Asprey & Garrard of Bond Street, London, the right to make micrometer-accurate, hallmarked and hand-beaten-silver models of its race cars. For about $75,000 apiece. Which would buy you one full-size Jaguar XK8 convertible or, for larger families, half a dozen Honda Civics.

Ferrari (see your friendly neighborhood dealer for a showcase of gifts or a catalog) allows Girard-Perregaux to make its chronograph watches. Only Schedoni of Italy will craft the fitted matching pigskin luggage for the trunk of your Ferrari 550 Maranello. All three for an affordable (if you can afford to live in Cannes) $2,500.

In fact, spokesman Carlo Fiorani acknowledges, about 50% of Ferrari's $28-million profit last year came from licensing its name, badge and prancing Italian stallion logo.

"At Ferrari, we call it solde trovati," he says. "Found money."

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This year, a boutique boom and catalog crush seems to be in progress, and from Jaguar (see dealers for a catalog) and Mercedes-Benz (from a dealer, or call [800] 367-6372) to Saturn (dealers only) and Ford (call [800] 444-4503). There's the Rolls-Royce Collection and the Bentley Selection (both available at dealers). Also Toyota Outfitters (through dealers, or call [800] 897-0825); Land Rover Gear (from dealers, or call [888] GEAR-4WD, or shop the World Wide Web at http://www.landrovergear.com);; and the Ferrari Idea (http://www.ferrari.com/Accessori/index.asp).

"Over the past couple of years, our catalog sales have gone up 50% a year," says Saturn representative Bob Tripolsky. "The most expensive item is a Nordic ski jacket for $149, and among the least expensive, a pair of cotton-knit boxer shorts for $14.95."

So while she can wear her heart on her sweatshirt ("I (Heart) My Saturn"), he can wear the Saturn logo on his thigh. All Saturn gifts--just like the compact cars, and by gentleman's agreement with the United Auto Workers of America--are made in the United States.

In 1995, the Jaguar Collection was included in the company's parts catalog, with coffee mugs and key chains whining to be free of all those valves and fuel injectors. In that beginning, total annual sales were $50,000. This year, Jaguar will sell $1.3 million worth of goodies, from a kid's battery-powered car to a stapler in the shape of Jaguar's famed leaping kitty.

"We have such a rich heritage that people want to wear our merchandise and extend the ownership experience," says spokeswoman Whitney Said. "Even if people don't own the car, even if they are only 12 years old, they like to be part of Jaguar's rich and grand history."

Glenn Rizzo, keeper of the company store for Mercedes-Benz, expresses much the same philosophy: "You can't display what you own by driving it into a restaurant. This [logo-bearing items] is a way of being an extension of your vehicle. And, in our case, the quality of the item has to be commensurate with the quality of the [automotive] product."

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Although a majority of car catalog gifts are five-and-dime and predictable--golf balls, can coolers, yo-yos, beach towels, totes and sun stick on a clip--many are expensive. Several fringe on the outlandish.

In keeping with its Serengeti-busting image, Land Rover believes our global passport should be an $1,800 set of toss-able luggage made from vintage leather and indestructible canvas duck. Mercedes-Benz's nod to society's off-trail ways is a high-performance aluminum-framed mountain bike for $3,495. For the trunk that has everything, Lexus (available through most of its 178 dealers) would like to add a set of Taylormade golf clubs for $1,700.

Beverly Hills Motoring (call [800] 367-2462 for a catalog, or visit http://www.bhma.com) doesn't sell cars but probably markets enough automotive bits and pieces to build your own. Like burl-wood steering wheels with air bag for your Mercedes ($1,495), Italian leather driving gloves ($79.95), leather and electrically adjustable Recaro car chairs modified for the office ($3,395) and that old '60s standby, sheepskin seat covers (about $1,400 for your family sedan).

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