Full confession: I’ve known Dany Bahar since his time as a vice president at Ferrari, a decade and more ago. Having worked his way up through private finance to become a key adviser for Dietrich Mateschitz and COO of Red Bull (an energy drinks company, not sure what happened to them), it was no surprise that he should soon find himself on ex-Ferrari CEO Luca di Montezemolo’s radar. His gilded path to a key role in the world’s most famous car maker, not to mention his natural charm and quicksilver mind, suggested the ultimate ascent was possible. But when he was offered the top job at British sports car company Lotus in 2009, Montezemolo had no compunction about letting him ago.
What followed was equal parts fascinating and disturbing to watch. Bahar figured that the only way Lotus could make money again was to reboot the Esprit, and set sail on a product odyssey that had industry experts – especially British ones – choking on their Cornflakes. Few who attended the Lotus press conference at the 2010 Paris motor show will ever forget it: five new cars were unveiled, amid some ludicrous showbiz hoopla, all beautiful, but suggesting an ambition and ego that made Bahar’s old boss in Maranello look like a shrinking violet. There was talk of an IndyCar campaign, and I was one of the very few who drove the Lotus T125, a lunatic 650bhp Cosworth V8-powered single-seater and the closest anyone has ever come to selling its richest clients a bona fide F1 car (although Ferrari, of course, will sell you one of its ex-F1 cars). Jean Alesi was on hand to tutor me at Lotus’s Hethel circuit, and we had a lot of fun. Beads of perspiration gather on my forehead at the mere memory seven years later…
Of course, the wheels fell off the whole Lotus deal in spectacular fashion. Bahar was fired, and there were law suits and a variety of general unpleasantness unfolded. I interviewed him, and got the full skinny. The lawyers had a riot with my story. When Bahar founded Ares Design, a tuner/modifier/atelier, a few years later, I was glad to see him back doing something meaningful, but wasn’t sure exactly what it would amount to in the grand scheme of things.
Well, I’ve just visited Ares, and for anyone who still queries Bahar’s motivations, it does a good job of tidying things up. Housed in an immaculate 18,000-square metre former Fiat and Alfa Romeo dealership, Bahar and his main partner Waleed Al Ghafari – a telecoms entrepreneur – have already delivered more than 150 project vehicles. Plans are in place to grow the workforce beyond the 110 people already employed.
If you’re a student of classic Italian coachbuilding – think Allemano, Boano, Fantuzzi, Touring and Zagato – you’ll sense some of that spirit in what Ares is up to. Modified Porsche 911s and Land Rover Defenders are well and good, but it’s the stuff that goes beyond that which is most intriguing. Taking its cues from Ferrari and McLaren’s special projects divisions, Ares allows its clients to indulge their car design fantasies, though for rather less money than the big guns charge. Although money is likely no object for this sort of demographic, €700k is the top end of the spend here.
“The future of customisation can go much further than stitching and trim,” Bahar says. “Coach-building isn’t some strange extra-terrestrial thing, it’s something you can really do. Our projects respect the relevant local safety and homologation laws, while giving our clients the level of differentiation they demand.”
Ares’ Design boss Mihai Panatescu is a talented guy, as the recently revealed Panther project suggests. This is the one that lit up the internet like a Christmas tree. A striking contemporary reimagining of the De Tomaso Pantera – a car Elvis Presley once opened fire on when it refused to start – it uses a Lamborghini Huracan chassis and powertrain, although the homologation laws may have something to say about the A-pillars and pop-up headlamps.
Inspired by a client’s obsession with the 1970s Ghia-designed original, Ares says it has seven other orders for the Panther. “We use CFD to validate the design, and to ensure that the base car’s aerodynamics and cooling requirements aren’t compromised,’ Panatescu tells me.
Also up for grabs is the lucrative resto-mod market. There’s a re-engineered Porsche 964 on the production line, fitted with a 991-sourced PDK transmission and steering, the front axle and brakes from a 997-era car, and the sat nav system from the latest Panamera. I even get to try a 53-year old Corvette Stingray retro-fitted with the chassis and powertrain from the Noughties Vette C6. A collaboration with a brilliant Miami-based expert, it’s a beautifully engineered thing, whose classic American visuals fool you into expecting a rather less complete dynamic experience than the one you get. Only fatter rear exhaust pipes and slightly flared rear wheel arches betray the Stingray’s altered state.
Ares also does a carbon-bodied Mercedes G-class 4×42, called X-raid, and there’s an impressively engineered Bentley Mulsanne coupe. A Tesla Model S Shooting Brake looks awesome. Elsewhere, a Ferrari GTC4lusso is about to be reconfigured as a latter-day Ferrari 400, and a Porsche 918 is going under the knife on behalf of a Swiss client. ‘The real value here is to make the customer happy with the car he or she has designed,’ Bahar says. ‘We help them realise their dream, and there’s a rising demand for that. It’s not a rational investment, it’s an emotional one.’
Following an initial €24m investment, it’s also a profitable business – and one Bahar intends to keep in check. Perhaps past lessons have been learnt. “I don’t think we have the ego to do our own car,’ he says. ‘We’re customer-demand focused, not strategically driven.”