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Rumble Seat 

The Americans are losing the camel race.

It is nearly dark in Wadi Rum--a spectacular valley in Southern Jordan where escarpments of rheumy sandstone look like mountains of melted wax. The final member of the Australian camel-jockey relay team rounds the corner--actually, a Bedouin boy holding a flashlight--and drives his smelly beast across a finish line drawn in the sand. "My camel needs another round of wedge!" the losing American rider complains, "She's got a push."

Tonight, under a sky worthy of Scheherazade, the Yanks and Aussies will eat a Bedouin feast, dance to an 'oud band on carpets laid out over the sand, then totter off, giddy with glasses of arak, to collapse onto camp beds with soft linen sheets in private tents.

This is a Land Rover Adventure, one of eight such programs the company mounts in exotic locales like Namibia, Morocco, Belize and the snow-capped heights of Colorado. Unlike the kind of lavish events that, say, a corporate jet manufacturer might mount to court new customers, Land Rover's Adventures are designed for existing Land Rover customers, some of whom pay in excess of $10,000 (including first-class airfare) to attend.

But the Adventures programs are not a profit center for Land Rover--far from it, says PR chief Bill Baker. They are about something altogether more subtle. "The Adventures programs make customers feel like they are part of something bigger than the vehicle they just purchased," says Baker, stealing a forbidden cigarette while he sits on a cliff overlooking the desert. "It makes them feel like they are part of a tradition, a lifestyle of adventure and achievement. It gives them a sense of belonging."

In a general sense, car ownership is a kind of joining, an identification with a particular group. But buying a Chevy doesn't exactly set you apart from the crowd--unless that crowd is the Ford contingent at a NASCAR race. However, as cars become more expensive, sporty, luxurious or impractical, the exclusivity quotient rises, as does the volume of statement that purchase makes.

"Buying a Rolls-Royce does indeed imply ownership in a very exclusive club," says John Crawford, director of public relations for Rolls-Royce, "simply on the basis of the number of cars produced each year."

Yet rarity is not the end of exclusivity. In fact, high-volume brands such as Mercedes-Benz and BMW are continually refining the ownership experience to heighten buyers' sense of belonging, leveraging the perception that he or she has joined an exclusive club that recognizes and rewards their discriminating tastes. Beyond the enthusiast publications--BMW's Roundel, Porsche's Panorama, Mercedes' Momentum--and the glossy catalogs of branded sportswear and accessories that arrive regularly in the mail, nearly all premium makers are fostering new events to bring owners closer to the marque and to fellow owners.

Such psychological handholding becomes ever more important as, in an absolute engineering sense, vehicles proximate one another more and more.

Is it worth the effort? "This seems less like brand building than brand sustenance," says Jim Hall, a think-tanker with AutoPacific, independent analysts of the auto business. "These kinds of programs are very expensive, and in the end, you only keep the customers you've got."

Land Rover's Bill Baker might disagree. "Every one of the clients who goes on one of these trips becomes a customer for life," he says. "Every cocktail party they attend for years afterward, they will tell people about how capable these vehicles are, what fantastic things you can do with them. They proselytize. They become missionaries."

Mercedes-Benz, for another example, continues the European Delivery Program, a small and profitless program that nonetheless makes a big impact on American buyers, who can order a car and pick it up at the factory in Sindelfingen, near Stuttgart.

Every year, 1,400 or so Americans make the trip to Stuttgart to pick up their car. Arranged through the buyers' local dealer, the standard itinerary includes two nights at the Stuttgart Inter-Continental, a tour of the factory, a visit to the Mercedes Museum and, of course, a thorough walk-through of the car conducted by, appropriately, a lab-coat-wearing technician. For customers, it can be a transforming experience.

"They are going to the source to take a drink," says M-B exec Craig Morningstar. "To go to the factory to see how they are made is quite impressive."

BMW, too, has a European delivery program and has managed to retain a small cost savings for the motivated American buyer who takes delivery in Europe. However, BMW has vested much more in a delivery program in Greer, S.C., near the factory that builds the Z-series cars and the X5's. The BMW Performance Center is a $12.5 million facility complete with its own test track and training facility. Clients spend the day touring the factory, visiting the Centrum museum and taking a multi-hour driving instruction course, learning on the kind of car they have just purchased.

Porsche has its Porsche corrals, special gatherings of the faithful at road races, complete with cordoned-off parking areas. Porsche owners continue to practice the time-honored tradition of flashing their headlights at one another--the club's secret handshake. Rolls-Royce has a whole department dedicated to servicing clients vetting their car's construction at the plant in Crewe, England. Saab has its annual owners' convention, a wild and rangy Woodstock of Swedish car enthusiasts.

In each case, the car manufacturer's mission is to establish a camaraderie, a sense of belonging that reaches deeper than the value equation, that transcends mere transportation and outlasts the vagaries of the market from year to year. That, finally, may be why companies see these programs as increasingly vital: Owner loyalty is far less entrenched than it was only 20 years ago. Brand-bonding programs create continuity that advertising can't provide.

"Committed buyers eventually turn into the lunatic fringe," says AutoPacific's Jim Hall. "And they are the keepers of the flame."

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