South Africa's rising BMW class

6.9 percent of new cars bought in the country last year were BMWs, compared with 1.5 percent in the US.

Mpostoli Dlamini is not simply a repairer of smashed-up cars. In South Africa, a country with a cultural obsession with BMWs and other luxury cars, he is a purveyor of dreams.

Mr. Dlamini buys wrecked BMWs that have been declared total losses by insurance companies, carts them to his dusty repair yard in a tumbledown black township near Johannesburg, and resurrects them. Then his customers - typically upwardly mobile blacks - buy these rolling icons for half the dealer price. They may not be the safest or smoothest-riding cars on the road, but they've got the BMW logo. And in this status-fixated society, with its swelling black middle class, that's what matters.

"Everyone wants one," Dlamini says. "Even kids in a crèche [day care] - they see one driving by, and say, 'Ooh, a BMW.' "

His expanding business is undergirded by a surprising fact: More BMWs are sold in South Africa, as a percentage of new-car sales, than anywhere else in the world except Germany, the brand's home country. Last year, 6.9 percent of new cars bought in South Africa were BMWs, compared to a reported 8.0 percent in Germany. In the US, it was only 1.5 percent.

But South Africa is catching up to Germany: Market share here is at 7.9 percent so far this year, according to the National Association of Automobile Manufacturers of South Africa (NAAMSA).

One symbol of how popular they've become is the number of slang terms for BMWs on the streets of black townships. The brand is often called "Be My Wife," based on the idea that having one attracts women. Some models even have their own nicknames (see box below).

One historical reason for BMW's dominance here is that though American car manufacturers left South Africa in the 1980s because of apartheid-era sanctions, BMW stayed and continued to make and sell cars.

Today, with sanctions gone, South Africa's economy is growing quickly. It has robust gold, diamond, platinum, and other resource-related industries. It produces roughly a third of the GDP of all of sub-Saharan Africa. But the country also has one of the biggest rich-poor gaps in the world. Since 1995, South Africa has fallen 31 notches on the UN's human-development index, to 120th out of 177 countries.

Still, a massive national affirmative-action program called Black Economic Empowerment is helping to distribute more equitably the country's great wealth from whites to blacks - some of whom are eager to show off their new riches. Furthermore, South African firms are much more likely than US companies to give mid-level managers a car as a salary benefit.

"A lot of people are finding themselves in the car affordability game," says economist Tony Twine at Econometrix, a consulting group in Johannesburg. In fact, South Africa's 44 million people are on track to buy 360,000 new cars this year, a roughly 25 percent jump over last year, he says - and one of the largest increases in the world.

South Africa's nouveau-riche black millionaires and managers are a big part of that growth. One measure of blacks' growing economic power: A few years ago, about 15 percent of South Africa's new-car sales were to blacks. Now fully one-third are, says Nico Vermeulen, head of NAAMSA. "The emerging black middle class is definitely a contributing factor" in the luxury-car boom, he says.

Dlamini's clients are usually blue-collar blacks buying their way into the middle-class South African dream. His shop is far from official. He can't even advertise as a BMW fix-it spot. So he slyly calls his business Bomiwe, which he displays with the B, M, and W in giant letters. The word means "thirsty."

Sprawled around the 2-acre compound, 30 or so smashed-up BMWs are propped up on steel beams or old engine blocks for repair. The painting bay is in an improvised tin shack. This is a low-tech operation. But Dlamini and his crew of 16 know how to add value. For instance, they take a basic 325 and tack an "M3" logo on the back , along with some extra body panels. Suddenly, the car is far cooler than it was before (despite lacking the souped-up features of a real M3). Or he'll paint a 1995 model in a color that BMW didn't introduce until 2000 - thus making it seem newer to aficionados.

He seems to be honest with his customers about the changes. They're happy because they're getting a cooler car. But Dlamini makes no promises on quality. "It comes 'as is,' " he says. "Whatever you do with it, it's your problem."

Yet his no-guarantee approach has hardly kept customers away. "If you drive a BMW, you maintain your status," explains Chris Vilakazi, a customs inspector who has bought two BMWs from Dlamini. The 1995 "Dolphin" he got recently for his wife would have cost $14,800 at a dealer. He bought it for $7,500. Now he's gearing up to buy a third. "Aah," he says, "it's going to be nice."

Nicknames for BMWs in South Africa

"Anaconda" for the 525 with its narrow, intense front.

"Goosh-goosh" for the sporty 325is, which is often tricked-out with a spoiler and body panels - and has the "goosh-goosh" sounds of intense bass booming from inside.

"Botsotso" or "tight-fitting jeans" for compact older models.

"Dolphin" for the 328 because of its lithe shape and available silver-blue color.

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