So you lost your Porsche on a burning ship. Now what?

NEW YORK: It’s a car person’s nightmare: The special Bentley or Lamborghini you ordered half a year or more ago is finally on a cargo ship headed your way. Then the ship catches fire.

The nightmare became reality Feb 16 when a vessel sailing from Germany to Rhode Island caught fire near the Azores with more than US$400 million (RM1.7bil) worth of vehicles aboard, including luxury models from Bentley, Porsche, and Lamborghini.

A daring rescue by the Portuguese Air Force and Navy saved all 22 crew members, with no reported injuries.

As of Feb 22, the Felicity Ace remained ablaze and what remains of an estimated 4,000 Volkswagen AG vehicles will be sussed out once a salvage team can properly inspect the nearly three-football-field-sized ship.

A website has been set up to provide updates on the incident.

But for those with orders aboard, there’s really just one question to answer: what do I do about my car?

Ship happens

Cargo ships going down with cars on board are not a phenomena as unusual as they might seem; at least eight major incidents involving large boats and damaged cars have occurred since 2002.

In 2019, the Grande America destined for Brazil sank with 37 Porsches aboard, including four rare, highly customized 911 GT2 RS (average prices today: US$366,487, though specialised ones can approach US$800,000).

That same year, a ship called the Golden Ray departed the port of Brunswick, Georgia, before it capsized-carrying more than 4,000 vehicles bound for the Middle East, including trucks and SUVs from General Motors and Mercedes-Benz.

In a 2002 incident, an empty German cargo ship hit the submerged hull of a sunken car carrier, the Tricolor, in the English Channel.

The Norwegian-flagged ship contained an estimated US$40.6 million worth of high-performance vehicles onboard, including hundreds of cars from BMW, Saab, and Volvo.

At the time of the incident, a spokesman for BMW said the company was most worried about the cars’ chassis numbers falling into the wrong hands, since chassis numbers are lucrative currency among car thieves.

Executives at Volvo were more concerned that none of the cars were salvageable.

"You can’t possibly get a car back into a fit state once it’s been in salt water,” Volvo’s UK products services manager, John Rawlings, said after the accident. "We have to think of the effect on our prestige image of selling these things.”

Former merchant mariner Sal Mercogliano said that in the case of Felicity Ace, damage to all of the vehicles is likely, as it would be difficult for firefighters to get inside the tightly-packed cargo decks to fight the flames.

"The potential now is with the ship being abandoned the fire will rage out of control and jump from vehicle to vehicle,” Mercogliano said in a YouTube video about the blaze. "Vehicles don’t explode…but vehicles burn. The fire will run the length of this vessel and potentially gut it.”

No cause of fire has been confirmed.

Keep going? Or cut losses

So what is the recourse for clients expecting these cars? Technically the vehicles don’t yet belong to the customers until delivery, they still belong to the automaker, so personal automotive insurance won’t have kicked in.

Commercial insurance policies for auto manufacturers and the cargo companies would address the losses to them instead.

Volkswagen Group maintains the vendor relationships for shipping cars, not each individual brand owned by VW, a spokesperson said.

So those unfortunate souls with vehicles lost at sea have generally two options: Resubmit the order for the vehicle, keep your deposit placed, and wait several months for the next shipment.

Or cut their loses, emotional and financial, take the disaster as a sign of some sort, and order something different altogether.

"The dealer has promised to keep me posted with any updates on how Porsche decides to sort this out,” Porsche customer Matt Farah tweeted about the customised Porsche Boxster Spyder he had ordered in August of 2021, which was on the Felicity Ace.

"Odds are a new build and hopefully not another 8 months wait for it.”

Good customer service

In the case of luxury vehicles, it behooves automakers such as Bentley, Porsche, and Lamborghini to do what they can to placate their high net worth clients.

Manufacturers don’t want those US$300,000 orders going elsewhere; those who spend that much cash on a rare vehicle are often lifelong brand loyalists - or aspire to be. That is what Porsche did with the Golden Ray incident.

"In a special decision and to uphold its commitment to its valued Brazilian customers, Porsche has ensured that those [911 GT2 RS] units will be reproduced in the order in which they were originally confirmed,” the company stated at the time.

The move to reproduce cars in the same order as they had been intended is extremely rare, requiring ample time and money - and delays for other vehicles.

In the instance of the Felicity Ace, Porsche will take similar measures.

"We are already working to replace every car affected by this incident,” Porsche spokesman Marcus Kabel said in an email.

"The cars will be as close as possible to their original, ordered specification.” All told, the fire is expected to pose a US$155 million total loss for the brands affected.

The cost of the car itself, which for American buyers would be the initial deposit, rather than the whole MSRP, since the car had yet to be delivered, would transition to a new car, if ordered, Kabel said.

If the order is cancelled, Porsche will refund the deposit, "although based on feedback from customers, most are looking forward to receiving reordered vehicles," he said.

"On the details of the specific cases, this is between the dealer and the customer,” he said, Since all Porsche dealerships are independently owned and operated.

"We are working to expedite the delivery of a replacement vehicle as soon as possible. We are working on this as a priority; the first cars will be built soon.”

A Lamborghini spokesman declined to comment on how the Italian brand would handle the losses.

A Bentley representative confirmed that 189 Bentley vehicles are on board the ship and that the customer cars will take priority for replacement.

Both manufacturers face a potentially bigger loss than Porsche, proportionately speaking, since they make far fewer, and far more expensive, vehicles.

For Farah, the best decision in this case was to reorder his same spec. "[Porsche] gave me the opportunity to make changes to the build, and I said, ‘Build it like I ordered it the first time,’” he said.

Farah was unable to confirm how long the new build would take but said that Porsche told him it was "a priority.” In the meantime, he’ll drive something else.

But for Danielle Tringali, who had ordered a Porsche Macan last December-and now finds the Macan is still adrift in the Atlantic-it wasn’t a foregone conclusion.

Tringali remained undecided for much of the week about the best course of action before ultimately deciding Feb 23 to wait it out for a new Macan.

"My car has been reordered and in production,” Tringali said. "Estimated end-of-June delivery sadly, though.”
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