Bufori Mark III La Joya - flashback

By: David Berthon, Photography by: Mark Bean

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From the archives: After a tumultuous past the low-volume Bufori was back in 2009, better than ever

Originally published in Unique Cars #296, March 2009

Bufori Mark III La Joya

Building low volume sports cars is a tough business. Few have been successful at it and in the current economic climate one might imagine it to be an even tougher call.

For the Khouri brothers however it’s more a labour of love – the realisation of a dream by this Lebanese family to build their own sports car and one day become a major player in the automotive world.

From its early beginnings in 1986 at Guildford in Sydney’s western suburbs, the Bufori Motor Company is today a serious manufacturing business located in Malaysia’s capital, Kuala Lumpur, and employing around 70 people.

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As company boss Gerry Khouri explains, building the latest Bufori Mark III La Joya is still very much about passion rather than sound business sense. But, 23 years on, the Khouri brothers’ success in the building development business has allowed them to take their passion to a much higher level.

Built to last

Having in a sense grown up with Bufori and witnessed the evolution of its products, I was blown away by the quality and the finish of this latest model.

The early cars were little more than fibreglass kit cars with VW flat-four air-cooled engine power, but with their classic and distinctive nose treatment they stood out from the crowd. Today, it’s very much a different story and the underpinnings of the Mark III, together with some impressive manufacturing techniques, give it real integrity.

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The Bufori retains its retro nose but that’s about the only link to the manufacturer’s early beginnings. As for the rest of the styling, it’s appealingly different; the somewhat muscular style blends with a retro radiator and long bonnet that harks back to the 1930s. Only the Jaguar tail-lights detract from the car’s individual character.

What strikes you when you first study several La Joya examples is the quality of the panels. By all accounts the process is expensive and involves the use of a composite body made up from interwoven carbon-fibre and Kevlar – the vacuum-formed structural panels are expensive at around $375 per square metre but the end result is a high level of strength, accuracy and finish.

What’s more, the process allows a joint-free body side and a finish on returns and door jambs that can put some mainstream car makers to shame.

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Paint quality is another stand out and, much like some of the recent restoration projects I’ve seen come out of the Philippines, the standard is very high and testament to the trade skills now available in Malaysia – obviously at a much lower labour rate to ours.

Underpinning the current La Joya is a multi-tube space frame chassis featuring a sheet metal floor – the jig-built frame stretches across a 2800mm wheelbase sitting on an independent double wishbone coil-sprung front and rear suspension with adjustable shock absorbers. Wheels are 17-inch BBS alloys shod with 225x45 series rubber.

Safety features include a driver’s airbag (a passenger bag is optional), side intrusion beams, pre-tensioner seat belts, traction control and a collapsible steering column.

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Bufori builds its own suspension and shockers in-house plus many smaller items. However, while not openly stated due to a supplier confidentiality agreement, the drivetrain is obviously sourced from Hyundai and more specifically the Tiburon sports car.

The 2.7-litre quad-camshaft V6 transverse engine, mid-mounted and driving through a four-speed automatic with sequential manual shift, puts out 125kW at 6000rpm and 245Nm at 4000rpm. The powerplant’s installation is neat and unobtrusive, with service access facilitated by folding down an insulated panel from behind the fold-forward seats or by a similar panel within the boot.

Despite the lack of a spare wheel, boot space is minimal but enough for two sets of golf clubs or for several medium-sized overnight bags. In lieu of a spare, Bufori supplies a Continental seal and inflate device.

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Let’s hit the road...

As I drive out on to busy Parramatta Road in Sydney’s chaotic evening peak traffic, I am amazed at the reaction to the car. The La Joya coupe is a real head turner and above all a ‘chick magnet’ – women are clearly drawn to its distinctive style.

Once driving, I’m immediately conscious of the engine’s presence. It’s not overly intrusive until I give it a boot-full at which point it emits a purposeful howl. Tipping the scales at 1490kg, the Mk III is not the liveliest two-seater in town but it responds in a purposeful way, especially when use is made of the auto’s sequential shifter.

Actually the car’s weight and low centre of gravity gives it a very reassuring feel on-road and it turns in nicely with good suspension control and a ride quality that is sensibly tuned for comfort over handling. Nevertheless it still retains the overt sportiness that one expects from such a two-seat design, to satisfy a wide range of driving tastes.

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When pushing on, I’m conscious of the weight bias to the rear, especially on poor road surfaces, but the lengthy wheelbase, together with the forward location of the 80-litre fuel tank, actually gives it a near 50/50 front rear weight distribution.

Well-sized and ventilated discs front and rear, with the added benefit of ABS and electronic brake force distribution, provide ample stopping ability but the pedal pressure is somewhat spongy and lacks the firmness required on a sports model to give the driver good feedback.

A foot operated hand brake is a smart inclusion and means the centre console is more user friendly for small item storage.

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Bufori has fitted an excellent rack and pinion steering system with a well chosen ratio and good feel once moving, however the level of power assistance on the test car could have been better and made it baulk off the immediate straight ahead position.

From a driver’s standpoint this is a very comfortable car, perhaps a sports cruiser rather than an out and out sports car and, given the market Bufori is chasing, positioned right on the money.

Access by sports car standards is relatively easy despite the extensive side sill width. Once inside, I’m immediately conscious of the very comfortable and powered Recaro seat frames, clothed in the finest full-depth colour-tanned Napa leather and the similarly clad and hand-stitched timber steering wheel.

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Seat comfort, from a range of 14 power adjustments including lumbar, is first class while the cooled and ventilated seats are a bonus and a smart luxury inclusion.

Standard gear includes climate control air, a chilled glovebox, an on-board computer, CD player, driving lights, an engine immobiliser, remote central locking and power windows and mirrors.

The trim and interior specification is endless and Gerry Khouri is quick to make the point here that anything inspired by the imagination of a customer is possible – Bufori has the ability to tailor a car up or down to suit your individual taste and budget.

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The test car was fitted with an abundance of hand polished French burr walnut veneer, quality plush pile carpet, gold-rimmed classic instrumentation and a full range of power assisted features.

And with a name like La Joya – Spanish for "The Jewel" – Bufori can even adorn the interior with an inlay of precious stones of your choice from diamonds, to emeralds, sapphires and rubies. If you’re lucky enough to own an oil-rich kingdom, a bonnet emblem in 24K 99 percent pure gold is a possibility, as are pure silk Persian carpets.

For more constrained tastes, however, there’s an endless array of available options from supercharged engine power, to a tyre pressure monitoring system, to Bluetooth connectivity, voice activated satellite navigation and cruise controls incorporated into the steering wheel.

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But it’s the small production touches that has given the Khouri brothers a low volume car with a real quality edge. The classic style louvered bonnet opens on the near side to expose a comprehensive Snap-On tool kit set in a purpose-built moulding, while the driver’s side opens to the fuel tank filler and brake master cylinder.

Yes, the Bufori Mk III La Joya has come a long way from the very first Bufori Madison kit car Gerry Khouri assembled in the early 1980s. It’s not inexpensive – it will set you back around $220,000 and for that money you can buy some impressive cars – but what price individuality? This car offers that by the truck load.


Offshore adventure

The success of the Bufori venture obviously lay in the Khouri brothers’ decision to take its manufacture offshore to a lower-cost base in 1998.The Malaysian venture helped expose the low volume roadster to a wider Asian community including Japan, China and from there it received favourable attention in the Middle East and the US.

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But it wasn’t an easy road and the initial joint venture required under Malaysian law would soon flounder, leaving the two brothers empty-handed and the assets of the new company out of their control. However the Khouris were able to negotiate the purchase from the eventual receivers and enter another joint venture deal. Aided by changes to Malaysian corporate law, the duo has now been able to assume total control.

Production of the Mk III La Joya is currently around five units per month, a rate which barely breaks even, however Gerry Khouri is happy at this level and he has the flexibility to increase and decrease production rather quickly to meet market demands. His highly-skilled workforce and KL manufacturing facility also gives him the ability to take on restoration work should the need arise. Recent projects have included a full rebuild on an E-Type Jaguar, Porsche 911 and an Austin Princess.

Bufori Motor Company now has plans for other models and is currently building an upper-luxury limousine for a Malaysian billionaire with power from Chrysler’s Hemi V8.

2009 Bufori Mk III La Joya

Body: two-door coupe
Weight: 1490kg
Engine: 2.7-litre V6
Power/torque: 126kW @ 6000rpm/245Nm @ 4000rpm.
Transmission: four-speed auto
Brakes: four-wheel ventilated with ABS and EBD
Performance: 0-100km/h – 8.1 seconds (claimed)
Price: $220,000 (approx.)

 

From Unique Cars #296, March 2009

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