RATCHETING UP 110 KM AN HOUR, the black Rolls-Royce Phantom ‘Extended Wheelbase’ is cruising down A3 from London. It is sunny July. The driver taking me to Goodwood, home to Rolls-Royce Motor Cars, suddenly asks me to look up.

As I do, tiny white lights glow against the dark, cushioned roof of the limo—one of the longest made by the car maker. The story behind the lights. A sheikh sought a night sky in his car: Rolls-Royce embedded about 1,340 fibre optic threads in the roof. The company won’t reveal his identity, only states that he wanted a sky exactly like the one above the 42-acre Goodwood factory in West Sussex where every Rolls is built. The sheikh’s limo, which came at a base price of $670,000 (Rs 4 crore) fetched a neat $77,000 more. Rolls has since added the night sky to other cars as well.

Nearly 90% of all Rolls-Royce’s Phantoms and Wraiths, and 70% of Ghosts are customised. In the last couple of years, Rolls has hired 50 people and spent $10 million to expand its bespoke facilities. You can ask for pretty much any customisation, provided it doesn’t break the safety regulations of the country where it will be sold.

A buyer once asked for a special body colour, Desert Gold. It wasn’t among the 44,000 shades on offer, and had to be made mixing 19 gm of gold powder in every litre of paint. The extra cost: $37,000. “In our business, unless we think of each car as a work of art, we cannot survive,” says Gavin Hartley, manager, bespoke design, Rolls. The company’s website claims every Rolls is handcrafted.

Auto industry expert Hormazd Sorabjee says that customisation is the key “differentiator” in the Rolls-Royce “value proposition”. “It means competitors cannot easily replicate the brand feeling.” He adds that bespoke is a major tool through which Rolls-Royce hopes to maintain profitability and market supremacy.

I travelled to Goodwood at a time when Rolls-Royce Motor Cars had declared five years of back-to-back record sales. Globally, it sold a record 3,630 cars in 2013, 55 more than the previous year. Rolls-Royce, a division of BMW (the Germans bought it in 2003), doesn’t disclose either sales or profits. But at an average of £200,000 (Rs 2 crore) per Rolls, it translates into roughly £726 million in sales last year.

Industry grapevine has it that 2014 might well be another record-breaking year. As it happened, Rolls released its half-yearly results the morning I was meeting CEO Torsten Müller-Ötvös. It sold 1,968 cars for the six months and posted a 33% rise in revenues over the corresponding period of 2013. Asia-Pacific sales were up 40%, West Asia, more than 30%. Even in Europe, a region not entirely out of the woods, Rolls registered a 60% jump, pushed by Germany, its strongest market, where sales doubled.

Sales have also doubled in the U.S., the only country where, Müller-Ötvös says, customers pop into showrooms and don’t fuss over modifications. “Times are changing. If a customer wants a standing car, so be it.”

The factory in Goodwood, West sussex, England, where every rolls is built.
The factory in Goodwood, West sussex, England, where every rolls is built.

It is this Beverly Hills idiosyncrasy which is at the heart of Rolls-Royce today—a contradiction that the company is grappling with. The 107-year-old brand is steeped in history. It has a ‘diplomatic programme’—the only brand to have one—that caters to heads of states and envoys. They buy Rolls to make a statement about their nation. In the more mundane auto world, Rolls-Royce (at 800 hours to build each car, only 20 can be built every day) is seen as serious luxury, bought by seriously wealthy middle-aged people. It is, as they say within the company, something that people buy to “reward themselves for having reached that singular point”. Müller-Ötvös’s dilemma: Rolls-Royce wants to reverse its ageing, and yet, stay stately.

Müller-Ötvös points out that today’s wealthy have the same mindset in their thirties that the previous generation had in their fifties. “The age to own and celebrate with a Rolls-Royce is falling.” This is happening in other luxury businesses too. Hermès and Gucci’s insatiable Asian customers for example, are younger than their Western counterparts.

All this is pushing Rolls-Royce to alter how it interacts with the world. Last year, it opened 15 dealerships across the globe, taking the total to an unprecedented 120. Rolls-Royce now has more models than ever—Ghost Series II and Series II Extended Wheelbase; the Phantom, Phantom Extended Wheelbase, Coupé, and the Drophead Coupé. Read that as targeting a wider cross-section of buyers. Recently, it introduced the two-door Wraith sports car, targeted at younger buyers.

To understand how Rolls-Royce is coming to terms with this, I set out for Belgravia and Knightsbridge on three consecutive mornings. Belgravia, Knightsbridge, and Chelsea are the trinity of money in London. These are where the ‘City’ (the financial hub that operates out of London) lives and plays. Here, the Qataris illegally park their gold-plated Ferraris outside Harrods; nearby stands London’s coveted new address, 1, Hyde Park. Apartments cost upwards of $50 million. I am told by friends, mostly hedge fund managers, and bankers, that there are more per capita Rolls-Royces in the area than anywhere in the world. (In India, people say it is New Delhi and Ludhiana, Punjab.)

In the course of a half-an-hour stroll from the Royal Danish Embassy, past Lowndes Square, Belgrave Mews West, and right up to the Caledonian Club, I count 11 Rolls-Royces, mostly Ghosts, and two Phantoms. From one of the near-identical rows of white Edwardian houses, a woman skips out in running shorts with a Pom on leash, opens the door of her silver-blue Ghost and throws the puppy in. She notices me looking intently at her car, and says hello. Her name is Patricia, a 36-year-old investment banker. We get talking about her car which she says she drives to work. “It’s not a country car to me. I don’t have a country home. I bought this about a year ago. It is the only car I own.”

This, Müller-Ötvös says, is unusual in the history of Rolls-Royce, always an emblem of landed aristocracy, not the least because one of the founders, Charles Stewart Rolls, was gentry. An Eton and Cambridge man, Rolls was an early motoring and aviation enthusiast who achieved a land speed record of 150 km/hr in 1903. He started one of Britain’s first car dealerships, C.S. Rolls & Co., in Fulham.

The person who first built the super-silent Rolls-Royce car, Fredrick Henry Royce, however, was too poor to even have a formal education. He worked as an apprentice in railway works companies and electrical firms, and essentially taught himself to build cars. He built his first car in 1904. Rolls and Royce met soon after, and, by 1907, they had brought out the famous six-cylinder Silver Ghost. Till 1927, it was among the best (many thought the best) cars ever built.

Royce famously spent years redesigning the crankshaft and polishing the teeth of every gear to make it near-silent. (Years later, David Ogilvy, the founder of ad agency Ogilvy & Mather, would come up with, “At 60 miles an hour, the loudest noise in this new Rolls-Royce comes from the electric clock.”). Because of this silence, all Rolls-Royce cars are named after apparitions—Phantom, Ghost, and Wraith.

ROLLS BECAME SYNONYMOUS with luxury, and was the favourite car of Indian royalty. The Maharaja of Jamnagar sent his wife’s pink slipper to Henry Royce to ensure the Phantom he ordered for her was the shade. Then, the Maharaja of Darbhanga, who had more than 30 Phantom III models, was known to have got his cars designed so that the driver could change tyres without leaving his seat. A small hydraulic jack would descend to lift one or all the wheels of the car off the ground.

(The royalty are no longer Rolls-Royce’s customers: About 80% of its cars in India are bought by businesspeople. Rolls-Royce has been selling around 100 cars a year for the last few years. “With a new government in India, the mood in the market is distinctly changing. We had been waiting for this shift, we are ready,” says Müller-Ötvös.)

All this also meant that Rolls-Royce was a car that was driven by chauffeurs, and not owners. Echoing Patricia, today’s wealthy young want a car they can drive. At Rolls, they say the trend is towards more and more customers “wanting a normal life”. “While we deal with incredibly wealthy people, there is a distinct trend that they want to keep it real,” says Richar Collar, head of bespoke sales and marketing, Rolls-Royce. “They don’t like obnoxious levels of fuss. If they buy a car, they want to drive it.”

Rolls began addressing that a few years ago, with the Drophead Coupé. It is now being led by the Wraith—a 12-cylinder machine for around $300,000 which can do zero to 100 km in 4.4 seconds. It is one of the most advanced—and fastest—cars to roll out with the Rolls-Royce insignia, the Spirit of Ecstasy statuette, on the hood. There is even an attempt to tilt the ‘Flying Lady’ forward by a few degrees to give her a more determined air to complement the power, style, and drama of the Wraith.

Rolls-Royce estimates that all Wraith buyers drive themselves: At any rate, these days 70% of customers are first-time buyers. And though Rolls won’t admit it, it likes the idea that one of its cars is for daily use. As Müller-Ötvös says, “You don’t want to be stuck in your Ferrari in a traffic jam. We have always seen our cars, like the Phantoms, as rolling offices, and now with the Wraith, we have the right urban, nimble, car.” With the luxuriousness that one expects from Rolls-Royce, the two-door Wraith, therefore, is a comfortable four-seater.

In a nod towards the sensibilities of an environmentally conscious generation, in 2011, Rolls-Royce built an electric car, the Phantom Experimental Electric 102EX. It had a 1,452 lb battery, instead of an engine, and impressed reviewers with superior torque and even more silent performance. While the electric Phantom is not in production because customers did not like the minimum eight-hour charge time and the sub-100 km range, Rolls is working on a hybrid.

MEANWHILE, COMPETITION IS getting aggressive. Mercedes has announced a new luxury sedan, S-Class Pullman, with armoured plating, which releases in 2015 with a sticker price of $1 million. It will be the most expensive sedan in the world. The company’s CEO Dieter Zetsche promises no less than “the best car in the world”. This means Rolls-Royce will no longer have the most expensive cars. The coupé version of the S-Class (at $172,000) will have add-on offerings like Swarovski crystal headlights. Merc also plans to bring back the Maybach, which it discontinued in 2012 due to poor sales.

Meanwhile, Rolls-Royce and its arch rival Bentley (Rolls owned it once) will also be competing in utility vehicles—the first ever for both. They are likely to hit the market by 2017. Rolls-Royce has also lined up a new version of the Ghost and Phantom, using new BMW carbon-fibre technology that is lighter, more malleable, and sturdy compared to steel.

Müller-Ötvös is not worried yet. “We are not in the business of selling cars,” he says. They are in the business of helping people highlight and celebrate their personal history, he adds. This is classic luxury-speak, where brands don’t like to be tied to functionality. “No one buys a Rolls-Royce to go from one point to another.” The motivation, says Müller-Ötvös, is purely emotional.

It is for the fear of disturbing this emotional quotient that Müller-Ötvös also says Rolls-Royce will never hit ‘five figures’ in production, that is, it will always make less than 10,000 cars in a year. “The idea is that our customers shouldn’t find the car they bought in every nook and corner,” he adds.

Imagine Belgravia replicated en masse.

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