There are luxury brands and then there are luxury brands, but surely few would begrudge the title of ‘world’s leading high-end car maker’ going to 110-year old British-based icon Rolls-Royce.
From its very first car, the 1907 Silver Ghost that covered a then-record 14,371 miles in a single run, the company has occupied a rarified air — in hearts and minds always, and with the virtue of its product merely sometimes.
Its products have not uniformly deserved the moniker, but ask the average chap on the street and they’ll tell you Rolls-Royce is the luxury brand par excellence.
At various points in more recent decades, one could argue that the products bearing the famous Spirit of Ecstasy on the bonnet carried with them the perverse whiff of designer mothballs and rich mahogany, but even that has changed.
Owned by German powerhaus BMW AG since 2002 but still somewhat autonomous and UK-based, on the lush green estate of the Earl of March near the famed Goodwood hill, the company has increasingly targeted younger buyers with sportier models such as the Wraith.
The company now finds itself with an average buyer profile somewhere around the mid-40s, and a growing presence in China, one of its biggest markets (but not bigger than the US). Senior management speak proudly of rappers and young heirs that drive their car, and skip the aristocracy.
It was something of a privilege to be invited recently to have a look behind the scenes at the company’s famed Goodwood manufacturing centre on the back of a recent event with fellow BMW division Mini, to view a veritable hub of automotive craftsmanship normally kept from the prying eyes of all but prospective buyers and staff.
The facility seems designed the accommodate two unusual requirements. One: The Earl insists one must not see the factory from his bedroom window of a morning, so it must be contained in height and hidden amongst a copse of greenery. And two: Almost every car made here will be, in a matter of speaking, bespoke in its finish, trim and features.
It is quite clear that no regular robotised Metropolis will do here. You cannot simply churn Phantoms off a line parallel to a 7 Series. And even if you feasibly could, the romance and inherent appeal of the brand is irrevocably tied to its native land.
With sales tipped to hit a record of 4000 units this year, the Goodwood facility — do not, whatever you do, call it a ‘factory’ within earshot of management — is running as close as it gets to overdrive.
There are two lines; one for the Ghost/Wraith, another smaller one at the back of the facility for the Phantom flagship, the car of choice for high-rollers (pun intended) the world over.
Here are some facts: The factory is camouflaged among trees, with 412,000 plants laid down when it was built 10 years ago and, ironically for a user of V12s, has a man-made heat-sink and green-friendly glass that keeps the building toasty without regular internal heating.
There are 1500 workers on site, most from the Goodwood area but multicultural enough to speak 30 languages — we saw a few Germans in the mix — about 100 apprentices at any given moment, many of whom go onto more senior production roles, judging by the people we spoke with.
There is also no automation of vehicles as you’d find on a conventional lines. Cars are pushed down the line from station to station on rollers (50 minutes per station for the Ghost/Wraith, two hours for a Phantom), such is the nature of the work being done.
There’s is also no automation. When Rolls-Royce says ‘hand-built’, it really means it. Stations of workers are assigned tasks including hand-fitting the Phantom’s dash (90 minutes), and threading around the one-mile long, 42kg wiring loom made in the Czech Republic.
Human hands also fit the 50kg Phantom doors with all the trimmings, various suspension componentry, and the 16 bolts that marry V12 engine and transmission to body.
Even those models fitted with a ‘starlight’ roof with illuminated pinpricks requires one person to make all 1340 holes in the fabric and thread through the fibre-optics in a 20-hour process.
Before all this, the (German-made) space-frames begin their illustrious lives in the paint shop. Like the spaceframes, the V12 engines and ZF transmissions are also outsourced. Goodwood takes the raw bits and polishes them into a diamond with its craftwork.
‘Paint shop’ seems a trifling name for a facility that drips 30kg of paint in a single treacle-thick coat onto a Phantom’s body. Not only that, but there are 44,000 ‘book’ colours to choose from, though if you fancy another, Rolls can mix you one up and assign you exclusive rights.
‘Costello Burnt Orange’ sounds like a goer, to commemorate my hair, of course.
Interestingly, the only robots in the entire place are dedicated to the paint shop. Human hands just couldn’t lay it on thick and even enough. However, all body lines and decals are hand-drawn, not stencilled, by a rather remarkable master artist and his apprentice son.
Shift inside the cabin and the world is your oyster… or diamond, titanium, carbon, wood, leather, ox hair or… we don’t know… asteroid rock?
There are 200 staffers dedicated to sourcing and shaping the wood trims, adhering to the mantra of one tree-one car. Buyers go out every six weeks and will lash your cabin with any wood you ask for, so long as it’s sustainable. So sorry, but you can’t fit out your Ghost with ancient Tasmanian old-growth flora.
Each Phantom cabin also uses 11 full-sized bulls' worth of leather, all of which were grazed at high altitude to avoid mosquito bites. And if you have enough money, you can fit damned-near any material you like, such as the man with a $100,000 solid gold badge, or the Japanese buyer who wanted his roof inlayed with the exact star constellation in Tokyo on the night of his birth in 1958.
Every car is made to order, all-but-none are ‘stock’, and Rolls-Royce will personalise your car in any way they legally can. They are not, says global corporate communications manager Andrew Ball, arbiters of taste. The bright pink Rolls made for charity attest to this.
Rolls-Royce also doesn’t play politics, according to those we asked. Say Bashar al-Assad ordered a Phantom… it’s unlikely the company would say no.
Fact is, the Goodwood facility is an automotive craftwork centre operating on a scale and at a level none can match, outside perhaps that of Ferrari in Maranello. What the future holds we don’t know — an SUV, perhaps? — but the here and now is pretty spectacular.