The past three decades have been a rocky road for the British car industry. Suffering from under-investment, poor management and terrible industrial relations, British car makers were on their knees. Most have passed into overseas ownership, as companies rushed to buy some of the finest nameplates in the world.
Aston Martin, Land Rover and Jaguar went to Ford, but Aston has since been sold back to a consortium and the remaining two are up for sale. Mini went to BMW and Rover ended up in Chinese hands. Lotus has been handed around like a dirty tissue and TVR is/was in Russian hands.
Perhaps the biggest name in the British car industry was Rolls Royce, with its Bentley offspring. Back in 1998, VW was confident of buying the prestige brand, but some skilful maneuvering by BMW saw them steal it from under their moustachioed noses.
At just $65 million, BMW paid only 10% of VW's final bill. And as the dust cleared, VW walked away with the Bentley brand, its manufacturing site and skilled workforce. BMW had "the Rolls Royce name, grille and the Spirit of Ecstacy [grille mascot]," according to Jon Stanley, Rolls' product PR manager.
In the past four years, BMW built a new assembly plant, hired and trained a workforce and developed the Phantom. "Rolls Royce may have 100 years of history, but this new company is essentially four years old," Jon continued
German ownership has its own pressures - an expectation to succeed from management, and perhaps to fail from a patriotic British public. But it was incumbent upon the new company to retain traditional values.
New Plant and HQBeing a brand with such a rich heritage, the location of the company's new plant and world headquarters was crucial. The decision was made to build at Goodwood in southern England. "Our landlord is Lord March," explained PR Manager Anna Reynolds.
"The site made sense because it's close to Goodwood circuit for testing, has good access to major transport routes, yet is set in the exquisite rolling countryside of the South Downs, close to [Lord March's] Goodwood House and [horse] race course."
Building in such an environment brought its own challenges and architect Nicholas Grimshaw was enlisted to meet these. Sensitivity to the landscape and its environmental impact were seen as paramount. Consequently, the roofs of the buildings are sloped at the rear and were seeded with grass to blend into the surroundings when viewed from the hills above. The sloping banks were formed with the earth dug from the site during construction. Furthermore, the exterior glass is clad with cedar wood, which changes hue with the seasons to allow the buildings to blend with their surroundings.
The expansive glass curtain walls allow the buildings to exploit natural light, including the assembly area, which reduces fatigue and power requirements. The wooden louvers on the glass are computer controlled to maintain light levels and the interior temperature. What's more, rainwater collected by the large roof windows is channeled into the plant's own lake and cools the air circulated through the buildings.
PhantomAnother advantage of the Goodwood location was its proximity to a skilled workforce of boat builders - people who are familiar with manipulating natural materials. "We initially borrowed workers from BMW plants around the world," explained Jon, "but now our staff is predominantly local. However, we still see ourselves as an international company, buying wood from around the globe, for example, but having the Spirit of Ecstacy manufactured down the road...
"About 10% of the Phantom's content comes from BMW - but it's mainly invisible components, except for the iDrive, which we've simplified a little."
The Phantom's introduction elicited a sharp intake of breath from the golf club lounge. It was both magnificent and huge. British reserve suggests you don't flaunt your wealth, but with a Phantom you have little choice in the matter.
"Owners of our older cars typically covered 1500-2000 miles per year," Jon explained, "yet our new owners cover 8000 miles on average. That's because the new car is seen as more robust and useable."
That useability varies based on nationality, with almost all Japanese Phantoms being chauffer-driven. In the UK and Europe, about 85% of owners prefer to drive themselves, while in the US it's split 50/50.
Having got behind the wheel of a Phantom myself, I actually preferred being a passenger. The driving sensation is serene and the seating position is commanding, but sitting in the back, stretched out, listening to music and dipping your toes in lambswool is hard to beat.
With 85% of all Rolls Royce ever built still running, it was very important to get this car "right. "If you look back to the 1920s, Rolls Royce was at its pinnacle and was enormously popular with people who enjoyed life. And we see that happening again," Jon suggested.
So how does the company respond to its appearance in rap videos? Does this fit the micro-managed branding BMW has cultivated? "We don't target or exclude anybody," Jon explained. "In the '60s people were outraged when John Lennon painted his Rolls, or Keith Moon rode around naked in his. So we've always had a high profile. Our cars announce that you've arrived and we're flattered to still be appearing in the media in this way.
"We originally had a very conservative image and still appeal to those customers, but we've also been accepted by a wider audience, which is allowing us to reach our potential."
Assembly LineSo what makes Rolls Royce the ultimate status symbol? Traditionally, it's because these cars were the best: the most luxurious. And BMW has done its utmost to preserve these values while moving the brand into the 21st century.
We followed the assembly line to get a feel for how these leviathans are built, but had to adjust our conception of car manufacture. They don't measure production by the number of cars built a day. "Each car takes two to three months to build," Jon told us. "We have a traditional assembly line but a car moves on to the next station when it's ready. These cars are built inch by inch, and each piece is finished in as long as it takes." This is not like any assembly line you've ever seen before.
It starts with the aluminum bodies that arrive from Dingolfing, Germany, where they were stamped and welded by hand, then primered using BMW's latest techniques. They then move into Goodwood's paint facility, where two robots apply the color, although preparation and finishing is done by hand.
Of the 19 standard colors, black is the most popular color, but Rolls Royce Bespoke can mix one of 44000 colors to suit any whim - they count a lilac wedding car and another matched to a customer's lipstick as the more outlandish requests. "People spending over $330,000 want it exactly how they want it," Jon explained. "We've even shipped in specific bottles to ensure they fit our holders."
"One customer asked for three cigar thermadors in his glovebox. We made sure they held his specific cigars and made them nice enough that he could remove and take them into a restaurant."
"Our Bespoke department employs 28 people and there's an eight-month waiting list for this service, rather than the standard three to four months. However, each Bespoke customer has the opportunity to meet with Ian Cameron, the Phantom's designer, and discuss different finishes and options," Jon continued. Yet whatever specification is chosen, extensive tests are carried out on all colors, finishes and equipment to ensure it satisfies Rolls Royce durability standards.
Once a color is chosen, the painted body has the doors mounted by hand, and everything is checked with feeler gauges throughout the process. These are the only suicide doors in production and a special locking system was devised for them. And the car won't move if a door isn't shut properly
A single-piece magnesium alloy instrument carrier is then bolted across the front of the car. This stiffens the shell to prevent squeaks and rattles occurring later in life. It helps to create a shell that's 2.5 times stiffer than a Sauber F1 car and is one of the reasons why the tailored sound system is so crisp.
The front fenders are composite material to further reduce weight. Even with its 6.75 liter motor, the Phantom is one of the most efficient in its class.
The cars move down the main line, where they meet the drivetrain assembly. The V12 motor is hand built in BMW's M plant. It was developed in parallel with BMW's own V12 but has a very flat torque curve that peaks at very low rpm. "The engine is totally unstressed so will last forever," Jon assured us. "After all, we fit the same powerplant in our 2 tonne armored Phantoms."
What's more, a Rolls Royce is utterly silent. We were constantly stepping in front of slow-moving cars in the finishing area without realizing they were there. Apparently there used to be a sign in the old Crewe factory: "Beware, silent cars being moved!"
The V12 is mated to a six-speed ZF auto transmission but gets nothing as vulgar as paddle shifts.
At the time of our visit, the new Phantom Drophead Coupe was being readied for delivery. "The problem is, every customer wants to be the first to receive their car. So we're trying to build enough that 70 customers will be first," Jon told us.
While the cars are on the assembly line, the famous Rolls Royce interior shop gets to work. Forty people are employed here. They ensure all of the 15-18 leather hides for each car is inspected by hand. Any imperfections are either hidden behind panels in the car or, if it's too bad, the hide goes to the fashion industry.
A laser then cuts the hides, ensuring total accuracy, although most other jobs are done by hand.
Three types of leather are used in each car - soft "natural" for the seats, "tipped" on the door cards and "pre-shrunk" on the dash. Then there's perforated leather that was used for the headliner in the car we sampled.In the wood shop, they hand select the different woods such as burr walnut, elm, oak, birdseye maple, black tulip, rosewood, etc. And all are laminated with aluminum for improved crash safety.
For the Drophead, they use teak on the rear deck. "We have buyers in southeast Asia who select our woods. For the teak they insisted the wood come from the top of the hills where there was better drainage to improve the grain. And rather than have the wood leave the forest by river, risking water damage, they requested it be dragged out by elephants," Jon said.
"So we're actually helping to bring elephants back to the forests."
The RangeThe current line-up includes the Phantom, Phantom Extended, Drophead Coupe [convertible] and an approved specialist builds an even longer wheelbase and armored cars. The company was also awaiting approval for the new Phantom Coupe and is hoping to build a second, smaller model by the end of the decade.
Once the cars have been assembled, each is submitted to final checks that include a shaker test to detect any squeaks or rattles, in addition to a road test.
Even Rolls has to move with the times, and a new 21" wheel option was fitted to the majority of cars we saw. There's also a 15-speaker sound system that was designed into the car from inception. It includes 45 liter bass boxes to provide incredible sound quality.
In the rear, you can specify either a bench seat or two individual chairs with 12" screens and picnic tables in front of them. But if you opt for the 400mm extra-extended wheelbase, Rolls can fit a plasma screen to the wall separating you from the driver. And with the Bespoke service, you can basically have whatever you desire.
The Rolls Royce experience is like nothing else. From the umbrella secreted in the doors, to the Spirit of Ecstacy that can be hidden at the touch of a button, it's like nothing we'd come across before. It's best summed up by Jon Stanley who reminded us "A Rolls Royce is not about a single superlative, it's about delivering a superb package." And having witnessed both the Phantom's production and driven the finished product, we can confirm these cars represent a host of superlatives. Certainly the finest car we've ever driven, and also the most unique.