continues the Rolls-
Royce tradition of
excellence and signals
the beginning of a new
dynasty of Rolls-Royce
ROLLS-ROYCE may no longer be British-owned, but it is at least in very good hands.
The only current production model, the Phantom, which is available in two different wheelbases, is assembled in Britain by UK workers at Rolls-Royce's environmentally-friendly, purpose-built headquarters in Sussex, at Goodwood.
More about the new Rolls-Royce headquarters and my test drive later but first, a brief trip down Memory Lane.
Henry Royce built his first motor car in 1904. In May of that year he met Charles Rolls, whose company sold quality cars in London, for lunch in Manchester to discuss producing their first 10 horsepower car a car that made its debut at the Paris Motor Show in December of the same year. By March 1906 the success of their cars had led to the formation of the Rolls-Royce company, and to the launch of the six-cylinder Rolls-Royce Silver Ghost, which was quickly celebrated as 'the best car in the world'. After that it's all motoring history, with the Silver Ghost being followed by other well-known models including the Silver Cloud and the best-selling Silver Shadow.
Around 100,000 Rolls-Royce motor cars have been built over the past 100 years and experts speculate that at least 60 per cent of them are still in existence. Amazing especially when you consider that many
vehicles saw action in both world wars.
In the 1920s Rolls-Royce became involved in aircraft engine design
and manufacture a brand that still lives today, but under separate ownership.
Rolls-Royce bought their great British rival Bentley in 1931, and the two brands sat alongside each other for nearly 70 years.
By 1971, the constant redevelopment of the RB211 aero engine had caused the financial downfall of the company. The British Government stepped in to protect the RR Aero Division and nationalised the whole company before, in 1980, off-loading it to the defence manufacturer Vickers.
Eventually, in 1997, Vickers put both RR and Bentley car brands up for sale attracting interest from BMW, Volkswagen and Mercedes-Benz. After considerable shenanigans and squabbling, compromises between the parties involved led to VW acquiring the Bentley brand and owner-ship of the Crewe manufacturing facilities in 1998, with BMW buying the Rolls-Royce brand for £40 million. Mercedes-Benz went on to re-launch the famous German Maybach name on its own luxury new car and to join with Chrysler to become DaimlerChrysler.
As it turned out, the final deals were not quite as straightforward as they at first appeared, because VW was able to use the RR trademark until 31 December 2002 with BMW supplying components for the Silver Seraph and Bentley Arnage until that time. However, on 1 January 2003 BMW was able to market a Rolls-Royce for the first time.
From buying the Rolls-Royce brand to actually being able to sell their own first Rolls-Royce car gave BMW just four years not only to design and build a completely new car the Phantom but also to find a
UK production site, build a factory and headquarters, recruit 500 staff and set up a 74-strong worldwide dealer network, six of which are in the UK.
The headquarters, naturally, had to reflect the premium brand status that Rolls-Royce had traditionally enjoyed. Customers arriving from all over the world at RR have to be impressed as much by the surround-ings as the quality of the service they receive.
The 42-acre site was secured at Goodwood because of BMWs relation-ship with Lord Charles March, and their participation in the Goodwood Festival of Speed. Supported enthusiastically in getting planning approval by the local authorities and by the Chichester community, building work started in August 2001.
The facility was built at a cost of £65 million not including the cost
of the land, which is still leased from Lord March. The location is ideally close to Southampton, from where 90 per cent of Rolls-Royce's export production is shipped. The site is also relatively close to the Channel Tunnel which is used by transport bringing in the aluminium spaceframe bodyshells, engines and transmissions from BMW plants in Germany. Other components are supplied from countries around the world and,
of course, the UK. Suffice to say that both in its appeal and its con-struction, the Phantom is truly a world car.
The first pre-production car came off the line in July 2002 with the Phantom being launched to the public in January 2003. Worldwide sales of the Phantom in its first year were 300 units. That grew to 790 cars in 2005 the highest number of Rolls-Royce cars sold in a year for 15 years. In November last year RR introduced an extended wheelbase version of the Phantom and this year they expect to sell around 800 vehicles, marking a fourth consecutive year of growth. Nobody in the history of the car industry has sold a car of this price from around £260,000 on-the-road in such numbers, says Rolls-Royce. Interestingly, it outsells Mercedes-Benz's Maybach by three to one.
The largest single market for Rolls-Royce is America, which accounts for 50 per cent of all sales. Next is the Middle East, followed by Great Britain (where 100 Phantoms are sold each year), but emerging markets such as Japan and China are closing the gap.
So in this day and age, who buys a Rolls-Royce? The company says it tends to be self-made entrepreneurs or family businesses rather than big corporations who generally feel it is not sending out the right signals for their executives to be chauffeur driven in such expensive vehicles. Although some senior executives do buy a Phantom with their own money, most are bought by sports stars, celebrities, film stars, royals and entrepreneurs who want the finer things in life. What all of these customers have in common, says Rolls-Royce, is that they are interested in cars and they are wealthy.
The average age of the owner has fallen since BMW took ownership of the brand. Now owners are in their early-50's ten year younger than before and, says Rolls-Royce, each owner is likely to be worth at least $30 million. And that's not including property.
With such a diverse pool of customers from all parts of the world, no Phantom is exactly the same, so there is no definitive retail price as such. A standard wheelbase model in the UK costs around £260,000; the extended version around £300,000.
While there are numerous different combinations of Phantom specifi-cation, they all share the same 453bhp 6.75-litre V12 direct injection all-aluminium petrol engine built to a Rolls-Royce specification by BMW with a six-speed automatic transmission. For the record, there are in excess of 45,000 different exterior bodywork colours, numerous shades of leather upholstery and six different veneer woods taking in Figured Mahogany from West Africa, Burr Walnut, Birdseye Maple and Black Tulip from North America and Oak Burr and Elm cluster from Europe. One customer actually supplied his own wood from his own forest! Levels of equipment differ widely and can include anything from a safe to a humidor. As one would expect, more or less anything is possible and armoured versions are likely in the future. Whatever the specification, each Phantom requires three to four months to be built to order.
The future for Rolls-Royce is, happily, looking bright. The Rolls-Royce 100EX experimental convertible, which has been doing the rounds of the world automotive shows since early in 2004, will now go into pro-duction for sale in the second quarter of 2007. We could be seeing
the final production version at the Detroit Show in January and at the Geneva Show in March and it could be called the 'Corniche'. The 101EX Coupé design concept has also been shown, and is currently touring world shows although no final decision has yet been reached
as to whether this model will make production.
However, just a week ago at the Paris Show, the company did confirm they are to design and build a new and slightly smaller model series of Rolls-Royce. The new range will sell below the Phantom and will also be built at Goodwood. It is expected to be introduced within the next four years and educated guesses at the price suggest upwards of £175,000.
Leaving aside, for one moment, the cars what of the Rolls-Royce headquarters facility set in an area of outstanding natural beauty in the South Downs?
The 42-acre site was, before the arrival of Rolls-Royce, a former gravel pit. Now, however, it is hidden from public view by maturing trees
and grassed banks. Over 400,000 trees, bushes and shrubs have been planted and lakes formed as a habitat for wildlife. In time, the whole site will grow and develop into natural parkland. The buildings generate no noise or emissions to disturb the natural harmony of the surround-ings, in much the same way that the Phantom only serves to enhance the lifestyle of its owners.
The core of the building is a steel frame clad with Cedar featuring huge glass windows covered by louvres. Topping it all off is an 8-acre living roof of grass and wild plants if you read MotorBar regularly you'll know that this summer, skylarks nested there so even seen from the air, the headquarters blends with the South Downs. Water and waste are recycled for an environmentally-friendly and ecological solution.
Inside this state-of-the-art facility there are offices for the head-quarters staff and the 15-metre-high vehicle assembly halls. There
are no heavy presses, no robots and no noisy tools just unruffled operatives quietly going about their work assembling vehicles from components delivered on a 'just in time' basis to the site. Although the bodyshells arrive from Germany already primed, the final six layers of paint and lacquer are applied here in this facility.
The 'wood trim' section manufactures all the 56 different parts needed for each car. Each car has its own set, specific to customer require-ments. And each set uses ten square metres of 0.6mm thick veneer.
Individual Phantoms need 400 pieces of leather (requiring 17 to 18 hides) for the upholstery and trim. The leather comes from German Bavarian bulls as they are larger or sometimes from bulls reared in Argentina or South Africa. A little known fact is that Rolls-Royce's leather craftsmen will only use bull hide hide from cows is considered of no use because it contains stretch marks!
At the end of the assembly line each car is given a shake, rattle and roll shakedown before a final full road test prior to delivery.
But how does it feel to drive a Rolls-Royce Phantom? First impressions are of its sheer presence. It is a big vehicle: 5.8 metres (over 19 feet) in length, 78.3 inches wide and 64.3 inches high and it weighs-in at 2.5 tonnes (unladen) with a gross vehicle weight of 3.05 tonnes.
As expected from a Rolls-Royce the Phantom is unreservedly stately, standing proudly apart from all other cars on the road. It handles in a dignified manner with its 'magic' air suspension that delivers supreme comfort and yet remains acceptably precise in the handling depart-ment. And it's a quiet car. You cannot hear the engine at all at tick-over only the 'power available' dial gives away that the engine is running. And, because there is so little engine or road noise transmitted into the cabin, wind noise seems high at motorway speeds.
Started and stopped via a push button mounted within the ignition panel, the engine is effortlessly powerful and provides the trademark Rolls-Royce 'waftability'. Top speed is limited to 149mph and 0-62mph takes just 5.9 seconds. Remarkably quick. But then the V12 produces 453bhp and a very substantial 531lb ft of torque 75 per cent of which is available from just 1,000rpm. The official combined fuel con-sumption is 17.8mpg (25.7 touring) although our test drive around the West Sussex roads showed 14.7mpg recorded on the computer.
The build quality is, as you would expect, superb: typically the very best of British. It is combined with the engineering excellence of BMW. Nice touches abound with one in particular, underscoring Rolls-Royce's passionate attention to detail: synchronised wheel centres, which ensure that the interlinked RR badges on all four wheels are always in an upright position.
The interior is spacious enough for five large adults, with boot space
to match the 460-litre boot will take four sets of golf clubs with room to spare. The long wheelbase variants offer even more legroom. Access to the rear is superbly easy as the back coach doors are rear-hinged and open to the front, allowing passengers to enter and exit with decorum. And once seated, the door can be closed automatically simply by pressing a small button on the C-pillar.
It is rather pointless listing exactly what Rolls-Royce supply as stan-dard equipment for this car as it would take all day. Besides, the new owner will want for nothing because just about any bespoke item can be fitted at a price. And nowhere in the automotive world does the old saying "If you have to ask what it costs you can't afford it" apply with such relevance as it does to the Phantom.
The Rolls-Royce Phantom is refined, roomy and offers supreme quality. It's faster and far more nimble than you might expect and is, overall, probably the finest motor car built today. My only criticisms are the aforementioned motorway wind noise explained away by the car's inherent quietness and the 'floating' ride.
If you're interested in more detailed information on the history, the eventual takeover of Rolls-Royce and the new ownership of the brand, I can recommend an excellent book entitled The Goodwood Phantom.
It is written by Malcolm Tucker and published by Dalton Watson Fine Books. David Miles
Rolls-Royce Phantom | £260,000
Maximum speed: 149mph | 0-62mph: 5.9 seconds
Overall test MPG: 14.7mpg | Power: 453bhp | Torque: 531lb ft
Visit Rolls-Royce's website