here is an alligator on the table. An ostrich too.
Both are very dead. They have been eviscerated and tanned and are now laid out in the room at the Rolls-Royce factory where customers work with designers to create their guaranteed-unique car.
The ostrich hide looks like a vast black deflated balloon but the alligator is immediately recognisable.
Only the underside is soft enough to be used. Its legs and tail are largely intact, and its former sphincter looks up at me with a forlorn, one-eyed gaze.
Rolls-Royce’s Goodwood factory is not like other car factories. For a start, the cars it produces start at more than half a million Aussie quid and can easily run into seven figures with the kind of bespoke work – such as special interior treatments or paint colours T – which most of its customers now ask for.
If you struggle with the notion of a new car costing that much, witnessing the patience and skill of the staff – who will line your car’s boot with alligator skin, if you wish – will help put things into perspective.
This is not a facility where robots create cars and roll them off the assembly line every few seconds.
But unlike many other car factories, you can’t come here and witness. Rolls-Royce is a surprisingly, refreshingly unstuffy organisation and a fine corporate citizen, but it does not offer factory tours to the public. It reserves that privilege for customers and there are customers here every day who might prefer to not be seen by the public.
So unless you’re already a Rolls-Royce customer, you’re going to have to come in with us. My appointment has been made in a rare gap between actual paying clients. The time is inconvenient for me. I try to change it, but it is gently pointed out that it’s probably going to be harder to change the clients’
schedules than mine. I arrive at the appointed time.
Many MOTOR readers will be aware of Goodwood – Festival of Speed, or the Revival – but won’t be aware of the Rolls-Royce factory there. Just south of the motor circuit and barely visible from the road, it doesn’t disguise the fact it’s a car factory: you can see straight into the assembly hall from the big, square central courtyard into which the chauffeur-driven Phantom sent to collect customers will sweep. I parked around the back.
Bosses of carmakers like Rolls-Royce portray themselves as purveyors of luxury goods: it’s partly true, but they still have a depth of engineering and craftsmanship which requires huge investment in staff and facilities and justifies their prices. That just isn’t there in an insanely expensive handbag.
As you enter you pass a vast 1930s Sedanca de Ville and one of just 28 original Silver Dawn convertibles built in the 1950s, on your way to the suite of rooms reserved for customer use. Rolls-Royce might make around 4000 cars each year now, but it doesn’t have 4000 customers because some of them order 40 cars at a time. Torsten Müller-Ötvös, the CEO, says he knows a significant proportion of them personally.
And a lot of them come here to the factory to design their cars and see them being made.
Some customers might easily make a million dollars a day, but they’ll happily spend one of those days here deciding, for instance, if they wish for alligator leather around the cabin of a car which they might only use a handful of times before it gets lost in a collection of hundreds of others. The special experience of creating their own car – the way they’d commission a work of art, or a new house or yacht – is as important as the actual product. So it had better be a pretty bloody special experience.
Michael Brydon is one of the bespoke designers who assist these customers. His background in superyachts is useful for coping with the demands of ultra-alpha personalities. He shows me around the atelier, the room intended to inspire customers with examples of what’s possible for paint and interior. With a standard palette of 44,000 colours, and some customers creating and naming their own, it’s not like picking between three different silvers in a BMW dealership. You can have your royal crest embroidered or tattooed into the leather, or set into the veneer, which might use wood from your own
forest. You can have the starlight headliner reveal your crest, or the night sky of the day your child was born. You name it, these chaps can make it.
“We want to get across the notion that there are no limits,” says Brydon. Really? How does Rolls- Royce cope with customers whose taste lags behind their budget? “We are not the arbiters of taste. If a customer wants something bold, we can work with that. We are here to give a level of steer, and usually customers will take our guidance. We certainly won’t do anything that compromises the car’s safety or legality, and there are certain things that we will not interfere with, such as the Spirit of Ecstasy, or the grille. It must always be a Rolls-Royce. But if a customer really insists on a colour... it’s actually amazing how good the pink cars [can] look.”
It’s unfair to focus on the more garish bespoke cars, although Rolls-Royce doesn’t try to conceal them.
There are books in the atelier showing previous bespoke cars with shocking spearmint-green cabins, and one double-pink example inspired by the colour of the lining of a customer’s pair of rubber gloves.
But there are just as many very cool, very tasteful
projects. One car was inspired by the space-race of the 1960s, finished in white and pale grey with orange detailing and titanium cup-holders.
Whatever is conceived here is made on the other side of the building. The assembly line, usually the heart of a car plant, seems like a side-show here.
Rolls-Royce likes to boast that there are only two robots in the factory, both in the paint shop, which we can’t see today as there is something ‘special’ in there. Given what we’re allowed to see but not mention, it must be pretty special. But the engines and the body-in-white both arrive here largely complete from Germany, so the heaviest, noisiest, most complex and most automated work is done elsewhere. This place is all about the stuff that can’t be done elsewhere: the paint, leather and wood, and bolting it all together without scratching anything.
bolting it all together without scratching anything.
The two assembly lines – one for Phantom, one for Ghost and its Wraith and Dawn derivatives – move incredibly slowly. In a normal car factory, the time the car spends at each stage of production may be measured in seconds. On the Ghost line it’s an hour, and on Phantom, two. There is an oddly serene atmosphere; nobody seems to rush, and you can hold a conversation without raising your voice.
This often proves useful, explains senior production manager Stephen Horscroft. “If you’re an apprentice here, you might find yourself fitting a piece of trim one minute, and then talking to a customer on a factory tour who’s a king or a president the next. We do have a word with them about how they handle that.”
But the work that really makes a Rolls-Royce a Rolls-Royce happens in the wood and leather workshops to the side of the production line. Then as now, Rolls-Royce does this with craftspeople who haven’t always made cars. They’re staffed by expert craftsmen; the woodworkers come from the local boatbuilding and furniture trades while the leatherworkers made Savile Row suits or have fashion degrees.
It starts with the materials. The veneers are stored in a vast, walk-in humidor kept at a constant 28 degrees and 80 degrees humidity so they stretch perfectly over their substrates. The thin sheets of exotic woods sit in neat piles and have names I’ve never heard before but sound like Gwyneth Paltrow’s children: Santos Palisander, or Waterfall Bubinga.
In the wood shop they hand-build the veneers’ substrates from sheets of tulip wood, interspersed with aluminium to meet crash regulations. The final, hidden, layer is hand-filled and sanded so the veneer sits perfectly over the top. They could just make these pieces out of something else, by machine, but then it might not feel right, and wouldn’t sound like wood if rapped with knuckles.
“Most of the guys in here are pure woodies,” says Martin O’Callaghan, the woodshop production
manager. “They’ve been around wood their entire working lives. They go home at night and work on their own woodwork projects. You might not know if it isn’t perfect, but we would.”
As many as 14 complete hides go into each car.
The leather comes only from young bulls (no teats) bred at high altitude (no ticks) on farms with no barbed-wire fences (no scars) and in herds which are brought indoors at night, because it’s less stressful, and stress causes the cow’s veins to bulge, distorting the leather. True.
There is a faint sadness about the amount of skill and love that goes into these cars. You worry that it might not be fully appreciated by some owners, or that it might never be seen at all after being buried in the collections of others. In the bespoke section of the woodshop, where they make the most complex one-off customer demands, craftsmen show me what is known as the mournful panda.
As the name suggests, it’s a slightly doleful-looking giant panda sitting among bamboo shoots, designed by a customer and set into the veneer panel which faces the front seat passenger. The whole scene is made of tiny laser-etched pieces of veneer. It looks perfect to me, and about a month of someone’s life.
But it was decided that the mournful panda was not quite centred correctly. So they just did it all again.
Once the wood and leather bits are finished, they are fitted to the cars with the most painstaking care.
Scratching something is unthinkable: it might take a month or more to make a bespoke part again, and if the car is, for instance, a birthday gift for a king, it really can’t be late.
Despite the risks, every car gets a 16km test drive on the roads around Goodwood, before being dispatched – often flown – to the customer. The factory makes an average of 18 cars per working day and there are about that number parked in a special area ready for their very final inspection.
Not all finished cars are flown immediately to their customers. Some customers fly to their cars, which are revealed to them on a stage in the customer suite: the lights dim, the music rises and the curtains draw back. Only the car’s headlights are visible at first through the darkness, and only as the floodlights around it light up do you get to see if that special pink you ordered looks the way you hoped it would.
I’m lucky enough to experience this reveal, but of course the car I’m being shown isn’t mine; I haven’t invested months of time and most of a million bucks in it. But the drama of ‘my’ reveal is dialled-up by the fact this is the very first time anyone outside Rolls-Royce has seen the new Wraith Black Badge: it’s Rolls-Royce’s Geneva show car for 2016. I’m looking at the car, and they’re all looking at me to see how I react.
I love it. Like the factory, Black Badge is a sign of a brand at ease with itself and confident enough to rethink itself. It just needs more alligator. M