How Rolls-Royce Offers the Most Personalized Vehicles Available Today
How rare are Rolls-Royces? In 2018, the brand’s 4,107 global sales marked a record high in its 115-year history. Yet with nearly 84 million people buying a new car worldwide, only about 1 in every 20,000 drove home—or were driven home—in a Rolls-Royce.
Even that air isn’t rarefied enough. Many buyers insist on the bespoke treatment, intent on commissioning a Rolls with personalized colors, features or fillips that make it sui generis.
The results can be whimsical, such as the 9-foot surfboard one customer ordered atop his Ghost sedan, handmade at Rolls’ factory woodshop in Goodwood, UK, and adorned with 24-carat gold leaf. They can be elegant, such as hand-knotted silk rugs favored by certain Middle East customers—a literal twist on the brand’s traditional lambswool carpets that tempt passengers to dig bare toes into the cloudlike wool. Other are high-tech, such as a “shooting star” effect for Rolls’ popular Starlight Headliner, the array of up to 1,340 fiber-optic nodes set in the ceiling that mimic the nighttime sky. Still not good enough? Customers have ordered the twinkling headliner to reflect a family crest, or constellations visible at the time of a child’s birth. (Talk about your spoiled children).
Ironically perhaps, Rolls-Royce has markedly raised its game in luxury and performance since being acquired by a far-more mainstream brand—Germany’s BMW—in 1998.
“Most people would agree that Rolls-Royce had suffered from a lack of dedicated focus before BMW took over,” says Gavin Hartley, Rolls-Royce’s head of bespoke design.
With its vehicles’ basic chassis and engines (a modified version of BMW’s twin-turbo V-12) arriving near-completed from Germany, Rolls can focus its limited resources to achieve a level of eye-popping luxury and personalization that’s unmatched in today’s industry. That includes a dedicated group of bespoke designers, concept engineers and color/materials designers that’s grown to roughly 25 people who work hand-in-hand with customers around the world.
“There’s been a renewed focus amongst the design team to make sure we do it right, trying to be true to the original ethos of the brand,” Hartley says. “From marketing to manufacturing, it’s now an integral part of the business, not just an add-on.”
Consider leather, something that’s available in most any Hyundai or Chevy. But Rolls-Royce leather is different. It’s sourced mainly from the large Simmental cattle breed, raised at high altitudes in temperate climates (for fewer insect bites, and supple skin). Naturally, there’s no barbed wire to nick the hides. Even among such pampered bulls, maybe 1 in 100 hides is good enough for a Rolls-Royce, and it takes up to 12 full hides to finish an interior.
“It’s not just icing on the cake but playing with the raw ingredients to make the right kind of cake,” Hartley says.
Rolls executives don’t care to talk about grubby money. But some customers spend more on bespoke features than the price of the cars themselves, which currently range from roughly $330,000 for the new Cullinan SUV, to more than $600,000 for the extended-wheelbase Phantom sedan. Some single interior elements, such as intricate wood marquetry, can take craftspeople a month or more to create. Specialists scour the world for fine wood. Veneer inlays have depicted tigers, yachts or for one real-estate titan, some favorite skyscraper projects.
Customers can choose among 20,000 veneers, including timber sourced from their own estates.
Faced with such endless choices, it’s natural for customers to turn to in-house experts, including designers plucked from such businesses as superyachts, furniture, fashion and tailoring. Customers seeking a just-right color, from wood and leather to exterior paints, often produce unusual swatches: A shirt, a lipstick, even a pair of rubber gloves that resulted in, yes, a pink Rolls-Royce. (A more popular color than you might imagine.)
Designers may gently steer customers away from clashing tones and trims, though they avoid setting themselves up as final arbiters of taste. Still, Hartley says, Rolls-Royce occasionally must “politely decline” a bespoke request that doesn’t meet standards for quality, durability or safety.
Michael Fux, the Cuban immigrant, car collector and mattress mogul of New Jersey, has been alternately toasted and roasted for his flamboyant choices—including a unique “Dawn in Fuxia” Rolls convertible, inspired by a fuchsia flower he plucked in California; and another Wraith coupe with pistachio-green paint and matching interior that I bumped into in a hotel parking lot over one Pebble Beach concours weekend. The car looked like a 2.5-ton after-dinner mint. “Who the hell would do that to a Rolls?” I remember muttering, before I met Fux and realized he’s a genuine, charming car nut who’s in love with nature’s bold colors—and doesn’t give a damn what anyone else thinks. His latest special-commission Rolls, his 12th, was recently unveiled at Pebble Beach, a Cullinan in a Sunkist shade of orange.
“I like to create my own color combinations,” Fux told me. “People tell me, ‘You’re crazy, it’s not going to look right.’ But then people see the cars and they go nuts.”
Some company traditions are non-negotiable: You can’t put Miley Cyrus’ face on the winged Spirit of Ecstasy, though Rolls has rendered its famous hood ornament in precious metals, illuminated form or Lalique crystal that nods to the Art Deco hood “mascots” that once adorned auto masterpieces from Citroen, Delage, Bugatti and other marques.
Rolls-Royce itself has clearly been loosening up. The brand knows that today’s entrepreneurs, celebrities and other younger buyers—more likely to wear t-shirts than tuxedos—are less interested in a stuffy, too-traditional machine. New Black Badge editions feature sportier performance, sinister blacked-out exteriors and carbon-fiber components. The Cullinan underlines those changing expectations. The square-jawed SUV has instantly become the most popular Rolls around the world. Designers took advantage of the new SUV layout: An available glass partition walls off occupants from luggage in back; that’s for valets or butlers to handle. Options include a drinks cabinet and crystal glassware in the cargo bay, and a “viewing suite” whose rear-facing seats power out of the lowered tailgate. The cabinet and chairs are perfect for mixing and sipping gin-and-tonics at a polo match. Or, in my case, to blow beachgoers’ minds when I drove the four-wheel-drive Cullinan onto the sands of Rockaway, Queens.
“Luxury is sometimes less formal than it used to be,” Hartley says. “It’s not necessarily a three-piece suit; it could be a pair of sandals. So it’s our job sometimes to allow it to be a lighter experience for owners, but still the pinnacle of experience.”