Behind the scenes at Rolls-Royce

In the ten years since BMW relaunched Rolls-Royce, sales of one of the world’s most famous brands have hit record levels. Arabian Business takes a tour around the company’s Goodwood factory to discover why the world’s richest people can’t seem to shake their addiction to a British institution.

It takes Mark Court about three painstaking hours to paint the ‘coachline’ on each Rolls-Royce that roars off the production line at the carmaker’s plant in the south of England. Court is currently the only person who is qualified to paint the line, a pinstripe that runs right down both flanks of each six-metre-long vehicle, and which can feature anything from family crests to logos and Arabic calligraphy. It took the former signwriter a five-year apprenticeship just to learn the skill – and has even resulted in him being flown to Dubai by a member of the local ruling family who felt that he needed a new coachline for his car.

Moving around the Rolls-Royce factory in Goodwood, Sussex, this attention to detail veers towards the obsessive. Each vehicle, for example, is polished for at least four hours before it is deemed fit to be released to its owner. The leather that goes into the upholstery comes from two-year-old bulls that are reared in high-altitude pastures in Bavaria to ensure that no mosquito bites tarnish the hide.

A team laboriously drills the 1,340 tiny holes for fibre-optic cables that produce the ‘starlight headliner’, an effect that looks like the night sky on the interior roof of the car. And for those who care for such things, it’s even possible to have an exact replica of the sky at a certain geographical point on the day you were born.

The general atmosphere is not what you expect from a car plant; as nearly every process is carried out by hand, it is remarkably quiet. It is also virtually invisible from the nearby road, thanks to a design by Sir Nicholas Grimshaw that incorporates a roof covered with foliage. And the result? A product that ranks alongside the likes of Patek Philippe, Gulfstream and Gstaad, as one of the ‘must-have’ brands for billionaires, potentates, celebrities and tycoons the world over.

“We are mad about quality and also mad about attention to detail,” admits Torsten Müller-Ötvös, the engaging chief executive of Rolls-Royce Motor Cars. “This factory has, for me, become a symbol of what the brand is all about — transparency, cleanliness, accuracy and quality.”

Whatever is going on down in Sussex is clearly working. It is now 16 years since German manufacturing giant BMW wrestled the Rolls-Royce brand away from arch-rival Volkswagen, and just over a decade since the first Phantom cars were produced at the Goodwood plant. By buying the rights to the Rolls-Royce brand and logo for just £40m ($68m), BMW managed to outmanoeuvre Volkswagen, which had already bought the historical Bentley/Rolls-Royce factory in Crewe from previous owner Vickers, plus the rights to the ‘Spirit of Ecstasy’ mascot and the legendary radiator grille shape for £430m.

However, without the ability to actually call the cars that were produced in Crewe Rolls-Royces, Volkswagen was forced to settle with BMW (which was already producing the engines for Vickers), leaving the Wolfsburg-based company with Bentley. In its search for a new location to build one of the world’s most famous cars, BMW hit upon the bucolic landscape of Goodwood, which already has close ties with motor sport through the Festival of Speed and the nearby racing track.

While BMW has invested heavily in Goodwood, there’s little doubt that Rolls-Royce has been standing on its own two feet for some time now. Since 2009, when the brand suffered a 17 percent drop in sales due to the financial crisis, the firm has now seen four years of record sales, culminating in a 1.5 percent increase in 2013 to 3,630 cars.

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