"Absolutely not. We won't do that. There's a line we will never cross and certain things, no matter how much someone is willing to pay, are beyond what we as a brand are prepared to do for customers." That's me told, then. A gold plated radiator grille is off limits when specifying my new Rolls-Royce Phantom - what's a man to do when told he can't have a new car exactly how he wants it?
I jest, of course. I am simply testing the waters to see if money really can buy me anything and obviously it cannot. At least not via official routes because, as many of us know from experience, there's always someone you can turn to when it comes to making the most lurid bad taste fantasies a reality. Rolls-Royce has a reputation and carefully honed image to protect, lest a blinged-up hot rod should negate those decades of hard work. So no, I can't have a gold radiator, I can't black out the chrome window surrounds and I definitely can't specify mirrored 24-inch diameter alloy wheels and low profile tyres that resemble black elastic bands stretched around the rims. My repressed gangsta persona is taking a battering.
Sitting in the Dubai offices of Rolls-Royce, I am being guided by two English gentlemen who are here to help me in my choices as I go through a process that precious few people get to experience. Alex Innes is the designer for Rolls-Royce's Bespoke department and Rob Kilty is its engineering manager. Between them, they have the final say over what is and what is not permissible. They passionately protect the company's reputation but will do whatever they can to turn your new car into something unique to you as its first owner.
"One of our customers," recalls Innes, "had an extremely old tree on his property, which had been in the family for many years. It came down during a storm and he wanted to preserve it by having it used to trim the interior of his car." Rolls-Royce has a strict approach to timber, only using wood from trees which can be traced and documented for its sustainability requirements, so this could easily be catered for. That car has, in effect, immortalised a part of its owner's personal history without doing any damage to the planet.
Physical changes to the design of any new car, no matter how low its build numbers, are extremely difficult due to the increasingly stringent restraints imposed by legislators. In years gone by, it was the norm to have a coachbuilder design and construct a totally bespoke body to clothe the oily bits of engineering that manufacturers like Rolls-Royce spent their own time on. That's still possible for the few with deep enough pockets and enough time and patience to wait for the process to unfold at the hands of one or two rarified companies around the world but, if you want a new Phantom or Ghost, the accepted form of personalisation comes down to individual choices with colour and trim combinations.
I'm wearing cufflinks decorated with deep blue polished stones, to complement my navy suit. How about having my new Rolls-Royce painted in the exact same hue? Turns out that's simplicity itself. Innes picks up his iPad and opens one of its apps, before asking me to hold aloft my wrist as he takes a close-up photograph of one of the cufflinks. Just a few seconds later, after a couple of taps to its screen, he shows me a completely lifelike computerised rendering of a Phantom in the desired colour. I'm flabbergasted; it looks quite lovely. Hackett Blue – it'll be all the rage next season, mark my words.
This would have been impossible just a few years ago but technology is now enabling customers to see exactly what their cars will look like once they've – ahem – rolled off the production line. Colour sorted, I decide on a brushed steel bonnet and a silver roof to offset the masses of blue paint. Again, with a few taps of the screen, my car is brought to life. I've already been told that the radiator and its vertical fins are off limits but the Spirit of Ecstasy mascot, which sits on top, can be gold plated, bejewelled, whatever takes my fancy. I'm surprised the famed winged-lady isn't sacrosanct but throw caution to the wind and ask for it to be supplied in gold to contrast the silvery expanse.
Kilty nods in approval – I haven't given him any engineering nightmares today. So we move on to interior appointments, an area where there's more flexibility and greater scope for stamping one's personality on one's car. But there are, as expected, still limitations. I throw a few ridiculous scenarios at them, one of which is that, to sate my wife's hunger for all things Louis Vuitton, I want the leather upholstery to be covered in the ubiquitous LV logo. That'll be a no, then. "When it comes to actual branding, we're quite strict," chips Innes. "The overall experience has to be Rolls-Royce and not another company." I'm glad to hear it.
The Bespoke programme, which exists to take care of all requirements that sidestep the standard selection processes, was set up to ensure that owners don't feel the need to go elsewhere for their customisation kicks. "When anyone sees one of our cars," adds Kilty, "they judge our company by what they see, and we'd like to control that as much as possible. Obviously, once a car has been handed over to a new owner they are free to do whatever they want with it [which goes to explain some of the more dubious examples seen at aftermarket tuning shows] but hopefully we can steer our clients in a direction that does not conflict with our sensibilities as a manufacturer."
Back to my own car. I have a family coat of arms that consists of two crossed axes. Can I please have it stitched into the headrests and incorporated, in gold leaf, into the wooden door cappings? Absolutely. And I can have it stitched on to the lambswool rugs if I want, too. However, as Kilty warns, taking this too far could have a negative impact on the residual value of my car when it comes to selling it on.
"When you make a car that personal, we advise that you keep it to the parts that can be replaced with something standard. If you stick to things like the door cappings, headrests, metal tread plates and rugs, these can all be simply replaced before the car changes hands."
Spread before me are hundreds of swatches. Leather and wool samples, sections of wood marquetry – the attention to detail and the sheer craftsmanship on display takes the breath away. Mass production this is not – it's entirely deserving of the Bespoke tag and a number of region-specific examples are on show, just to demonstrate what's possible. Like the leather that's stitched with an intricate design with a palm tree and two crossed Arabian swords. "One customer wanted his helicopter trimmed in the same way as his car," says Innes. "So we supplied him with the computerised design so he could have his upholsterers could take care of it. We like to help out whenever possible."
I choose navy wool carpeting and a grey fine-grained leather for the seats and roof lining. Innes agrees with me that it's a safer option than something too light, which could look grubby after a time. The headrests are shown to be stitched in the same blue as the carpets, with the two Rs that form one of Rolls-Royce's trademarks because, today at least, I can't lay my hands on the Hackett coat of arms. Evidently one should arrive fully prepared.
One of my old cars – a Daimler Sovereign – had a walnut veneer to its splendid dashboard that had aged beautifully over the years. I want the same lustrous timber with the same gorgeous patina for my Phantom's dashboard and door cappings but I don't want to wait decades for it to mellow sufficiently. Again, not a problem. "We have sources of sustainable timber all over the world," Innes says. "If you want a specific look, we can make it happen."
Has my personality been reflected in my choices? I think so. I'm a traditionalist and averse to taking unnecessary risks, but I do like to have the occasional something that nobody else owns. The Hackett Blue paint, if nothing else, will set my car apart as unique. As will the stitched headrests. And if you like the colour, I'll loan you a cufflink. Like Rolls-Royce, I like to help out whenever possible.