Steven McCombe talks to the talented and detail-orientated people at Rolls-Royce's Bespoke department.
Suits you, sir: Rolls-Royce is the luxury car that comes tailor-made
So you're a successful businessman who has done well for himself and is proud of the fact. You've worked hard to get where you are and you deserve a bit of comfort; after all, you've earned it. You want to travel in style but you also want to make a bold statement, as you're unashamedly successful.
Wealthy businessman, say hello to Rolls-Royce, the only car company in the world that's capable of satisfying your automotive needs. You see, for the hugely successful, it isn't enough to merely possess a Rolls-Royce. Pioneers and captains of industry are the types to demand more - more comfort, more luxury and, crucially for Rolls, more personalisation.
From the murky ownership quarrels between BMW and Volkswagen in the late 1990s, Rolls-Royce emerged, in 2003, as a rejuvenated car company. It launched the Phantom and, very soon after, its Bespoke operation followed, which offered a degree of car personalisation that was very much against the grain in this day of mass-market production. But as knowledge grew of these additional services Rolls offered so, too, did the demand. So much so that today, Abu Dhabi Motors' Rolls-Royce showroom sells more Bespoke Ghost models than any other dealership in the world.
"Bespoke exists at the upper echelons of what is already a very niche, low-volume motor manufacturer," says Bespoke designer Alex Innes, who is based in Goodwood, England, but is touring the region with Bespoke sales and communications manager Thomas Jefferson (Yes, he's American; no, he's not a descendant) to promote personalised Rolls-Royces. "People who buy our cars are very comfortable with their success; they're entrepreneurs or pioneers, but the one attribute they all have is that they're successful. They're comfortable with that success. Buying cars like ours is really about celebrating that success."
And when it comes to tailoring, pretty much anything goes, provided it doesn't jeopardise safety, alter engineering integrity, alter design cues or affect the homologation of the car. A video presentation at the showroom revealed cars decked out with tartan lining the entire inside of a boot, a garish purple paint job on an unlucky Ghost model, leather and steel flasks stored in door inserts and even a champagne cooler fridge and glasses in the boot floor.
"We had a customer here that went on to order his helicopter with the same leather and interior finish as his Phantom," says Kadhim Al Helli, the Rolls-Royce brand manager at Abu Dhabi Motors. "We had another customer who made his yacht - interior and exterior - just like his Phantom. And a Bespoke Phantom we created called the Eco was designed to convey the power and beauty of nature through an African colour combination; it was sold to a customer who went on to design his house with the same concept."
With regard to the car itself though, Innes says Rolls-Royce wouldn't sacrifice standards for a request. "If there was a request that would be detrimental to quality, we would refuse. We would exhaust all options trying to implement it but if we thought it wouldn't work, we would decline.Anything we do is tailored for the customer but it never, ever has a detrimental effect on the vehicle."
So what about that dodgy purple paint job then? No surprise that communications chap Jefferson has a ready-made retort. "We're the arbitrators of craftsmanship and design. Taste is personal, beauty is in the eye of the beholder, so who am I to say that a colour scheme isn't attractive?"
Here in the UAE though, things operate a little differently, as Al Helli explains: "It's natural that when you go to buy a car, you want it immediately. We understand that our customers are busy and don't necessarily have the time to create a Bespoke car themselves, so I create them in the knowledge of what Emirati customers would like to see."
It's good to know that Al Helli is also an artist, and he takes creating a car very seriously, spending up to 100 hours on a heavily personalised car, always in communication with his Bespoke colleagues in Goodwood.
For example, a Bespoke Phantom Coupé that's sitting in the Abu Dhabi showroom was created by Al Helli and is called the Mirage. "Each design has a story behind it," Al Helli says. "The Mirage was a famous horse in the 1920s and 1930s that was owned by King Faisal of Iraq and then later by Lady Wentworth, in the UK. It was a strong story and Emiratis like Arab horses, so it made sense.
"I designed it to have the head of a horse on the coachline and headrest. We put a horse shoe on the tread plate for good luck and the exterior finish is a lovely matte black - it's one of only one."
This may appear to take some of the beauty out of creating a truly personal vehicle but, as Al Helli says, most customers are happy to obtain a unique car without the wait. "We have a strong reputation here and I sit with each customer, talk with them then present the right car to them. Most customers trust my judgement because of my background, we help them, and it gives them peace of mind."
For the discerning buyer, you can expect to pay about 10 to 20 per cent on top of the near Dh1 million car price tag for average Bespoke options, such as glovebox embroidery and personalised tread plates, but that would rise to 35 to 40 per cent if it's a bigger project that requires all-new unique features. It's a pricey business, and one that takes time, too.
To build your average Rolls-Royce (if there is such a thing) takes the hands of 60 workmen about 450 hours to complete. A slightly personalised version will take about four months for delivery but, if you go for an utterly unique Bespoke vehicle, you're looking at having to wait between six to eight months.
And that's because the Rolls Bespoke team at Goodwood are such perfectionists. The company employs people with backgrounds in woodwork, cabinet making, leather tanning and from the sewing industry. "When a person wants to work at Rolls-Royce, they're very hands-on, very detail orientated and they take a lot of pride in craftsmanship," says Jefferson. "It's a combination of people who may not necessarily be car people, but they're creative. We have staff from at least 45 different countries, so it's a very diverse, international organisation."
Designer Innes says that, among the workers' tools, are ox and squirrel's tail brushes and that they source leather hides from across northern Europe and wood globally. "It's an idiosyncrasy of the brand, the fine touches that make us unique," explains Innes. "The lengths we go to is borderline obsessional but it's what makes the cars what they are and that's what customers buy into and what we proudly stand behind."