Valuing craft: The story of Rolls-Royce

Everyday objects have little personality, their origins are vague, their narrative almost non-existent. In a world saturated with commoditised, bland and homogenised mass produced products, hand built objects naturally have added value.

We have almost come full circle, retuning to some of the ideology raised in the late nineteen, early twentieth-century before the commodity boom when thinkers, artists and designer used the art of craft to give objects the soul that was progressively being stripped away by mechanised industrial processes.

At Goodwood, the home of Rolls-Royce Motor Cars, artisans virtually hand build cars to fulfil their elite customers’ wishes. In this idyllic spot, amongst the green rolling hills of the West Sussex English countryside, cars are being made to measure, painstakingly handcrafted and, crucially, not at all in a hurry. And, off course, the end products come at a seriously premium price.

‘Every car has to be bespoke and unique, and have the fingerprints of the customer,’ says Torsten Müller-Ötvös. ‘You could never achieve this with a fully automated factory. We always say there are 60 pairs of hands that work on each car from start to finish to make sure they are immaculate,’ notes the Rolls-Royce chief executive officer who joined the marque over a year ago.

We are here to visit the manufacturing site and meet these skilled crafts people. Designed by British architect Nicholas Grimshaw, the ecologically sympathetic site almost blends into its surrounding land, where Rolls-Royce has resided since 2003 when the marque was purchased by BMW and relocated from the former premise it shared with Bentley in Crew.

To understand the workings of Rolls-Royce is to grasp what the marque stands for. Long ago it decided to remove itself from the performance luxury car-making race. Now its mission is simply to make very niche, very bespoke and very, very luxurious cars.

The Phantom is the ultimate Rolls, the pinnacle of the marque, and around 85 percent are ordered highly bespoke. Customers – clients as they are referred to – travel from far and beyond to visit the Goodwood site, meet with the bespoke designers and specify their ultimate dream car. Some return to see it born, visiting the various workshops, perhaps revisiting months later to see the car roll off the production line.

Rolls-Royce cars have a narrative. The materials used inside the luxurious cabins, the abundance of wood and leather, even the sheepskin that adorns the floor is sourced individually, and as much as possible locally. The result is that the notes are almost perfect and there is an appreciation of the quality of light, proportion and material throughout these cars.

‘You need the passion of the people – this is what drives the quality in the end,’ says Müller-Ötvös. ‘Talk to the guys and you will see how they love the cars and care for the results. Some of them are passing on their unique skills to their children and we’re developing our own apprenticeship programme here.’

Having visited many fully automated car factories throughout the world, it is clear that the set-up at Goodwood is entirely different. Yes there is some automation but the bulk of work is predominantly carried out by hand.

Our first stop is the wood shop where skilled men and women – including a local boat maker and a cabinet maker – are busy at their stations working meticulously on creating the perfect wood veneers that have been specified by customers.

Forty or so solid wooden parts find their way into the interior of a Rolls and each part is hand finished. They are sourced from a variety of trees – walnut, oak, elm – and each tree is visited and inspected by specialists before it is purchased.

These veneers are made using a traditional technique called book-matching – cut from the same piece of wood, they are stitched together using a special glue so to match the grain, and each side is a mirror image of the other. Plus all parts in one car are unique to the family of wood. The Ghost gets some degree of modern manufacturing process.

However, what is most noticeable whilst witnessing the veneer-making process is the pace – it takes almost 60 minutes for a single cycle to complete here as opposed to seconds in other manufacturing sites.

Our next stop is the leather shop. All the leather that finds its way into a Rolls is of natural grain and from the bull, and not just any old bull but ones that are reared in Western Europe in closed environments – such as at German supplier Seton – to make sure the skin remains flawless.

The bull also offers a large expanse and it can take as many as 18 hides to make the seats, panels and consoles. Each piece of leather then undergoes detailed inspection to ensure it has absolutely no flaws before it goes anywhere near a Rolls.

Colour options are infinite as are embroidery and tattoo work for a truly personal touch. Some customers specify other skins namely alligator hide or silk blend mixes but as they are more delicate they are typically used in conjunction with leather.

For the 102EX trial electric trial car, launched recently to gauge customer reaction, the interior was designed using recycled leather and natural dyes, the stitching prominent to create a very unique interior ambiance for a very different message.

We sit down with Müller-Ötvös in the personalisation room following the tour. I put to him how far is he willing to expand the model range? ‘Our intention is not to go into Bentley production numbers,’ he says, adding passionately: ‘Rolls-Royce needs to remain highly, highly exclusive and we certainly don’t want see a Rolls-Royce at every single street corner. These cars are so rare that they are perceived as being very special.’

Nevertheless the carmaker has expanded its model range to include a smaller, more driver-orientated Ghost. Around 80 percent of Ghost buyers are new to the marque, and Rolls-Royce is looking into creating derivatives of this model.

Incidentally, we drove the car a little wile ago, in mid-winter as the country was covered in a thick layer of snow. The cabin proved to be the perfect refuge – beautifully presented, the dash a wink to the glamourous films of Cary Grant (think To Catch a Thief), the atmosphere  cosy, the sheepskin rug underneath our feet soft and comforting.

In terms of attracting younger buyers Müller-Ötvös says: ‘We are working to speak with younger people through Facebook and iPhone apps such as our Phantom Configurator, not to attract them necessarily to the brand but to keep it relevant and to tell our story.’

This is clearly not the world dreamt up by William Morris & Co at the start of the last century. But nevertheless despite the lack of accessibility of these beautifully crafted objects, it is still a delight to see a car manufacturer working in this manner. On our tour we encountered younger technicians on apprenticeship programmes whose dream had been to make Rolls-Royce cars. This just added to the nostalgia of this journey.

Only around 2,700 new Rolls-Royces were sold last year which naturally adds to its exclusivity of the marque. Much like haute couture’s role in fashion, these are the ultimate in luxury and perhaps there will also always be a spot for cars like the Phantom in the world of the automobile.

Read my interview with Rolls-Royce’s chief executive officer Torsten Müller-Ötvös as published in Wallpaper*.

Nargess Shahmanesh Banks

We found this video on YouTube taken a few years ago that captures the workings at Rolls-Royce.

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