I was filling my borrowed Rolls-Royce at the pump when a kid came skateboarding across the gas station parking lot. He did a textbook double take, stumbled off his board, and (almost involuntarily, it seemed) pointed at the car, shouting, "Whoa! That's a Rolls-Royce! Whoa!" as his abandoned skateboard rolled into a fence. You know you've got an evocative brand on your hands when the mere sight of a hood ornament causes people to lose bodily control.
Yet despite a worldwide renown that has never totally faded since the brand’s mid-20th-century heyday, Rolls-Royce hit a very rough patch in the 1990s. The cars it was manufacturing simply weren't up to snuff. "They were using outdated 'yestertech' and weren't keeping up with advances in the automotive industry," says Peter De Lorenzo, editor-in-chief of AutoExtremist.com. "They lost their luster."
In 2013, Rolls will celebrate its 10th anniversary as part of the BMW Group. The turnaround has been dramatic. Rolls had its best ever year in 2011—breaking a unit sales record that had stood since 1978—despite an unsteady global economy. How has the brand regained its place at the forefront of the luxury car buyer's imagination?
It's hit upon a manufacturing approach that marries cutting-edge BMW technology (in the engine, stabilization, and electrical systems) with retro, bespoke Rolls craftsmanship (evident in the construction and finish of exteriors and interiors). "Rolls can draw on BMW's expertise, and it means they aren't having to develop technology on their own, which is so expensive," says Micki Maynard of Jalopnik. "They can focus on what they do best, which is a custom car for a very wealthy buyer."
I asked Rolls to lend me a Ghost (the version I drove costs $352,000, while the higher-end Phantom will set you back even more) to find out whether someone like me—the last car I owned was a 1995 Saturn compact with a broken second gear—could appreciate the artisanal dedication that goes into creating a palace on wheels. And indeed I could. Almost instantly. After the Ghost got dropped off in front of my apartment and I was left on my own, I tried to start up the engine. Turned out it was already running. It was so nearly silent, the vibration so damped, I'd just assumed it was off.
According to Jörg Bause, director of manufacturing for Rolls, acoustic testing is one of his team's specialties. "When the engine is so quiet, you can hear everything, so we need to make sure it's all consistent—that the seat adjustment motors for the driver sound the same as the ones for the passenger, for instance. Once, one of my guys said he thought the noise from the signal indicator"—you might know it as the blinker—"was off, so we investigated. Sure enough, there was a small dent in the aluminum relay that was making it sound a bit different."
In general, Bause says, Rolls plant workers must have "not just attention to detail but love for detail." The average car might get built in 25-30 hours, but a Rolls takes more like 400-450 hours—assuming the customer makes no particularly esoteric requests. A typical car is built 90 percent by robots, but for a Rolls, the ratio is reversed, and humans do more than 90 percent of the work. Each Rolls passes through 60 sets of hands on its way to completion.
Consider the leather shop, which turns the hides of 11 bulls into the interior of a Phantom. The natural grain hides are chosen with absurd care—not from farms in South America, where the bulls' skin might be blemished by energetic roaming and run-ins with barbed-wire fences, but from European farms where they enjoy lives of sloth and ease. Only male animals are used because females' milk production can cause unsightly belly stretch marks.
The leather-painting process uses a coat one-sixth the thickness of that used in other car interiors, to leave the natural grain visible and to eliminate the squeaking that can occur when passengers slide around on more thickly painted seats. Embroiderers will sometimes spend eight hours to get the stitching just right on a custom headrest design. The team handling exterior painting can meet customers' requests to precisely match the hue of a flower or a lipstick. The floor mats are lambswool but appear to have been made from the fur of golden retriever puppies—my passenger felt compelled to take off her shoes and socks and let her feet luxuriate in the downy softness.
There are drawbacks to driving a Rolls. For one thing, I was terrified of scraping that incredible paint job against a parking garage pillar. And sure, I got lots of smiles and thumbs-ups and dyaaaaaaaaamns from pedestrians and fellow motorists. But on those two occasions when I cut other cars off, I could feel the drivers' resentment burning through my embroidered headrest and into the back my skull. (Seems like anyone driving a Rolls faces the burden of proving he's not a rich jerk. "That guy's looking at you like you're Mitt Romney," said my passenger as I maneuvered into a lane ahead of an anonymous domestic sedan.) I mentioned turning a teen's head at a gas station but didn't mention that I needed to fill up because the car only gets 14 mpg.
Of course, all this is sort of beside the point for most folks who might consider buying a Rolls. In terms of the driving and riding experience, everything was impeccable. The union of German engineering and British craftsmanship produces a remarkable automobile. And one that may even have lessons to offer for manufacturers in other wealthy countries.
A major strength of the Rolls brand is its heritage, and to that end BMW kept the company in Britain, building a new British plant that employs British workers. That sense of authenticity is part of what the Rolls-Royce customer is paying for. Granted, this is a company that produces fewer than 4,000 cars a year, not the roughly 9 million of a Toyota. But it suggests one possible future for manufacturing in high-wage regions—a future that could be less about pure speed and productivity and more about tradition, hand assembly, and highest quality materials.