Who would ever have imagined it? An electric Rolls-Royce. A decade ago, the very idea would have been preposterous and less so because of the technological shortfall. Rather, Rolls-Royce’s reputation for building beasts seemed ill-suited to the softly spoken, typically underpowered, slightly fey world of the eco car. Its current flagship model, the Phantom, is a 19ft-long, 6.5ft-wide, 6.7-litre gas guzzler, a veritable gentleman’s club chair on wheels that divided Rolls-Royce enthusiasts with its aggressive Lady Penelope excess. But then came the 102EX, the fully electric Phantom, and a testament to how the company is thinking anew after recent decades. Some critics have suggested that it represents a slide towards the mundane.
“It is more an exploration of what our clients think about a more environmentally friendly engine,” counters Torsten Müller-Ötvös, the man in charge at Rolls-Royce Motor Cars, the fastest-rising executive at BMW Group (which owns Rolls-Royce) and the man who oversaw the exceptionally successful rebirth of the Mini for it too. “Clearly we need to make a proper decision on that if we need to go down the route of producing alternative drive trains, which could be diesel, electric or a hybrid, but it has to be right for the brand and our customers. It’s less about whether they really want it so much as responding to the changes in legal issues in certain countries that might encourage them to look into the area. Get it right though and I think there’s definitely a market there.”
It is that kind of thinking that, like it or not, Rolls-Royce has benefited from in German ownership. BMW, Müller-Ötvös says, risking opprobrium from the overly patriotic, re-awakened “engineering competence, manufacturing competence and the latest in manufacturing technology to get the quality that Rolls-Royce customers expect and what we have to deliver”.
That said, he is keen to stress that the cars remain essentially British — some 80 percent of employees are British, all the craftsmen are British, the cars are made in Goodwood in the UK and all this remains a great overseas selling point. Indeed, it was the new owner that pushed for (again, controversially among Roller enthusiasts) the launch of the Ghost, a less stately, more everyday Rolls-Royce, if, like the electric Phantom, such a thing is conceivable. And, indeed, it has been a huge hit for the company, with 80 percent of buyers not only much younger than the typical Rolls-Royce customer, but also first-time buyers of the brand. It has helped power a striking return to rude health for Rolls-Royce, with last year seeing record year-on-year sales growth of 171 percent, with sales of 2,711 cars, more than double the previous record set in 2008.
“The Ghost hasn’t been about taking business away from other car brands. To be honest, a lot of our customers already have several cars in their garage from several different companies,” says Müller-Ötvös. “But it is a reflection of a change of philosophy for the company: it’s less ostentatious and I think that will be a key part of what Rolls-Royce is about in the future. The Phantom, of course, is a statement. It’s often chauffeur-driven, for example. But we also recognise with the Ghost that there was a need for more of a driver’s car, something more subtle.”
Müller-Ötvös stresses, however, that at around £165,000, he doesn’t foresee Rolls-Royce producing anything cheaper than the Ghost. That’s in part, he says, because it would be to run counter to prevailing trends for a return of consumer confidence and renewed interest in luxury products, but also because any change at a brand as tradition- and heritage-bound as Rolls-Royce needs to be gentle and slow. ”It has to be step by step,” he says. “There’s been talk of launching a more affordable car but I don’t think that would be right. Our intention is to be very, very highly exclusive. And there’s still no one around the world selling more cars in that segment than Rolls-Royce. You wouldn’t want to see a Rolls-Royce on the corner of every street. We’d lose that exclusivity overnight.”
Heritage can also be a tricky animal to handle. Rolls-Royce has, over a century or more, defined a distinctive look that its fan base, old and new, expects to see. It might be argued that the Rolls-Royce brand is so definitive as to restrict more adventurous styling possibilities. “Certainly Rolls-Royce motor cars should incorporate design cues that can be traced through the model generations. The coach doors, long rear overhang and two-to-one wheel-to-body height immediately distinguish a Rolls-Royce and provide an elegant framework for each model,” explains Giles Taylor, who has recently been appointed as head of design. “But it’s imperative to remain true to the core principles of our forefathers, Sir Henry Royce and Charles Rolls, too. That’s a privilege we hold in high regard, rather than a restriction. With their guiding principles to ‘strive for perfection in everything you do’, we are working in line with our personal values.
“Inspiration comes in a host of different areas from vehicle and aviation heritage, architecture and an appreciation of design classics outside the field of motor cars,” Taylor adds. “Personally, I’m particularly inspired by the best in British automotive design: well-proportioned, elegant and principled models, with tastefully executed details that don’t detract from the line, or stance of the car. After all, a Rolls-Royce is a luxury car like no other. It goes beyond being a machine and serves as part of a client’s collection of the finest jewellery, prized art and luxurious estates.”
Indeed, Müller-Ötvös, perhaps more ready than Taylor to bring the subject back around to money, goes further still. Rolls-Royce ownership might be to buy into automotive history, into a certain look, into Great Britishness, even into status expression, of a kind perhaps out of keeping with the times, depending on your view. But it is also to buy into good old-fashioned value, he argues. “These cars are also an investment,” he says, “because in the end it’s all about build quality and when you see the precision put into the engineering, into all the detail, from the leather to the wood, you come away knowing why the cars are at the price level they’re at.”
THE PHANTOM SERIES II
Last year’s Geneva Motor Show saw the unveiling of the Phantom Series II. It’s the Phantom, launched in 2003, updated. As Müller-Ötvös says: the cars may be “timeless in their appeal, but technology moves rapidly and we can’t afford to stand still”. So, in comes LED lighting, making Rolls-Royce the first company to use it as standard on a production car; not to mention LED lighting with electronically controlled reflectors, which ensure the lights stay on the direction of travel while going round a bend, not just straight ahead. There is new driver-assist technology too, with 3D satellite navigation. And, under the bonnet, a new eight-speed automatic gearbox and rear differential, perking up the V12 direct injection engine just a little bit more, but actually giving 10 percent better fuel efficiency and lower emissions. The Series II is the next step on for the Phantom, from the Drophead Coupé of 2007 and the Phantom Coupé of 2008, and cements this giant of a car as Rolls-Royce's flagship model. At the 2013 Geneva Motor Show on March 5, meanwhile, the company will be unveiling its new V12 two-door coupe, the Wraith — “the most powerful Rolls-Royce that has ever played host to the famous Spirit of Ecstasy figurine,” according to Müller-Ötvös.