When BMW bought rights to the Rolls-Royce name around the turn of this century, they inherited rights to the evocative Spirit of Ecstasy hood ornament, the legendary pantheon grille, and a licence to use the revered ‘RR’ logo. What they didn’t inherit, however, was a plant, a workforce, or any existing designs whatsoever! Suffice to say they had to start from scratch – and that meant, first of all, a Greenfield manufacturing facility.
At BMW headquarters in Bavaria, they understood very quickly that in order for the resurrection of Rolls-Royce to be successful, it had to remain, essentially, a British company. And that’s why Goodwood was chosen as the new home of Rolls-Royce.
Rolls-Royce is unique as a subsidiary of BMW, in the sense that they have their own head-office and manufacturing facility all under one roof, as well as their own Board of Directors. As Andrew Ball, Corporate Communications Manager, Rolls-Royce Motor Cars Limited, said, “We benefit hugely from having BMW as a parent, but we have an autonomous business here. What’s nice is that people get the BMW link – we don’t hide it, we celebrate it.”
About 20% of the components on a Rolls are made by BMW. For instance, when we first tested the Ghost some time ago we noticed that the upper A-arm of the front suspension was stamped by BMW. But Andrew says that BMW components consist mostly of the electronics and other components that are under the skin – any part that a customer touches, feels, or sniffs is purely Rolls-Royce.
So, we went to the Rolls-Royce factory in Goodwood, about two hours South of London, to verify his claim. Lord March, on whose estate the Rolls-Royce factory is built, has a well known passion for speed. The Goodwood Festival of Speed is perhaps the world’s most exclusive, yet accessible, annual gathering (and speed run) of vintage racing cars and bikes, while Glorious Goodwood is one of the most famous horse races in the world. And you get the sense that Rolls-Royce fits in very nicely in this environment, nestled in the rolling hills of Chichester in Southampton – amongst the historic Goodwood Motor Racing circuit & Race Course, and adjoining a National Park. And so, what strikes you most as you drive to the factory is the natural beauty of the plant itself, and its surroundings.
Rolls-Royce occupies 42 acres of Lord March’s estate, but the actual buildings only make up a fifth of that space – the rest is manicured gardens and a lake. In fact, when BMW moved in, the first thing they did was plant half-a-million trees no less! And Andrew says that because of the way the factory’s been built there are more plants and animals on the site now than before when it was just a field. Ordinarily, when you think of a factory, you think of an assembly line, big machines, and an overdose of fluorescent white light. Well, here, it’s just the opposite – there’s talk mostly of plants, animals, and lots of natural light.
The Rolls-Royce factory also has the largest living roof in the UK, which means that the foliage on the ground is mirrored on the roof. And the reasons for that are several, not the least of which is that the factory virtually blends into the landscape when viewed from the hills above. Plus, it’s great for insulation, as it keeps the building cool in summer and warm in winter. It also houses a water harvesting process. “If you walk on the roof, it’s very deceiving! It appears to go into the landscape, so you actually have to wear a harness – otherwise you would literally just walk off the edge,” says Andrew.
The building itself looks very contemporary. It’s been designed in such a way that it lets in a lot of light, which in turn reduces the demands on energy. There are photoreactive cells on the roof, which adjust the louvers on all sides of the building based on the time of day and angle of the sun. The entire factory, in fact, is incredibly modern – to the extent that you can’t help but notice that there isn’t a single historic Rolls-Royce model on the premises at all. This is not to say that the company doesn’t value its history – as you walk into the main entrance, through a tree-lined path, there’s a glass plaque that reads, “Strive for perfection in everything you do. Take the best that exists and make it better. When it does not exist, design it,” which is a very famous quote from Sir Henry Royce. And that’s still very much the ethos of Rolls-Royce.
Every component on the factory floor is a work of art – right from the (massive) engines and transmissions to every nut and bolt that goes into the car. The body-shells and engines are the two main components that come from Germany. But, as Andrew points out, the engines are built in Munich by Rolls-Royce engineers, and you would never see the engine in a BMW. Moreover, the V12 in both the Phantom and the Ghost is very much in keeping with the character of a Rolls, which means a relentless surge at the low-end resulting from three-quarters of the engines torque being accessible from just 1000rpm. And, having driven both cars, I can attest to the incredible powertrain that causes both the Phantom and the slightly smaller, yet still massive, Ghost to shrink around the driver in a way that you simply wouldn’t imagine possible.
Both the Phantom and Ghost have their own assembly lines in the factory – with the Ghost having a flurry of activity in relative terms. But, like the landscape outside, the inside of the factory is incredibly calm and serene – it’s simply unlike any factory that you’ve ever visited before. Virtually everything is done by hand, and it’s a completely dust-free, and practically noise-free, environment. There are only two robots in the whole plant, and they’re in the paint shop. But even in the paint process, the body-shell is hand finished between each coat of paint, and it’s polished for an entire day before the car leaves the factory.
And while the cars use the latest technology, the manner in which it’s incorporated is uniquely Rolls-Royce. For instance, a wiring loom install in a Mini, which is also owned by BMW, would take anywhere from 60-90 seconds. In a Phantom, that process would take up to 90 minutes, while in a Ghost it would take 60. And each process is painstakingly and perfectly performed by a surprisingly young workforce with an average age of just 34 – 20% of whom are women.
There are examples everywhere of the skill and attention to detail that goes into building the finest automobiles in the world – adding the veneer, for instance, is a process of layering that includes putting it in a sauna room in order to bend it around corners. The process of checking parts is no less intense as well. For instance, the seats are checked in a purpose built acoustics booth to ensure that the seat motors sounds just right. Once you’ve seen this level of detail, you get some sense of why people pay such vast sums of money for such extraordinary engineering.
What you also get is absolute personalization. The bespoke options on a Phantom especially are endless – some of the cars I saw at the factory were lime green inside and out, others were purple on the outside and pink on the inside with silk armrests – which is not to say that there weren’t also more elegant cars in traditional combinations such as black-on-black. As Andrew puts it, “We can do anything for the customer. Cash isn’t the issue. The only time we can’t do it is when it can’t be done in engineering terms.” He also points out that more-and-more customers are making a trip to the factory to personally inspect their cars being built – you see, all the cars coming off the assembly line are already spoken for.
Andrew mentioned that when Rolls-Royce was first moving to Goodwood, there was a lot of concern about having a car factory in the midst of these pristine surroundings. Now, the local tourist guides describe the area as the home of Rolls-Royce, and housing companies promote their properties by claiming they’re a stone’s throw away from the factory – and that gives you some sense of the beauty of the facility and the strength of the RR brand.
As I was walking out of the factory, I came upon a black, extended wheelbase Phantom that’s used to ferry Board members to-and-from London. “I have a smile on my face every morning when I get in the car – I’m a lucky man to drive the best car in the world,” exclaimed the driver. And once you’ve seen how these cars are actually made, and the incredible facility in which they’re built, you can’t but agree that they really are the best cars in the world.
You may think that Rolls-Royce, because of its extraordinary history, would be held captive by tradition. But they’re actually able to take the best attributes from their glorious past and incorporate them in the most modern and contemporary way possible – and that’s the essence of the brand today. So, it’s only fitting that the Goodwood factory, both inside and out, is tranquil and beautiful – much like the plush confines of a Rolls-Royce cabin.