WEST SUSSEX, the United Kingdom—A Rolls-Royce is not your typical car; it certainly doesn’t have a typical price tag. And the automaker’s home in West Sussex – near the cathedral city of Chichester – churns out these rolling masterpieces in a factory that is, appropriately, also not typical.
To start, not many car plants are built on estates owned by a Lord.
If there is another, it’s not on a plot as well-renowned as Lord March’s Goodwood Estate, beloved by motoring enthusiasts as the venue for the annual Goodwood Festival of Speed and Goodwood Revival races.
And while most assembly plants are noisy, with large, square buildings topped by tall soot-spewing chimneys, Rolls-Royce Motor Cars has eschewed all that.
Look up and instead of smokestacks you’ll see towering trees; close your eyes and open your ears and you’ll hear birds chirping.
Typical? It’s anything but.
A bedroom with a view
The story of today’s Rolls-Royces starts in 1998, when German luxury car maker BMW acquired the brand from the Volkswagen Group. At the time, Rolls-Royce was sharing a factory with Bentley – a marque still under the VW umbrella – in Crewe, UK.
The two makes had been building cars under the same roof for decades, since they were jointly owned. Of course the split meant separate manufacturing facilities would be best.
BMW was on the hunt for the ideal new HQ for Rolls-Royce when word came Lord March was interested in leasing a portion of his land for an automotive assembly plant. The opportunity to build cars in Goodwood appealed to many companies, including Nissan. But when the Japanese automaker called, it was told a deal had been signed just 24 hours earlier—with Rolls-Royce.
Site secured, the Lord had some demands: this new factory couldn’t spoil his view of the countryside, as taken in from his bedroom window. When construction began August 24, 2001, contractors started by digging into the ground, to keep the facility low and squat.
To further help the factory blend in, its roof was covered with sedum plants, and around 400,000 plants and trees were plotted all over the tract of land.
Construction was completed in a mind-boggling span of just over a year; and the first production model rolled out the building’s doors January 1, 2003.
Making an emotional purchase
That first customer’s experience would have been breathtaking. As you enter the main gates at Rolls-Royce HQ, you feel a sense of calm – the wondrous nature around you has that effect – but then, as you crest the hill just inside, you’re awestruck by the sight of the facility.
On your left is the hospitality centre, which houses the cafeteria and the offices of most staff – including that of CEO Torsten Muller-Otvos – as well as the delivery suite, where newly minted Rolls-Royce owners meet their car.
Of course, it’s not just sitting there in the suite for you to walk up to; forget pulling back a cover. No: first, you walk into the room, and, if you so desire, approach the bar for a drink and order anything—no request is turned down.
As you take a seat on one of the Fendi couches, the lights dim, you’re enveloped by music, and the curtains are pulled back. This is when you lay your eyes on your new car for the first time. And then of course you react—with a smile, a tear, a chuckle, something you can’t help but feel, in any case.
The purchase of a Rolls-Royce is, after all, an emotional decision. Even the folks working here will tell you no one needs a Rolls-Royce, there is only a want for it. It’s why this factory builds only 20 cars a day, five days a week, and all are pre-sold.
Ticking off option boxes
Before your Rolls can be delivered to you, you have to select a model. Rolls-Royce offers three, based on the same platform: the Ghost sedan (in standard or extended wheelbase); the Wraith coupe; and the Dawn convertible.
Production of the iconic Phantom has come to an end, and the company is working on its replacement. (At HQ, I saw a prototype roll by, but it disappeared before I could take a picture.) Rolls-Royce is also working on a “high-sided vehicle,” an SUV, liable to bow next year.
Model chosen, you’re taken to a suite to choose colour and trim. As you’d expect, you can have your Rolls-Royce in any shade you desire, whether it’s a custom hue or one selected from the firm’s vast paint palette.
Because light affects colour in so many ways, Rolls-Royce provides you a lamp that can simulate the sun’s rays in your part of the world, whether that’s Ottawa or Oman.
The same attention to detail is paid to the interior, where you can choose from many leathers – ostrich, anyone? – and woodgrains. If you’d rather brushed aluminum or carbon-fibre trim, that can be done, too. A special crest? Initials embossed in the trim? It’s all available, for a price.
Where the four hundred man-hours go
Given that a Rolls-Royce requires a substantial investment, a would-be buyer might want to look at how the cars are made. Plant tours are available, but photography inside the plant is not allowed. During my visit, certain areas were covered, I was told because they housed new prototypes and another special vehicle—could Rolls have been hiding the Sweptail from me?
The plant at Goodwood is the only facility where Rolls-Royces are completed; however, the bodies and drivetrains come from Germany. And while the 6.6-litre twin-turbo V12s in current Rolls-Royce models share a lot with the engine in the BMW M760Li, the U.K.-destined units have their own unique parameters, and are built exclusively for the Ghost, Wraith, and Dawn.
Once the body, coated in three layers of primer, arrives at Goodwood, it goes to the paint shop. Five layers of paint – two of which are a high-gloss clear coat – are then subjected to five hours of inspection, followed by five hours of polishing, to get that perfect mirror finish.
Then comes the marriage of the body with the drivetrain, which happens while, elsewhere, seats and panelling are being trimmed for your car. As the car moves forward on the production line, the interior is fitted—including the “starry night” headliner, with LEDs arranged to mimic any constellation you desire, or even the look of the night sky the day you were born.
After the pieces are put together, the car goes on a test run, and then it’s set for you to take home. All in all, over 400 hours are invested in making a single Rolls-Royce—a typical car takes just 10.
Dawn: the long-distance kilometre-eater
But how does it all translate? To find out, I was handed keys to a 2017 Rolls-Royce Dawn, the latest model offered by this 113-year-old company. On the day of my visit – 21 Celsius, with the sun shining and not a cloud in the sky – the drop-top Dawn was perhaps the most ideal vehicle to take in the splendour.
The roads in West Sussex, on the other hand, were not so ideal for a vehicle nearly six-and-a-half-feet wide. Almost as soon as you leave the gate, you’re on narrow English backroads, which often felt too small even for the 2017 MINI Countryman S I drove up in.
Deviating from the navigation to avoid a looming traffic jam, I found some even tighter thoroughfares, where the Dawn really felt out of place. Lesson learned: you can drive a Rolls-Royce Dawn through a busy town center and down narrow country roads, but it’s not advised.
This is a vehicle better suited to covering continents with ease. The Dawn prefers expressways, where its supremely comfortable and quiet cabin lets you just melt away the miles. If you’re looking to cover the Pacific Coast Highway in California; or need to go from Yas Marina in Abu Dhabi to the Palm Jumeirah island in Dubai, the Dawn is a near-perfect a tool for the job.
It also has plenty of grunt, if you need more speed, as its twin-turbocharged 6.6-litre V12 produces 563 hp and 575 lb-ft of torque, enough to hurl you forward at a pace you don’t expect from a Rolls (zero to 100 km/h in 4.9 seconds; top speed electronically limited to 250 km/h).
Its satellite-aided eight-speed ZF automatic gearbox is always doing its best to put you in the right gear and to meet the demands of your right foot. That’s a good thing, since the Dawn does not come with steering wheel-mounted gear shift levers.
However, there are some very good reasons why you shouldn’t drive the Dawn quickly. First, this is a big vehicle (17.34 feet long). This is a heavy vehicle (2,560 kg). Plus its light steering and cushy suspension don’t really inspire high speeds.
If you are going to plant its accelerator pedal into its lush carpeting, try to find some proper tarmac. I did—the twisty bit of roadway that runs by Lord March’s Goodwood House, the stretch used for the hill climb event during the Festival of Speed.
An understanding, an appreciation
It’s not difficult to fall in love with the Dawn, and soon after handing it back, I thought about how to make this car a part of my life on a more permanent basis. To park a Dawn at my house identical to the one I tested, I’d need to come up with $470,000. Plus tax.
That’s certainly not cheap, and it’s far out of the reaches of the masses—but that’s part of its appeal. Some say no car should be worth this much; I say once you see what goes into making a Rolls-Royce, you almost have to appreciate it.
This far from typical, you almost have to wonder, is Rolls-Royce possibly the greatest luxury automotive brand in the world? Having seen the inside of Goodwood, I can answer that for you: You bet.