A visit to the ROLLS-ROYCE factory reveals how the legendary marque is embracing its ILLUSTRIOUS PAST while keeping its VISION firmly fixed on the road ahead


No one could claim that a Rolls-Royce is among the most economical or planet-friendly of automobiles, but there’s no denying that the firm has bent over backwards to ensure the way it builds the ‘best cars in the world’ is as kind to the environment as possible.

When the quintessentially British carmaker was acquired by Germany’s BMW in 2002, there was never any question that its manufacturing base would not remain in the UK. And it didn’t take long to decide that it should be sited on land belonging to Lord March’s Goodwood Estate – a place that has become synonymous with the best of motoring, thanks to the remarkable success of its Festival of Speed and Revival events, which attract visitors from around the world.

Starting from scratch meant the factory could be built to the highest specifications, to make it not only a pleasant place in which to work, but as efficient and ecologically sound as possible. To that end, leading architect Sir Nicholas Grimshaw – whose talents have touched everything from the Eden Project to the restoration of the Cutty Sark, from Lord’s Cricket Ground to the National Space Centre in Leicester – was commissioned to design the state-of-the-art space on a 42-acre site with a budget of £65m.

The resulting factory, which opened in 2003, is built two metres below ground level. Its eight-acre ‘living roof’ covered with sedum plants is the largest such structure in the country and helps to further blend the building into its verdant surroundings while also, unexpectedly, providing a home for numerous pairs of skylarks.

Limestone and cedar-wood cladding offers thermal insulating properties and helps the aesthetics, while a vast wall of glass alongside the assembly area reduces the need for artificial lighting and allows visitors to see the cars being proudly and meticulously assembled. There’s even a reed-bed lake that supplies recycled water to heat and cool the factory, while a system of opening timber panels activated by a rooftop weather station automatically opens or closes according to the lighting conditions.

On top of that, the factory recycles more than 60% of its waste, with surplus wood from its cars’ famous veneered interiors being donated to a local furniture-making charity, and sumptuous leather offcuts going to the shoemaking industry.

In contrast to the high-tech nature of the building, the actual construction of the cars is carried out in time-honoured tradition – by hand. As a result, you won’t see robots whirring about the Goodwood factory or conveyor belts carrying cars from one job to the next; instead, they are moved manually, in the same way almost every other task connected to their creation is carried out.

Such hand-craftsmanship is what people expect from Rolls-Royce and, ever since the first example took to the roads back in 1904, the marque has been renowned for its dedication to the bespoke. Indeed, for the first five decades, no two ‘Royces’ were alike – they left the original Derby factory in the form of a naked ‘rolling chassis’ for which owners would commission their own hand-built bodywork and individual interiors.

The Silver Dawn of 1949 was the first car to be built entirely in-house by Rolls-Royce, with the higher-volume unitary-construction models such as the Silver Cloud and Silver Shadow finally superseding the coach-built era by the 1960s. However, even with the arrival of uniform body styles, the importance of individuality has remained key to the Rolls-Royce philosophy.

The company has moved with the times in that respect, of course, and does employ certain modern methods at Goodwood in an attempt to satisfy even the most unusual whims of its clientele – not least when it comes to the important matter of paintwork, which is applied in what is known as the surface-finishing centre.

It’s relatively common, we’re told, for female buyers to request a colour exactly the same as a favourite lipstick or nail varnish. To be sure of a perfect match, an electronic scanner is used to create a barcode, which is then fed into a computerised paint-mixing machine and, voilà, Madam’s Phantom duly emerges with its bodywork clad in Chanel ‘Jade Rose’ or L’Oréal ‘Lush Tangerine’.

One woman even requested the precise hue of her Irish Setter dog. The animal was ordered to sit still while it was scanned and, within minutes, its colouring was perfectly replicated in paint.

‘A hand-built Rolls-Royce is a blank canvas on which customers can collaborate with our designers and craftspeople to create a truly individual statement,’ says Gavin Hartley, the marque’s bespoke-design manager. ‘As long as it doesn’t compromise safety, we will happily create a car using anything from wooden trim that has been cut from a client’s own trees to upholstery that matches a favourite suit or dress.’

As one might expect of a car costing upwards of £200,000, the client is (almost) always right – just not in the case of the woman who asked to have a dashboard covered in the pelt of her dead cat. He or she is appointed a Rolls-Royce representative who works with them throughout the production of their masterpiece, which begins to take shape in one of the special ‘bespoke lounges’ found at each of 132 dealerships across the world.

The majority of cars, however, do not remain in the UK. More than 90% are exported, with that truly international popularity of ‘bespoking’ a Rolls Royce being demonstrated in the fulfilment of a request from a Middle Eastern buyer with fond memories of his time as a student in Scotland and his passion for hiking in the Highlands. The result? A special tartan-lined boot with custom-made storage for walking sticks – and a built-in Thermos flask.

For businessman and philanthropist Michael Fux, however, the definition of ‘bespoke’ means a little more than relining your trunk and being able to keep your soup hot. The multimillionaire is one of Rolls-Royce’s keenest customers when it comes to customisation – so much so that he persuaded the company to create the world’s first red carbon-fibre weave with which to trim the dashboard and door tops of his Phantom Drophead. He then specified the invention of a unique ‘candy apple’ paint to exactly match the interior. It was named Fux Candy Red and is now retained exclusively for the use of the car fanatic.

To demonstrate his gratitude to the team that panders to his somewhat unusual requirements, Fux always asks every person who has been involved in the creation of one of his Rolls-Royces to sign the engine in silver marker pen. By hand, of course.

Simon de Burton writes for Esquire and the Financial Times’ How To Spend It

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