Rolls-Royce: the Lady Learns to Fly Again

by Michael Wynn-Williams. Used by permission.

In the austere expanse of the reception hall at the new home of Rolls-Royce Motor Cars in Goodwood there are two cars on display. The first is the new Phantom, as massive, and some think as beautiful, as an oil tanker. Its rear and flanks have been sculpted to be reminiscent of the classic Rolls-Royces, all grace and empire, but the front has as much charm as a jack-boot in the face. Atop the huge, chromed mantelpiece grill stands the Spirit of Ecstasy mascot, an angel tip-toeing into flight.

On the other side of the hall stands a classic Rolls-Royce, another Phantom, but this time from the classic pre-war period. The styling is graceful yet restrained, almost to the point of being humility. In those days you would need to have travelled to Germany to witness arrogance in automotive styling. This regal Rolls-Royce also takes its place in the lineage, it is a Phantom III, while the new car simply announces itself as the Phantom, presumably the one to rule the others. The tall, aristochratic chrome grill of the old car is proudly displayed as well, but then this was typical for that era. The most unusual feature of this car, though, is the mascot: uniquely, this lady is attempting to take flight from a half-kneeling position. As a symbol of Rolls-Royce one muses whether the old mascot would be more suited to the modern car.

The story of the death of the British motor industry has been repeated so many times it amounts to national self-flagellation. What survives is foreign owned, mostly by the Americans, but now more shamefully the Germans have moved in. At least the Japanese were diplomatic enough to come in under their own name and spare us the humiliation of surrender. The Germans have gone for the coup de grace and put the aristocracy of our industry to the sword. First Bentley fell to VW, then Rolls-Royce was carried off by BMW.  We let Rolls-Royce go almost without a struggle, too punch-drunk to raise our fists even in self-defence. We simply raised the white flag and the lady was brought to her knees.

Nothing is left of the old Rolls-Royce, maker of the finest cars in the world, the company that powered the Spitfire to hold back the Nazis. Since BMW have bought the rights to the name they can do what they want with her. Nothing relates to the old company, the new one is over two hundred miles from the previous home in Crewe. The workforce has been recruited from the local Chichester area, many from the yacht building industry. The new factory is modern, stylish and environmental, yet antiseptic and without soul. The old brick sheds in Crewe seem to be a century away, which, literally, they are. The old company went into abeyance in 1998, in the joint care of the German giants BMW and VW, and was relaunched in 2003 under the sole ownership of BMW. A new car, a new factory, a whole new air of Teutonic confidence. 

There are cynics. First there is the styling, once described as what the Germans think the Americans want an exclusive British car to look like. This explains the graceful rear quarter (British), the gigantic wheels (German), and that monstrosity of a grill (American). Apparently the designers worked in an old bank near Hyde Park in order to absorb the ambience of the super-luxury market. Judging by the result they took most of their notes walking round Harrods. The team has now decamped to California, so expect to see a cross between a yacht and a Cadillac convertible. Well Good Lord, here it comes now, the 100EX that took the Geneva Motor show by storm. It is unlikely to be made, but if it were the price would stupefy even the fabulously wealthy new Phantom buyers. This was the other factor that staggered the cynics: £250,000 for the ‘base’ Phantom. This takes the marque into a league neither it, nor anyone else, has been before.

This is not the way Henry Royce intended it. He was an obsessive engineer striving for perfection, and if the best could not be found then he designed it. Whether out of pride or humility, his business card read, “Henry Royce, Mechanic.” The bodywork was only ever to clothe the oily parts and always left to outside coachbuilders. Charles Rolls provided the financial backing, a well-heeled benefactor who rarely interfered. Henry Royce gave the car its heart, a heart that has been lately skewered with German steel. The original cars were styled according to customer requirements, and priced according to superior engineering quality. The new cars are all about a vainglorious ambition for excess. 

The cynics suggest that this is due to an unseemly personal test of manhood between Juergen Schrempp of DaimlerChrysler (Mercedes-Benz), and Joachim Milberg of BMW. Rolls-Royce had been courted for some time by BMW, who had provided a lot of help to the British company on the Seraph range and even supplied the engines for a while. When Rolls-Royce was put up for sale by the British owners, Vickers, Mercedes briefly dallied with the idea of buying Rolls-Royce before VW made a dramatic dawn raid. VW caught BMW asleep at the wheel and almost won the race for the British firm but were stunned when they found they had only bought the rights to the cars, the factory in Crewe, and the Bentley name, but not the rights to the Rolls-Royce name. This was owned by Rolls-Royce PLC, the aero-engine manufacturer, and they sold it in cold blood to BMW who were their partners in a jet engine project. BMW had their victory, but without the factory or the cars they were compelled to start from scratch. Mercedes taunted BMW with their own super luxury car, later giving it the historic Maybach name, and this may have pushed BMW up market and to the Phantom we see today. 

Despite assertions that the two marques are opening new markets for themselves, these kinds of super-luxury cars have existed before and they have always failed. The beautiful and tragic Bugatti Royale of 1927 is the classic case, of which only six were ever made. Mercedes have experienced this themselves with their 600, which they made from 1963 to 1981, yet managed to sell barely two and a half thousand in all that time. Their peak was way back in 1966 when they moved a little over four hundred of them. At that time Rolls-Royce were competing, if one can use such a vulgar term, with their Phantom V and VI, which found stables in less than 1000 stately homes and palaces. This means that for these two leviathans sales averaged about 150 or so a year with the majority going to Mercedes. So if the two companies have this knowledge in their archives, why do they now insist that there is room for both of them cranking out over a thousand a year without treading on each others toes? 

It is possible that BMW have fallen into a trap set for them by Mercedes Benz. The suspicion is that Mercedes knew that it could not be done and are luring their rivals into wasting millions on an automotive anachronism. Mercedes chose to base the Maybach on their current S Class and manufacture it at an existing facility. They also knew that to keep up BMW would have to start with a clean sheet design and a brand new final assembly hall in England, far from Germany where most of the component production would take place. The more Mercedes pushed the image of their super luxury model into the stratosphere the more BMW would be forced to follow. All this talk about the super rich having had nothing to spend their money on before is simply talk, as Mercedes learnt with the 600. The point is that the super rich find that a Range Rover or a Mercedes Benz S class says all the right things about your company chairmanship or country estate pretensions. If you want automotive jewels you can buy a top end sports car like a limited edition Ferrari or an old classic but either way you are seeking a guarantee of exclusivity over a realistic increase in quality. McLaren thought their F1 to the pinnacle of sports car excellence so that demand would keep it in continuous production, only to discover that they could not even sell a hundred, albeit at over £600,000 a pop. 

Think of it this way: if you are doing quite nicely you buy a little cottage in the Yorkshire Dales, and when you are doing better you buy a gites in the French Alps. However, when you really hit the big time, you do not buy a cottage with twenty quaint little rooms each with their own roaring log fire. You cannot simply scale up your dreams so instead you move on to a whole new kind of fantasy and buy a cold, leaky old baronial mansion in the Scottish Highlands. With cars you reach your limit with an S Class or a Range Rover at around £100,000. For sports cars like Ferrari the price can go higher but the market is very limited and they are more objet d’art than car. Above this level you start looking at helicopters and such, which even when priced at the million mark are noisy, flimsy and dangerous. Crucially, though, you have moved your dream on to a new, higher level, along with that crumbling old pile in Scotland. 

Of course this gives us a peculiar kind of schadenfreude, a word the Germans gave us and one we can now beat them with. BMW have sunk millions into this country propping up a prehistoric marque that will bleed them dry. Then perhaps when BMW have exhausted their funds we can step in and snatch back our heritage, making a better go of it because we and Rolls-Royce are of the same aristocratic bloodline. It is all so deliciously reminiscent of that Battle of Britain moment, holding down the Hun and then driving him back into his hole in the ground.

Which, come to think of it, was about the same time that we started to make a complete mess of our country. BMW is not victorious in defeating Rolls-Royce since we did a pretty good job of doing that ourselves. For some bizarre reason, while the Germans believe in producing quality cars in large numbers, in Britain we seem to think that well-made products are a luxury that should be reserved for the upper echelons of society. We take it as a matter of pride that so few Rolls-Royces were made, as if the lack of popularity, and the inability to make them in decent numbers, are somehow synonymous with success. A new Rolls-Royce costs as much to develop as any car, but with low sales bringing low revenues, even in that price range there were never enough funds for future investment. By the 1980s the company was reduced to selling kitsch parodies of British luxury to Americans and Arabs of dubious taste. In the end, lack of sales were the only exclusive thing about Rolls-Royces, quality having long been surpassed by the Germans. In the same vein we see Concorde as the pinnacle of our national engineering talent when in fact it buried our aeronautical industry in a field outside Paris. Odd to think that the beautiful bird was powered by Rolls-Royce.

So if the lady who symbolises our finest automotive achievement is seen to be on her knees, it is the British who reduced her to this. The Germans are simply seeing the potential of our ideas but rescuing us from our inability to capitalise on them. BMW admires Rolls-Royce for the history of engineering excellence, not for its quaint English charm, and to our shame they are now nurturing this. We have been bashing the Boche for stealing our birthright, but we should reserve the biggest slaps for ourselves and then let the matter rest. The truth is that we actually make excellent partners, the Germans and us. Rather than obsess about our pathetic record with cars let us concentrate on the real Rolls-Royce, the one that made the Merlin engine for the Spitfire and now stands proud as one of the world’s big three aircraft engine manufacturers. Separated from the comparatively minuscule motor car operation at the time of the 1972 bankruptcy it has partnered BMW on small jet engines since the 1980s. BMW realised that it could not compete on its own, folded its side of the business in with the British and received the rights to the brand for motor car use in return. Rolls-Royce PLC make aero-engines that are the envy of the world, often closing single deals that are worth more than the entire motor car operation. All BMW have done is take over as custodians of the old car heritage, one so firmly rooted in British soil that they could never take it away from us. We should celebrate BMW’s pride in our heritage and toast Rolls-Royce Motor Cars as the symbol of our common appreciation of excellence.

Copyright © 2003-2005 Michael Wynn-Williams.