Rolls Royce leather

Kings of the Road

The bespoke automaker Rolls-Royce takes us under the hood of their Goodwood facility.

Rolls Royce car

Nestled in the lush countryside near England’s southern coastline, Rolls-Royce Motor Cars’ architectural award-winning headquarters are a long way—in every sense—from a regular car factory.  

Located two hours from London, on a 42-acre site on the outskirts of Chichester in West Sussex, the Goodwood plant is a marvel of modernist design, with its glass and steel-columned walls topped with the largest plant-covered “living roof” in the United Kingdom (at about eight acres). Built alongside a large central lake to aid drainage and attract birds, and surrounded by more than 400,000 plants and trees, this thoughtful facility blends effortlessly with the English countryside while also reducing the company’s environmental footprint.  

Opened in 2003 and expanded since, the Goodwood plant houses the design and assembly of all current models of the famous marque. It’s a nameplate that can trace its history back to the early days of motoring in 1904, when engineering genius Henry Royce joined forces with aristocratic entrepreneur Charles Rolls. Their breakthrough Silver Ghost model launched in 1906 was declared the “best car in the world” by Autocar magazine on account of its unrivalled power, quality, refinement and reliability. This superlative has pretty much stuck ever since and the brand has become a byword for the best in any field, as in “the Rolls-Royce of…” Today, the business is still about the pursuit of perfection, selling only 4,107 cars in 2018, the highest annual total in the marque’s 115-year history, and employing 2000-plus staff. But unlike other luxury companies, its headquarters are also a place where customers can discuss their specifications and experience the brand’s craftsmanship firsthand. 

“What makes us different is how the creative process begins,” explains Alex Innes, Rolls-Royce’s head of coachbuild design, within the refined atmosphere of the atelier rooms. Here, swatches of leather, spools of fine thread and examples of exotic wood marquetry are tastefully displayed behind comfortable sofas and meeting tables. “It’s important to understand the definition of bespoke,” Innes continues. “It’s an overused word, but we’re acutely aware of its origin. In Savile Row, when cloth was cut for a specific customer and put to one side, it was ‘to be spoken for.’ That same philosophy serves us today in tailoring these magnificent cars. It starts with the customer.” 

Rolls Royce facility

Given that almost all Rolls-Royces have some bespoke elements, this is no idle boast. “We don’t offer predetermined options,” Innes qualifies. “It really is a blank sheet of paper and we demonstrate that by putting the client in front of the design team, not a salesperson. It brings the process in line with commissioning a super-yacht or building a dream house.” 

Rolls-Royce offers five model lines—the Dawn, the Ghost, the Wraith, the Phantom and most recently the Cullinan luxury SUV—but in 2017 the brand also unveiled a one-off model made for just one customer, the Sweptail. “We think it is the only demonstration of contemporary coachbuilding at that level in the modern age,” says Innes of the four-year project. “Before, the client had done relatively modest commissions by comparison,” Innes recalls. “But we created trust through small steps and then he said he wanted something special and was prepared to be patient. We took inspiration from the golden age of coachbuilding (the 1920s and 30s), beautifully proportioned cars with dramatic rooflines.”  

Rolls Royce

The result is a two-door, two-seater boasting original bodywork that sweeps back to a boat-like tail—thus the name. The Sweptail’s interior is just as impressive, with a light-filled cabin offering storage for bespoke briefcases, a Champagne chiller and an ornate wooden rear ‘hat shelf.’ Chatting with Innes, his enthusiasm, verging on disbelief, at the project’s ambition is tangible: “People often ask what is the most remarkable part about the Sweptail, and I answer, ‘the fact that it exists!’ It was a unique set of circumstances.”  

Even if you don’t want to top what Rolls-Royce’s CEO Torsten Müller-Ötvös concedes was probably “the most expensive car ever built,” all customers get a great service by having the designers, craftspeople and engineers under one roof. “The personal relationship with our clients extends to everyone working on their cars,” Innes clarifies. “We can go to the woodshop and deliberate on how we solve something with the people there. It’s all on one site and we’re afforded a direct exchange which is obvious in the quality of what we’re able to achieve.” 

The woodshop has a humidity room that keeps its various veneers at 77°F (25°C) to make them malleable enough for shaping. Only the most ‘characterful’ veneers are selected—“40 percent are rejected as not interesting enough,” admits bespoke craftsperson John McWilliam—and the 0.02 inch (0.5 mm) thick slices can be sanded thinner so that lights can be set behind them and glow through. But despite the evident artistry, McWilliam, who has a mechanical engineering background, is equally keen to stress these materials’ functional prowess. “It’s an engineered product, not just a piece of wood,” he points out. “The airbag [behind it] still needs to perform.”  

Rolls Royce leather

In another part of the facility Brian Staite, general manager of the leathershop, chooses hides. In all, 473 individual parts are cut for the extended-wheelbase Phantom and only certain sections are deemed appropriate. “For an armrest, flexible leather from the belly is used,” says Staite, “but for the seat we’ll use stronger leather from the backbone area.” Flaws are marked up and avoided to unbelievable levels of precision. To illustrate the point, Staite shows a piece of hide with no obvious top-side issues. Turning it over, he reveals a slight indentation on its underside, which could affect surface smoothness once stretched over a hard part; the piece is therefore rejected. Despite this, Rolls-Royce is no fan of waste, sending leather off-cuts to the fashion and footwear industries and donating unused veneers to a local charity for furniture and other fund-raising products. 

Robots are used in the paint plant, spraying some models with 22 coats, colour-matched to any reference a client desires (samples so far have included a favorite shade of lipstick and the fur of an owner’s beloved red setter dog; Rolls-Royce’s colour database now has 44,000 variants). But walking along the clean assembly line—punctuated by specially commissioned artworks for extra ambience—there’s a distinct absence of the sort of dirt, noise and clatter found in mainstream factories. All individual parts, from small switches to huge engines, are put together by humans in a process that takes about two days for each car. On a side avenue to the assembly line, a young woman painstakingly threads fiber optic lights through up to 1,900 holes hand-drilled in the car’s ceiling material to create each Starlight Headliner feature. Customers can choose their favorite constellation view and on the Wraith Luminary edition even specify a ‘shooting star’ effect, which originally came from a customer idea and can take 15 hours to complete. 

assembly line Rolls Royce

As the tour of Rolls-Royce’s headquarters nears its end, the conversation with Innes turns to the future. “Where other brands have to transform themselves to rationalize electrification, for Rolls-Royce the synergy is already there,” he says enthusiastically. “It’s silent motoring, with a huge amount of torque available at low revs, largely urban driving and more often than not, returning to the point of departure, so for charging it’s perfect.” 

But although the brand garnered feedback from an electric prototype as far back as 2011 and showed the fully autonomous and electric 103EX Vision Next 100 concept in 2016, Innes concedes that as there is still an element of compromise with electric technology today, a Rolls-Royce EV might be a little way off. “Compromise is not a word associated with Rolls-Royce, particularly from the customer side,” he says calmly and with a smile. “When there is a technology and method we can credibly bring to market that will offer absolutely no compromise over a pre-existing combustion-engined car, I would suggest that would be the appropriate point. We are of course preparing ourselves.” 

For another Craftsmanship feature, read our profile of  Graff Diamonds

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