When the rumours leaked late last year that Rolls-Royce was actually going to do it, they were greeted with some scepticism.
After all, this was the company whose flagship model, the Phantom, was a veritable beast, with itshefty haunches and miles ofsweeping bonnet peaking in a gargantuan grill. At 19ft long and 6.5ft wide, this was less the proverbial gentleman’s club chair on wheels as the entire club.
And now here was the gossip saying the veritable 6.7 litre gas-guzzler was going to go, whisper it, all eco. Surely, with the luxury market still reluctant to openly embrace environmental concerns – as though to do so was to suggest the penny-pinching, rather than the socially-aware – Rolls-Royce of all car brands was the least likely to take on the golf-cart silence of an electric engine? But it has.
The 102EX is a fully electric powered Phantom, recently unveiled. OK, so it is not being rushed into production.
Also known as the EE, for Experimental Electric, it is more a test-bed to gauge consumer reaction and assess whether this is the best eco drive-train for Rolls-Royce to adopt. Yet the fact that the company has even considered it is a reflection of a new energy for the brand, largely down to the leadership of Torsten Muller-Otvos.
It was he who took over as Rolls-Royce’s CEO last year after a lifetime of brand management roles with Rolls Royce’s owner, the BMW Group, where he was its youngest-ever ascendant to the top table. Positioning and re-positioning automotive brands is what Muller-Otvos is all about.
It was he who oversaw the re-launch of the Mini. And with the EE he is testing the water. “It is more an exploration of what our clients think about a more environmentally-friendly engine,” he says.
“And clearly we need to make a proper decision on that if we need to down the route of producing alternative drive-trains, which could be diesel, electric, a hybrid, but has to be right for the brand and our customers.
It’s less about whether they really want it so much as responding to the changes in legal issues in certain countries that might encourage them to look into the area.
Get it right though and I think there’s definitely a market there.” Moving Rolls-Royce into higher gear has been one benefit from German ownership, however disgruntled many were when (like the recent Kraft take-over of Cadbury’s) the purchase was announced.
Muller-Otvos stresses how the Britishness of these cars nevertheless remains – some 80% of employees are Brits, all the craftsmen are Brits, the chief designer Ian Cameron is a Brit, the cars are made here – and that remains a great selling point, especially overseas.
But he also gently points out that the reputation for excellence Rolls-Royce once justly commanded had been fading fast, with the brand “stunning in the earlier years of its history but losing its way during the 80s and 90s”.
BMW, he says, risking opprobrium from the overly-patriotic, re-awakened “engineering competence, manufacturing competence and the latest in manufacturing technology to get the quality that Rolls-Royce customers expect and what we have to deliver”.
Another further benefit has been the CEO’s enthusiasm for spotting unexploited markets, however incongruous they may seem on first consideration.
How about, for example, a less stately, more everyday Rolls-Royce? That may not fit with the Rolls-Royce story as it is popularly conceived, but Muller-Otvos has made it work.
To the Phantom he has added the Ghost, a car that is a celebration of Rolls-Royce history – it marks this year being the centenary of the Spirit of Ecstasy, Rolls-Royce’s flying lady mascot, said to be modelled on automobile pioneer John Walter, Lord Montagu’s secretary and lover – but one as much symbolic of the times as the new EE.
“The Ghost hasn’t been about taking business away from other car brands,” says Muller- Otvos.
“To be honest, a lot of our customers already have several cars in their garage from several different companies.
“But it is a reflection of a change of philosophy for the company; it’s less ostentatious and I think that will be a key part of what Rolls-Royce is about in the future. The Phantom, of course, is a statement. It’s often chauffeur-driven, for example.
But we also recognise with the Ghost that there was a need for more of a driver’s car, a more everyday car, something more subtle...” Recognition of the need for the company to broaden its remit has certainly proven successful.
Last year saw Rolls-Royce report a record year-on-year sales growth of 171%, with sales of 2,711 cars, more than double the previous record set in 2008, a success largely attributed to the Ghost, which has brought new customers to the brand. Indeed, some 80% of Ghost customers have, atypically for the company, never owned a Rolls-Royce before. Not that the brand is in any way going mass-market.
For all that, at £165,000 and upwards, the Ghost may be Rolls-Royce’s more affordable car, Muller-Otvos sees no future in one any cheaper than that.
He says: “The economy is getting better and people are getting more confident and coming back to buy luxury products again. But you can’t move established brands too dramatically or too fast, especially one as old as Rolls- Royce, with its heritage and tradition. It has to be step by step. “There’s been talk of launching a more affordable car but I don’t think that would be right – our intention is to be very, very highly exclusive. And there’s still no one around the world selling more cars in that segment than Rolls-Royce. You wouldn’t want to see a Rolls-Royce on the corner of every street. We’d lose that exclusivity overnight.” But buying a Rolls-Royce is about more than exclusivity.
What has buoyed it up through the recession has been an increased interest in quality over mere brand flash in purchases of good sense rather than status. That, Muller-Otvos stresses, is where Rolls-Royce can really stake a claim. For all that Rolls-Royce is world famous, “these cars are also an investment”.
He adds: “In the end it’s all about build quality – and we make a point of inviting anyone thinking about buying a Rolls-Royce to come to the factory to see how we manufacture cars.
When you see the precision put into the engineering, into all the detail, from the leather to the wood, you come away knowing why the cars are at a price level they’re at.”