Bespoke Rolls-Royce is way to go

The Rolls-Royce Cullinan sport utility vehicle (SUV) was designed with extra amenities that beg to be customised: rear work stations trimmed in exotic wood, deep-pile cashmere carpeting, and spots for Champagne coolers, picnic baskets and cigar hu
The Rolls-Royce Cullinan sport utility vehicle (SUV) was designed with extra amenities that beg to be customised: rear work stations trimmed in exotic wood, deep-pile cashmere carpeting, and spots for Champagne coolers, picnic baskets and cigar humidors.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

The car brand is doubling down on customisation services, rather than developing electric technology, to up sales

NEW YORK • More than 90 per cent of all Rolls-Royce vehicles sold are so personalised they are practically one-offs. 

With the Phantom estate car, that number reaches 99 per cent. And with the Cullinan sport utility vehicle (SUV), it reaches absolute levels: 100 per cent of those sold have been customised. That is according to Mr Torsten Muller-Otvos, chief executive officer of Rolls-Royce Motor Cars, which earlier this month released last year's data showing record global sales.

The figures are notable because they show a big jump in the popularity and value of customising already extremely expensive cars. The average price of a Rolls-Royce sold in the United States, its biggest market, is US$400,000 (S$542,600) including options.

In 2016, when 80 per cent of Rolls-Royce vehicles worldwide were heavily customised, bespoke additions added 20 per cent to the purchase price. Last year, the added price was almost 40 per cent.

To keep up with demand, the England-based auto maker hired 100 employees for the bespoke department. That represents an almost six per cent jump in total workforce to 1,900 and indicates the company's focus for next year and beyond.

Rather than developing hybrid or electric technology to grab sales like other manufacturers-never hybrid, maybe electric in 10 years, Mr Muller-Otvos said in October -, Rolls-Royce is doubling down on what is working now.

"It's needed," he said. "Customers are increasingly intrigued by all the possibilities we can offer - they want to put their personal signature on the product. This is super important for us selling extraordinary objects of this calibre."

Rolls-Royce has increased options for bespoke cars such as the Phantom (US$450,000 base price), which can include a clear gallery-style box set inside the dashboard, each one customised to showcase individual collections of objet d'art  such as pricey mechanical watches, rare stamps or Faberge eggs.  

With the US$325,000 Cullinan, new this year with seating for up to seven, the SUV was designed with extra amenities that beg  to be customised: rear work stations trimmed in exotic wood, deep-pile cashmere carpeting, and spots for Champagne coolers, picnic baskets and cigar humidors. The more space you have to work with, the more you can customise - and the more money the company can make.

For example, a picnic hamper costs  US$46,000, while a 9-carat-gold-plated Spirit of Ecstasy hood ornament costs US$17,000. Add in man-hours on more complicated extras, such as custom woodwork, and prices go up from there.

While the Dawn was the brand's best-seller last year in the United States, look for the V12 Cullinan to surpass it this year, said Mr Muller-Otvos.

"Cullinan will come into real play in 2019," he said. "We are already sitting on a very strong order bank."

Cullinan is conquering buyers who might be tempted to buy Bentley's Bentayga (US$200,000) or Lamborghini's Urus (US$200,000)instead. More than half of the people who have ordered a Cullinan are new to the brand. Rolls-Royce's official stance is that it stands alone in this rarefied space: "Bentley is not a competitor," Mr Muller-Otvos said.

Bentley Motors, for its part, has gained stature in some circles since Cullinan made its debut. Early reviews of the Bentayga were mixed, with critical jabs taken at its Audi-like body and soft drivetrain.

But during a conversation at the Pebble Beach Concours d'Elegance car show, Bentley chairman Adrian Hallmark said he felt "very good" about the Bentayga after seeing Cullinan's debut.

"We are in fantastic position," he said, referring to how the boxy and bigger Cullinan looked. The implication was that the new, more expensive offering from Rolls-Royce made Bentley's SUV, which had debuted first, look good.

Indeed, Instagram commenters and other critics had seemingly moved on from beating up Bentayga in favour of Cullinan, which in photos can look like a gilded Mack truck.  

Big, expensive vehicles are easy targets, after all. They tend to photograph poorly and draw the most ire from environment-and class-minded critics who decry conspicuous consumption. But they continue to be the primary money-makers for Bentley, Rolls-Royce, Lamborghini, and every other auto maker who makes a six-figure SUV, and even more so when they are bespoke.

Never mind the gas-thirsty drivetrain. It is very much besides the point.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 26, 2019, with the headline 'Bespoke Rolls-Royce is way to go'. Print Edition | Subscribe