Rolls-Royce now joins a number of other ultra-luxury carmakers, including Bentley and Porsche, that will work with a limited number of wealthy clients to build very expensive customized cars. (Both Bentley and Porsche are owned by the Volkswagen Group, while Rolls-Royce is owned by BMW.)
On Thursday, Rolls-Royce revealed a new program called Rolls-Royce Coachbuild. This department will work with individual clients to help design and build cars specifically for them.
The luxury automaker will work on just one of these cars every couple of years, Rolls-Royce executives said. While Rolls-Royce would not say how much the cars will cost, it seems clear they will cost many millions of dollars.
“Rolls-Royce Coachbuild clients are intimately and personally involved at each step of the creative and engineering process,” said Rolls-Royce CEO Torsten Müller-Ötvös.
Porsche calls its custom car department Sonderwunsch, or “Special Wish” in German. The program, which had previously existed from Porsche’s earliest days up until the 1980s, has just recently been restarted. Now Porsche is offering to do fully customized new cars, as well as custom models based on classic Porsches, such as the 356 and early 911s.
Porsche’s program had been responsible for introducing such innovations as the rear window wiper, as well as Porsche’s first in-car radio on the Porsche 356 sports car.
“Listening to our customers was always an innovation source for our company,” said Christian Heck, head of product management for the Porsche program.
A very expensive picnic basket
To launch its new Coachbuild department, Rolls-Royce unveiled a new car called the Boat Tail, of which only three are being made. These cars were commissioned by three different buyers — Rolls-Royce would not name them — all of whom were interested in boating and yachts and who wanted something with a nautical feel to it.
Rolls-Royce won’t say how much each of these cars cost, but the estimated price is about $25 million a piece.
The Boat Tail’s body style is reminiscent of classic cars from the 1920s and ’30s. During that time, luxury cars were sometimes designed with back ends tapered to a point like the fantail of a boat. Like tailfins on cars in the 1950s, which suggested speed and style through an association with airplanes, boat-tails gave cars a fast, aerodynamic look. Often, they were covered in wood planks to resemble a wooden boat of that era.
Rather than a folding top, like most convertibles, the Rolls-Royce Boat Tail has a fully removable roof that is stored separately from the car. That frees up storage space in the back of the car that, in this case, has been turned into a very expensive picnic basket.
Two lids open up along the sides. Inside, there is expensive embossed silverware, glasses of various kinds, napkins, and plates. There is a double champagne cooler designed to fit the buyer’s preferred bottle and colored to match. Cocktail tables also fold out and there are two Italian-designed stools. For shade, a parasol is stored in the center between the hinged doors.
The return of coachbuilding
In the early days of automobiles, buyers would often choose an automaker, like Rolls-Royce, Hispano-Suiza or Duesenberg, to build the mechanical parts of a car — the engine, transmission and frame. The body of the car, though, would be designed and built by a specialized coachbuilding firm, many of which had once built horsedrawn carriages. This was the ultimate in customization.
There were many coachbuilding firms and their names are famous today among car collectors. There was LeBaron in the United States, Touring in Italy, Figoni et Falaschi and Saoutchik in France and many others.
Eventually, many auto makers bought the coachbuilding firms, bringing this work in-house, said Donald Osborne, a collector car appraiser and CEO of the Audrain Automobile Museum in Newport, Rhode Island.
Rolls-Royce made many fully custom cars itself. But, it had been decades since the carmaker had really built a one-off custom automobile for a paying customer. Rolls-Royce would always paint a car any color a customer asked and still adds many custom touches, but had long ago stopped building completely custom bodies until a few years ago.
In 2017, Rolls-Royce unveiled the Sweptail, which had been custom made for one unnamed wealthy client. It was estimated to cost around $13 million, a figure Rolls-Royce has never officially confirmed but also doesn’t deny. After that car was revealed, other potential customers came forward saying they, too, wanted their very own just-for-them Rolls-Royce.
Not just for show
It’s much more difficult to create these sorts of custom cars today than it was in the first half of the twentieth century. Today, there are strict safety regulations, which apply even to cars in such rarefied air as these. Those regulations can make it hard to design even mass-produced vehicles, let alone respond to the whims of an individual customer.
Also, the way modern vehicles are engineered makes it harder to create wildly different bodies. Frames and bodies in today’s vehicles are usually not separate, but are integrated so major changes to the body can have a much more substantial impact on the rest of the vehicle.
Part of the reason that these vehicles are so expensive is the time they demand, said Rolls-Royce CEO Müller-Ötvös, including his own. He spent a lot of time overseeing the Boat Tail’s creation as he would with any Rolls-Royce model.
Given that, he said, the carmaker is being selective about which projects it takes on and plans to complete only one Coachbuild project every two years or so, he said.
Müller-Ötvös was clear, though, that these projects will be profitable and, unlike concept cars, will not be done just for show.
“I would never take the company into anything that is not profitable,” he said.
The Audrain Museum’s Osborne said he was glad to see these sorts of very unique, cars making a comeback despite their breathtaking expense.
“If individuality and craftsmanship and design can be expressed in a way that’s inspirational, let’s go for it,” he said, “Because why should we all drive the very same thing?”