The Rolls-Royce of luxury: In conversation with Torsten Müller-Ötvös, CEO of Rolls-Royce
by Peter Howarth
Rolls-Royce is the last word in motoring excellence - CEO Torsten Müller-Ötvös tells Peter Howarth how his cars truly are works of art...
“N￼obody needs a Rolls-Royce,” says the immaculately besuited, steely haired CEO of Britain’s – if not the world’s – most famous manufacturer of motor cars. But then Torsten Müller-Ötvös follows this somewhat surprising statement with an important qualifier: “These are acquisitions of the heart.”
After Henry Royce and Charles Rolls fortuitously met at a Manchester hotel in 1904, they pledged to create the world’s best motor car and the company honours their intention to this day. A Rolls has long been seen as a great car – and great Phantom owners have included the Queen, Karl Lagerfeld, Fred Astaire, John Lennon, Field Marshal Montgomery and the Aga Khan.
For Müller-Ötvös, true luxury goods take on some of the passion and commitment of those who create them. “At Goodwood [the location of the Rolls Royce factory], 60 pairs of hands work on every car and it takes over 800 hours to create one, so you feel and touch the human component, which is at work in an intense way with our cars.”
Being hand-made is key. “For us luxury is first of all to do with craftsmanship,the integrity of it. Nobody wants to buy something that his neighbours or friends could easily get,” says the CEO. “It needs to have the finest intricate details and stories.”
Owners are part of the design process from the beginning, as all Rolls-Royces are made to order. While some choices of finish and trim can be made remotely, Müller-Ötvös says that around half of his customers are now travelling to the headquarters in Sussex, southern England, to visit the Bespoke studio.
Housed within a state-of-the-art factory complex designed by Eden Project architects Grimshaw (complete with planted rooftop garden and impressive green credentials), this intimate space feels like a room in a private gentlemen’s club. Here, Rolls-Royce’s designers will take you through the thousands of variations you can select for your car: from the paints to the leathers, wooden finishes, decorative details and additional extras. There is a lighting gadget that replicates daylight conditions anywhere around the world. So if you want to see what your choice of paint job will look like in Miami on an August afternoon, you can.
Müller-Ötvös sees this process as creating “a piece of art” and calls it a “commission”. Customers get a tour of the whole facility, where every stage requires hand building. The only automated process is in the paint shop, where robots achieve an even coating of body parts. But there is the option of having Mark Court, the company’s coachline painter, hand paint your car using fine squirrel brushes.
“Every car is unique going down the line and every car captures certain elements of the customer’s personality – be it through marquetry, embroidery, whatever you like: certain materials, design patterns, outside/inside colour combinations,” enthuses Müller-Ötvös. Rolls-Royce has 20,000 varieties of wood available for veneers and marquetry. It can tell you which orchard your car’s wood comes from, and it stores an archive of logs, humidified, so that if you need to repair or replace your dashboard, say, a perfect match can be sourced. Then there is the illuminated interior headlining. Customers can have an array of pin-pricks delivering ambient light, or can opt for the fibre optic threads to be woven in a personalised pattern. Choose the position of the stars above your birthplace on your birth date, for example. It’s been done.
There are 44,000 paint colours as standard, but you can commission your own – one entrepreneur has his own colour red, and has two cars painted in this, infused with 24kt gold. Rolls-Royce has also recently made a black paint incorporating 1,000 crushed diamonds. Müller-Ötvös is candid about the trend for ever more ambitious projects like these. “Our cars are starting at £300,000 – but you could easily spend a million.”
To show what it can do, Rolls-Royce occasionally creates limited-edition or one-off machines as exemplars of Bespoke. One such is a Phantom called Serenity, which is upholstered in hand painted, hand woven and hand embroidered silk, and features mother of pearl, cherry wood and bamboo in its interior. Or there’s the Rolls-Royce Dawn inspired by the Costa Smeralda in Sardinia in a bespoke sea green hue; it features a teak dash with the motif of Porto Cervo mounted on it in emeralds and mother of pearl set into white gold.
It seems that, where Rolls-Royce is concerned, the promise of genuine exclusivity is no empty one. As its CEO says: “You really tell us what you want to have. Your imagination is our limit, and we build you a car. This is not a marketing story, this is true.”
Pictures: Getty Images; Rolls-Royce Enthusiasts' Club