Rolls-Royce needs no introduction or explanation, but there are some details about the famous car maker which are only available to the company’s top executives. James Crichton, Rolls-Royce’s Regional Director for Great Britain, Western Europe, Russia and the CIS, reveals the key reasons behind the success of the Dawn convertible and how the company’s customers pay for their cars.
Lenta.ru: Your company describes the new luxury Black Badge series as targeted at “rule-breakers and risk-takers” and promises to help car owners “free their inner rebel.” However, Rolls Royce isn’t readily associated with rebellion. How can you explain that?
Crichton: Rolls-Royce appeals to a very narrow slice of the automotive market: we sell cars worth over €200,000, and the Black Badge series takes up an even smaller niche of that segment. Let me start with a bit of history. We have launched several new models over the last four or five years, including the Ghost in 2010, which was followed by Wraith, and then Dawn. All these cars are different from Phantom in that they have been designed for those who like driving as much as being driven.
The Phantom is the equivalent of a tuxedo in the closet. It is a car for special occasions, for being chauffeured. Ghost and Wraith owners drive themselves. These cars look more sporty and dynamic. We have also noticed that after they were put into production, our customers’ average age dropped from 55-56 to 45 years.
However, the brand also interests younger customers, who are after something bolder. I would even say they are looking for the "darker side" of a Rolls-Royce. They are ambitious; they have achieved success at a young age and are seeking to express their achievements. These young customers have told us that a Rolls-Royce isn't their first choice, but if we change something and shift our focus, they would be ready to reconsider.
Addressing these wishes, after two years of work we unveiled Black Badge, a dark "alter ego" of the classic Ghost and Wraith models. These cars are designed for those who want to get something entirely different, an intoxicating new incarnation of luxury.
The Phantom still remains one of the brand's most popular cars, but nevertheless, the company has decided to end its production. The new Phantom VIII will not be released until 2018 – wouldn't it have been more sensible to wait a bit?
The last Phantom VII for Russia will be completed and delivered by the end of December; then it will be phased out of production. The new Phantom VIII will be launched in early 2018. I believe that the gap between the discontinuing of the old model and the launch of new one will have a very positive impact on the depreciation value of Phantom VIIs already sold. Besides, we are planning to stop the production of the Phantom Coupe and Drophead Coupe models, so these versions will become collectibles. While our customers are waiting for our new flagship product, they can turn their attentions towards the Ghost, a modern version of the business limousine by Rolls-Royce.
Today, more customers across all sectors of the market want their cars to be environmentally friendly. Is Rolls-Royce planning to manufacture hybrids or fully electric models at any point?
We still have no plans to build hybrid or electric vehicles. Are we interested? Yes, we are. A couple of years ago we conducted an in-depth study into the efficiency of alternative energy sources. We assembled the Phantom Experimental Electric, tested it and invited customers and journalists for a drive. For us it is essential that the alternative drivetrain provides the same “wafting” effect, the same smooth dynamics that V12 provides.
Sitting behind the wheel of a Rolls-Royce should be an effortless driving experience.
This can be achieved in the future, but not at the current level of technology: don't forget that a regular Phantom weighs about 2.5 tonnes. Besides, our Experimental Electric could only travel around 100 miles (161 kilometers) per charge. This, of course, is not enough for our customers. But the technology is evolving rapidly, new batteries are on the way, and some day an immaculate all-electric Rolls-Royce will become a reality.
Joining the BMW Group is a great advantage for us as BMW is conducting extensive research on new energy sources and driving units, so we can use these findings in our work.
Being part of the BMW may also be putting you in an uncomfortable situation. Some people even say that Rolls-Royce cars will end up looking like giant BMWs...
(Laughs.) No, that’s never going to happen. We assemble all our vehicles at Goodwood by hand and function independently of the BMW Group. We have our own engineering and design teams working exclusively on and for Rolls-Royce. From time to time, we do use some of BMW Group’s infrastructure, but we always feel that the group gives us the freedom to operate as we wish.
Are you planning to continue assembling Rolls-Royce vehicles manually, or do you think your production plant will inevitably shift to conveyor assembly systems to reduce costs?
Customisation is the key to Rolls-Royce’s success. Our customers expect us to create cars which will be as unique as fingerprints. We are not aiming to boost our sales volumes – we sell an average of about four thousand cars per year. Our aim is to make unique and personalised vehicles. The only way to achieve that is through the manual assembly process.
Just look at the interior design of our cars – the luxurious wooden panels and leatherwork are all made by hand. I don't think industrial robots would ever be able to achieve such quality. By the way, we have just two robots in the whole of our factory, which paint the bodywork, as the only thing people can't do is to apply a layer of paint to an accuracy of one micron.
Has the Dawn convertible been a success in Russia?
It has been successful beyond all our expectations. If we talk about the Phantom VII again, made in the estate, Coupe and Drophead Coupe variations, we'll see that the estate was the best-selling version. But when we launched new, less formal options for owner-drivers, we predicted a high demand for convertibles.
Russia’s severe climate does not seem to favour convertible cars, but the Dawn's roof, which is made of 17 layers of fabric, makes the car warm and cosy – even in a bitter Siberian frost. Besides, the convertible is as quiet as a car with a hard top.
What regions of Russia are more likely to buy the Dawn?
We have orders coming from all over Russia, and the Dawn is especially popular in the South. On top of this, many businesspeople buy a Dawn for their summer houses in Sochi.
How does your Pre-Owned Provenance programme work? Do you purchase cars from customers in Russia or import vehicles from abroad?
We launched the programme four years ago, and it has shown good results both in the UK and in continental Europe. The programme works with car dealers, trade-in programmes and private clients. In Russia, most pre-owned cars come from our local customers.
We want our customers to have pre-owned cars of the same uncompromising quality as the new ones, so we decided to open a Rolls-Royce Provenance Pre-Owned centre in Moscow. Every pre-owned car is subject to thorough inspection and has the same official warranty as new vehicles. We see it as a method for attracting new customers.
Is it possible to purchase a vintage Rolls-Royce through Pre-Owned Provenance?
No, the programme only applies to cars produced after 2003.
Incidentally, how do Rolls-Royce clients normally pay for their purchases? Do they come along to the showroom with a suitcase full of cash?
Of course not. Three years ago, we launched the Rolls-Royce Finance programme, which became available in Russia this year. Approximately 25% of our customers prefer hire purchase plans and pay for their cars in regular instalments. Granted, they don’t do it because they're having to skimp – they simply find instalment schemes more convenient or wish to invest the leftover funds in business development. In most cases, however, the full amount is paid at once. Sometimes people pay with credit cards – I saw that in Dubai a couple of times.
Any news on the SUV development?
We are still working on the Cullinan prototype project. However, we wouldn’t call it a sports utility vehicle, as it's designed for neither sport nor utility. I think it will be something very special, a car that will create its own niche in the automotive market. The vehicle will be unveiled after the release of the new Phantom. I can't say any more because I don't want to spoil the surprise.
Do you think our grandchildren will admire modern Rolls-Royce cars in fifty years as much as we admire the iconic silhouettes of the classic Rolls-Royce models today?
I can only say that if I had the money, I would invest in Phantom Zenith immediately and would lock it in a secure garage for 50 years. This rare collectible car would be an excellent investment. Unfortunately, even if I had the money to spare, I wouldn’t be able to do this as the Zenith series was booked out long before the first car rolled off the production line. Lots people join our waiting lists, hoping that other customers might cancel their orders. On the other hand, in half a century children will probably be amazed to see any car from today: "Wow, dad, it runs on petrol!" (Laughs)
Interview by Vladislav Krylov