Recently I was lucky enough to have a tour of the Lego factory in Denmark (you can read more about it here) and my factory fun hasn’t stopped there: How do you top visiting the headquarters of one of the biggest and most recognisable brands in the world…? With one of the biggest, most recognisable AND most prestigious brands in the world of course! A few weeks ago I went behind the scenes at the Rolls-Royce factory and had a glimpse into the incredible craftsmanship which goes into these extremely exclusive machines.
A tucked-away site not far from Chichester, which you’d easily miss if you weren’t looking for it, is home to one of Britain’s oldest and most iconic marques. The company offices and factory are integrated into one beautifully designed building on part of the Goodwood estate. Unlike their vast cars which really stand out, the building (designed by Sir Nicholas Grimshaw, designer of the magnificent Eden Project) is discreet, and blends perfectly into the well landscaped and minimalist surroundings.
Though owned by German BMW now, Rolls-Royce has a rich British heritage dating back over 100 years; something which thankfully is unlikely to ever be forgotten. Walking into the main reception you’re greeted by a mix of new and old cars, and some less conventional vehicles in the form of soapbox racers- projects their engineering team got to go off piste with.
I was greeted by a charming Scottish gentleman called James (all the best ones are called James!) who talked me through the company history, from the coming together of the founders, Mr Rolls- a car salesman, and Sir Royce- an engineer in the early 1900’s, to the scandal behind the Spirit of Ecstasy (the statue lady who sits on the front of every car) and the relatively recent ownership controversy which largely went under the radar. Fascinating stories and all the better for being told in a charismatic way.
Next up I was taken through to the bit I was particularly excited about- the production line. As with my Lego tour, no cameras were permitted I’m afraid; they want to keep their trade secrets under wraps after all!
The journey starts with the metal shell of a car in the paint shop. When coated in the customers chosen colour the car was then covered in protective pads and put onto a wheeled base so it could be moved from section to section to be fitted with sound proofing, wiring looms, dashboards, consoles, seats, carpets and all manner of other essentials and luxuries.
Then the doors are added before the body is mated with the running gear (the important bits including the monstrous V12 engine, huge gearbox, driveshaft, suspension and enormous brakes and wheels).
One set of doors took us through to the leather workshop where the seats and all the door inlays are handmade from the finest hides available. Customers can choose from a huge selection of leather types from an array of animals, and a variety of colours. The cow hides come from animals kept at altitude so there’s no mosquitos to spoil the surface of the leather; just one example of the fantastic attention to detail! A clever machine works out how to most efficiently cut all the pieces required from each individual hide, before perfectly slicing it up ready for hand-stitching. Customers can also select the colour of thread they want their stitching done with, and if they want any emblems or patterns stitched into their seats.
Another workshop was home to the woodworking specialists, who craft all of the dashboards and inlays. These can be plain wood (albeit from a very large selection of beautiful wood types), or incredibly intricate works of art commissioned by the customer to their individual requirement.
Amongst other options, customers can also choose to have a headlining in the roof which has thousands of tiny lights which can be hand set into any star constellation requested (they can even identify the star pattern on any given date- a real talking point for your new car!).
The production line had every model of Rolls-Royce on it, and every car they make is produced there, whether it’s for a customer down the road, or destined for any other country in the world! One of the most striking things about the factory was how quiet it was. There were very few robots, but plenty of machines to help do the heavy lifting and the drilling and bolting, and yet somehow the place managed to feel relatively tranquil and the teams of people working away on the cars seemed to do so at a calm and measured pace.
Following the very special behind the scenes tour I went to the studios where customers who are specifying their new cars are taken to go through all the options available to them to make their car unique. This includes a huge list of bespoke paint colours and designs, special trims, matching luggage and picnic sets, and special carpets. If you can think of it the Rolls-Royce designers will help bring your vision to life. And if your pockets are deep enough you can even co-design your own car, body and all, which will be modelled and then hand built by a team of expert engineers and artisans.
I even got to see the imposing new Cullinan; Rolls-Royce’s first ever SUV, which was recently revealed to the world!
My trip was a fascinating insight into the lifestyles of the super-wealthy, but more than that, I feel very privileged to have seen some of the finest craftsmen and women in the world doing work which they rightly take a great deal of pride in. Rolls-Royce may technically be a German-owned company now, but it is very much a British brand and I felt strangely patriotic (strange for me because I don’t normally go in for all that!) seeing such a wonderful product roll off the production line right here in the UK. And this story is a great example of an Anglo-German partnership at its best; let’s hope for more of the same post-Brexit!