With New Boat-Shaped Cars, Rolls-Royce Announces Client Design Program

Following record Q1 gains that saw Rolls-Royce up 61% and selling the most vehicles in its history for the time period, the 116-year-old luxury brand is working to balance out increasingly high sales volumes by indulging its clients’ penchant for rarity and exclusivity.

On Thursday in Goodwood, England, Rolls-Royce Chief Executive Officer Torsten Müller-Ötvös announced Rolls-Royce Coachbuild, a new program at the company that will allow its most elite customers to commission a car of their own. 

“We have seen quite a lot of clients approaching us asking if they could do something [unique],” the Germany-born executive said during a video call May 25. “It is not [Rolls-Royce] proposing ideas and then the client buys them. Coachbuild in its truest form is: the client comes, tells us what kind of body he would like to see, and we do it. That is what is happening here.”

With New Boat-Shaped Cars, Rolls-Royce Announces Client Design Program

The automaker said that it started the program by making three individual cars, in a style they are now calling the Rolls-Royce Boat Tail. Each has been custom-built as an open-air four-seater with a rear portion designed to evoke the deck of a J Class yacht—a single-masted racing boat like those used in the Americas Cup. (A rigid canopy top also comes with each, for driving in inclement weather.)

The Boat Tails were named and inspired by a trend in the 1920s and ‘30s that grafted what looked like a yacht’s hull onto a Rolls-Royce chassis, although that precedent didn’t exactly save the company any time in making the modern ones. Those required four years planning and construction, with 1,813 completely new components.

With New Boat-Shaped Cars, Rolls-Royce Announces Client Design Program

The New Boat Tail

One client who owned one of the original Boat Tails from nearly a century ago inspired the other two buyers during brainstorming. “He always dreamt about how to transform that vehicle into the future,” Müller-Ötvös said. “The others were quite intrigued by that idea, so we agreed quite quickly, Alright, let’s go for a Boat Tail idea. Our designer sharpened his pencil and started to draw up some ideas and from there it went.” 

The first of the modern Boat Tails, in a blue hue whose specific nomenclature is known only to the client and Rolls-Royce, has a back deck that opens like butterfly wings to reveal small picnic tables and a parasol. “The idea was born of al fresco dining, lavish picnics, ambience...the idea of these butterfly wings which are softly opening, was born by Alex [Innes], I must say, and that was very much loved by the clients immediately.” Innes is the head of Rolls-Royce’s Coachbuild program.

With New Boat-Shaped Cars, Rolls-Royce Announces Client Design Program

Each car is unique in coloration, trimlines, interior flourishes and specific requests, while other of their basic details may be familiar to those who already own bespoke Rolls-Royce coaches: a refrigerator to hold champagne bottles cooled to precisely six degrees Celsius, for example, and an aluminum-and-leather glove box sized to hold a special pen.

As a pièce de résistance, Rolls-Royce and BOVET 1822 developed two unique reversible his-and-her timepieces that can be worn by the client or stored within the Boat Tail as its onboard clock.

With New Boat-Shaped Cars, Rolls-Royce Announces Client Design Program

Rolls-Royce floated the idea of a modern one-off program with the proof-of-concept Sweptail in 2017, a one-off car debuted at Concours d’Elegance Villa d’Este near Lake Como which was widely regarded as the most expensive new automobile in the world at the time. That had been commissioned in 2013 as a one-off project at the request of a super-yacht and aircraft specialist.

“Sweptail sparked quite a lot of interested in the market,” Müller-Ötvös said. “So we have seen quite a lot of clients approaching us asking if they could do something.” 

When asked how much profit is rendered when such intensive handiwork is required, Müller-Ötvös declined to specify a margin. “I would never enter the company into anything that is not profitable, rest assured. It is also of course quite boosting for the brand, but it’s not an investment where we do it just for the brand. We also do it for commercial reasons.”

The customization does not extend to underneath the hood, at least for now. The Rolls-Royce Boat Tails have the same 6.75-liter V12 engine as that found in the Rolls-Royce Phantom, Cullinan and Ghost. No one asked for anything different, Müller-Ötvös said: “The engine is a fantastic Rolls-Royce engine with enough power. That never came up for a single minute, to make changes around the engine.” 

With New Boat-Shaped Cars, Rolls-Royce Announces Client Design Program

He did not rule out whether subsequent examples from the Coachbuild program could some day be powered by alternative engines or fuel. “I wouldn’t outlaw that one day, but this is not really the point—the point very much is in the body,” he said. “I don’t know if it will come up in the future, but why? There is sufficient power” in the V12 engine.  

With New Boat-Shaped Cars, Rolls-Royce Announces Client Design Program

An Historic Precedent

Rolls-Royce has long sent the majority of its wares out of the factory with high levels of customization and made-to-order options—beginning with a choice of 44,000 paint colors. Commissions have increased year-over-year since modern bespoke production began at Goodwood in 2003, according to the company. In the first quarter of 2021, every single vehicle built at Rolls-Royce across the entire model family included bespoke elements, it said in a written statement.

With New Boat-Shaped Cars, Rolls-Royce Announces Client Design Program

The company had pioneered the “coach-built” model strategy a century earlier with such one-off icons as the Rolls-Royce 40/50HP Phantom I Brougham De Ville of 1926, which recreated the Rococo ambience of a Palace of Versailles salon with polished satinwood veneers, Aubusson tapestries and a painted ceiling inspired by a sedan chair owned by Marie Antoinette. It had been built for Clarence Warren Gasque, an American businessman of French ancestry living in London at the time. 

The Rolls-Royce 17EX of 1928, which could hit then-astounding speeds of 90mph, and the Phantom II Continental Drophead Coupé of 1934 followed. In 1972, the Phantom VI, famous for its burled walnut picnic tables and accompanying ‘toadstool’ seats that clipped to the front bumpers, became the final Rolls-Royce model constructed in the old built-to-order manner. 

With New Boat-Shaped Cars, Rolls-Royce Announces Client Design Program

Many of the most significant coach-built cars are worth in the high six- and seven figures. In June, a 1933 Rolls-Royce Phantom II Special will be offered with an estimated price of 1.3 million to 1.75 million Swiss Francs ($1.45 million to $1.95 million) at an auction in Lichtenstein. 

With New Boat-Shaped Cars, Rolls-Royce Announces Client Design Program

The Opportunity to Create — and Spend 

Müller-Ötvös declined to specify the names of press-shy buyers, and the pricing of the new Coachbuild series, though he said that the three clients he has known personally for “a long long time.”  

“There is an idea to bring them together one day, but they are spread all around the world,” he said. “They all three enjoy life. They love to celebrate. And when you see what you can do with the car, it’s quite celebratory. Unbelievable picnicking and dining experiences can happen, that’s kind of the idea.” 

With New Boat-Shaped Cars, Rolls-Royce Announces Client Design Program

Meanwhile, the next batch of Rolls-Royce Coachbuild cars are already being planned. (A spokesperson declined to say whether they have already been spoken for.) Allocations are available by invitation only—personally extended from the CEO himself.  

“For us, it is the jewel on top of everything, the true pinnacle of our entire business model Rolls-Royce Motor Cars, and for that reason it needs to stay super rare,”  said Müller-Ötvös. “We are not in any way tempted here to go into more and more and more. That would devalue the entire thing.”

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