If you happen to be in Goodwood for the weekend, visiting the Rolls-Royce factory is a very pleasant must. It's nothing like your average car factory as it's quiet, clean and full of people still dedicated to the art of assembling cars by hand.
After the historic Crewe plant landed in Volkswagen's hand together with the Bentley assets, BMW needed to find a location for a new Rolls-Royce factory. The Goodwood Estate won the contest mostly because Lord March himself invited them over there.
But Lord March also insisted that the factory is not to be seen from his mansion or in fact from any point of the Estate, so Nicholas Grimshaw, the famous architect known mostly for designing the Eden Project had to start by digging a giant pit. And since the building is mostly made of steel and glass with a lake on the side to provide zero-emission cooling for the air conditioning, if Rolls-Royce has to move again one day, the whole area can be turned back into a field full of black-headed sheep in no time at all.
Replacing the last Crewe-built Rolls-Royce, the Corniche, the first Phantom rolled off the assembly line on the 1st of January 2003. Eleven years later, it's still a strong seller, and here's how it's made:
First stop: Surface Finish Centre. It's the paint shop, but since it's Rolls-Royce we're talking about, they call it the Surface Finish Centre. This is the only place where one can see robots in here since they found that the extended-wheelbase Phantom is simply too long to be painted evenly by hand. Rolls-Royce can do pretty much any color you want, but if you ask for McLaren's 'Vulcano Orange' like one customer did, don't expect them to ring up the neighbors in Woking for a tin of it. Since McLarens are made of carbon fiber while Rolls-Royce is using aluminum, they had to recreate the shade completely to get the same finish. When done, the paint was named after the client's wife, thus it's 'Selena Red'.
Of course you would expect a certain amount of metalwork before the paint, but the bodies are machined in Denmark, hand-welded in Germany, so England only takes over at the third base. Therefore, the Goodwood plant is nothing like your average car factory. It's quiet, clean and full of people thanks to all that hand assembly and craftsmanship involved. A total of 1,400 employees.
As the painted bodies are pushed along the assembly stations be hand, they roll past hundreds of purple boxes stacked on the left side known as the supermarket, containing all the nuts and bolts they need to put together a car. Except for those 3-inch tall mascots we know as the Spirit of Ecstasy, because those take a week to make out of stainless steel by Polycast Limited in Southampton and are treated as such, with no plastic containers involved.
For most of the building process, the Phantoms are on a different line than the Ghost or the Wraith. That's because while the smaller cars share about 20% of their parts with the BMW 7 Series, the flagships use a unique chassis.
The Phantoms are also different in that they use a naturally aspirated 6.75 V12 instead of the more powerful 6.6 twin-turbo you get in Rolls-Royce's 'compacts'. And while the Phantom also got the ZF 8-speed automatic transmission in 2012, the dimensions of the drivetrain remained unchanged since it's actually a lighter unit than the 6-speed it replaced. The brake discs look equally massive on all models.
As we were walking down the path, there was a Phantom Extended Wheelbase waiting for its doors, and the sheer size of it make it dominate the whole area. Black, suggesting an Asian buyer. But whoever gets it will enjoy almost ten inches more of the most luxurious automobile in the world.
The British are traditionally pretty good at that, and Rolls-Royce told me BMW understands the heritage that came with the purchase and gives them plenty of space to do things their way. I have a feeling that Volkswagen's grip is a bit tighter on Bentley.
We walked by the Starlight headliner stations as well, where I learned that the US is getting its stars pushed just a little further back, and we popped into the leather and wood shop, too, but since I managed to visit at lunchtime, the rooms were almost completely deserted.
Still, the different machines, tools and types of wood stacked on the shelves and tables gave me a pretty good idea how trees are turned into pieces of art in here, making sure every part has a symmetrical pattern and putting layers of aluminum between the wood to keep it safe in case of a crash.
The same goes for the leather shop, where as always, green laser beams were helping the crew cut only the very best parts of a bullhide, surrounded by hundreds of rolls of sewing thread featuring every color in the alphabet. Coming up with the mechanics of a Rolls-Royce is a much faster process than what those bespoke interiors demand.
After the cars roll of the joined assembly line, they are parked next to each other, getting as much light as possible through the glass wall and from the fluorescent tubes above each space.
They wait here for their final interior pieces, the five hour long polishing process, a careful manual inspection and the testing on both the dyno and out in the wild.
For some reason, this place looks very relaxing from above. I mean, if you think about it, life really can not be that bad with this many Rolls-Royces around.
There are two other things you should know about the Goodwood factory.
The first is that their canteen is really good. Honestly, if you happen to be around, go all James Bond and sneak in somehow for a bite. Lovely food at a bargain price, and since all tables are the same, everybody gets the change to have a chat with anybody around. It's certainly a much better way of sharing ideas than sending emails through supervisors.
The second is that I really wish Rolls-Royce could publish a book containing all the stories they have from the modern phase of the brand. I mean, I heard that through the bespoke program, they had to travel to the other side of the world to collect a color sample from a tree in a customer's garden, not to mention doing the same with someone's dog. And when a king/sheik/emperor claimed to have ordered a coachline upon delivery, they flew their guy in to keep solve the problem, not knowing that the whole palace will be gathered around the car to witness the miracle done with that squirrel brush.
They must have hundreds of these in the drawer put next to the bespoke records that make sure all truly custom features remain one-offs forever. What a book that would make!