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Under cover, a beauty is born

Frankfurt, Dec. 20 (Reuters): It’s no mean feat trying to develop the world’s best motor car in four years flat when all you have to work with is a hood ornament and a name.

It is even harder trying to fill your order books when you’re not allowed to publish details of the car’s features, or even the model name, ahead of its launch.

But when BMW unveils the first German-built Rolls-Royce on January 1 after one of the most secretive new car projects ever, it is confident the visual impact and brand cachet will make the well-heeled reach straight for their wallets.

“When people buy a new Rolls-Royce they are buying a product which is like no other motor car from its basic concept right through to its design. That will be obvious to people as soon as they see it,” the head of BMW’s Rolls-Royce project, Tony Gott, said in an interview.

“People can commission a yacht, commission a house. What they are used to is having something which is unique to them. Similarly, we are able to supply whatever you wish on the car.”

Designed at a secret studio near Hyde Park in the heart of London, tested under cover in the world’s most extreme climates, and partly manufactured in a building sunk into the grounds of a British stately home, the new Rolls seems to have all the credentials of a blue-blooded automotive aristocrat.

Those who have seen the car, codenamed RR01 and expected to be reassuringly expensive at over $250,000, say aficionados will not be disappointed by the attention to detail.

Rumour has it the 19 feet long car will be equipped with a humidor — a humidified cigar case, custom-fitted luggage, touch-sensitive door handles and door-mounted umbrella holsters. Its rear doors will be hinged at the back, making it easier for the chauffeur to open them.

A motorised Spirit of Ecstasy, the mascot that has sat atop the Grecian radiator grille of Rolls-Royce cars since 1911, will drop into a secure recess to deter trophy hunters.

Since securing the rights to the name from Volkswagen in 1998, BMW’s team has sought painstakingly to understand Rolls-Royce owners, with engineers sent to study old blueprints and imbibe the ambiance of country houses and cricket matches.

“In the early days they came frequently to soak up the atmosphere. I think they were looking towards the way that (company founder) Sir Henry Royce would have done it if he were here today, with modern technology,” said Peter Baines, General Secretary of the Rolls-Royce Enthusiasts’ Club.

BMW spent £60 million on a new factory in the grounds of the Goodwood Estate, a stately home in the rolling southern English countryside, and is keen to champion its historical connections to the Rolls-Royce founder who once lived nearby.

But such tenuous links do not wash with all enthusiasts.

“It is nonsense to suggest that Goodwood has any Rolls-Royce connection at all other than that Sir Henry Royce once lived by the sea not very far away,” said Michael Shrimpton, non-executive chairman of Crewe Motors Ltd, a bidding vehicle set up by Rolls fans to vie with VW and BMW in 1998.

“The car is a German-designed car with a German engine and it is made in Germany. It is only painted and finished at Goodwood. Sewing on a bit of leather and hewing in a bit of wood is purely superficial.”

The 6.75-litre V12 engine will be built at BMW’s Munich base but used exclusively in the RR01, while the body, the biggest ever manufactured using aluminium and technology from the aerospace industry, will be built nearby. But there the BMW links end, argues Gott.

“There is no connectivity between the driving experience of the new Rolls-Royce and that of a BMW,” says Gott. “The seating position is higher, the steering wheel a shade larger, the engine has incredible torque at very low revs, so from takeoff it is very, very responsive and yet agile.”

Gott aims to build around 1,000 RR01s a year, with the model expected to have a life cycle of 10 to 12 years.

Although they have not yet been able to show potential customers the new car, 57 dealers world-wide are setting up to sell the RR01, with some customers already buying blind.

Gott expects about 40 per cent of sales to come from the US, with the Far East and Middle East accounting for another 30 per cent.

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