LUXURY

Growing number of global billionaires fuels surge in demand for Rolls-Royce

Growing number of billionaires contributes to 33 per cent surge in sales of the British-made motoring legend - now owned by Germany's BMW

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 09 July, 2014, 8:22pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 10 July, 2014, 4:04am
AP

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They are rolling symbols of wealth and excess, starting at US$263,000, depending where you buy. And they are more popular than ever before.

Rolls-Royce reported a startling rise in demand for their distinctive cars on Tuesday.

The British-made cars, updated to reflect the technical know-how and marketing might of parent company BMW, have become must-haves for the new global elite.

That group is growing in number even as much of the world struggles to get by in an era of low growth, low expectations and high unemployment.

The company said 1,968 cars were sold in the first half of this year compared to 1,475 in the same period last year.

The 33 per cent rise in sales for the first six months of this year compared to the same period last year is explained not just by the cars' standard plush leather seats and gleaming paintwork.

It is also due to the rising number of billionaires worldwide.

A Forbes survey says there are now 1,645 billionaires, 219 more than a year ago. "If you look at the number of ultra-high net worth individuals around the world, that number is clearly growing," said Rolls-Royce spokesman Andrew Ball.

"The luxury market is growing at the high end and we are delighted to be part of that."

Ball said 70 per cent of Rolls buyers were new to the brand, and roughly half choose to customise their cars by adding expensive personal touches.

The cost of making a Rolls "bespoke" - the British term for custom-made suits - rather than "off the rack" can dwarf many household budgets. "It can be simple, like having your initials stitched into the headrest or the veneer," said Ball. "It's an emotional process."

A refrigerator inside the car can be custom built to accommodate the shape and size of the owner's favourite beverage. The cost rivals that of a year's schooling in a US college.

The company is opening its first showroom in Cambodia. But it remains an essentially British product, enjoyed by Queen Elizabeth and evoking the opulence of the Downton Abbey era.

At Rolls-Royce Motor Cars London, the showroom in a particularly posh section of Mayfair, visitors are drawn to a sparkling black Phantom, starting at US$600,000, and the Wraith, a bargain at US$400,000.

In China and Hong Kong, those prices are much higher.

The back of the dealership resembles a home furnishings store, with samples of different woods and hides. Gone are the days when Rolls-Royce traditionalists sneered at John Lennon for adding a psychedelic paint job to his Phantom V.

When a man walked into the Mayfair showroom carrying his wife's favourite pink lipstick and asking for a Rolls in the same shade, the company was happy to provide one, said salesman Stephen Foulds.

He said the customer base was growing younger, with one Chinese man in his 20s ordering his second Rolls in an unusual all-white colour scheme. Another traded in his Lamborghini when he was starting a family because he needed a backseat.

Octane Magazine deputy editor Mark Dixon said Rolls-Royce has also managed to shed its fuddy-duddy image. He loved the quirky touches that make a Rolls unique, like the starlight roof headlining that is as an option with the Phantom coupe.

"There are hundreds of little LEDs set into the roof lining, it seems like the night sky when you're driving at night," he said.

BMW has also introduced state-of-the-art features to Rolls, like the satellite-assisted gearbox that can see a hairpin curve before the driver does and adjusts accordingly. "There was disquiet about this great British brand being bought by the Germans, but most agree now it was a good move," Dixon said.