More than 90 per cent of all Rolls-Royce vehicles sold are so personalised they’re practically one-offs.

With the Phantom estate car, that number reaches 99 per cent. And with the Cullinan SUV, it reaches absolute levels: of the Cullinan SUVs sold, 100 per cent have been customised.

That’s according to Torsten Müller-Ötvös, CEO of Rolls-Royce Motor Cars. He spoke as the Goodwood, England-based carmaker released 2018 data showing record global sales.

The figures are notable because they show a big jump in the popularity and value of customising already extremely expensive cars. The average price of a Rolls-Royce sold in the US, its biggest market, is US$400,000 including options.

In 2016, when 80 per cent of Rolls-Royce vehicles worldwide were heavily customised, bespoke additions added 20 per cent to the purchase price. For 2018, the added price was almost 40 per cent.

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To keep up with demand – and put its payroll where its payday is – Rolls-Royce hired 100 employees devoted to the bespoke department. That represents an almost 6 per cent jump in total workforce to 1,900 and signifies where the company is focusing in 2019 and beyond.

Rather than developing hybrid or electric technology to grab sales like other manufacturers (never hybrid, maybe electric in 10 years, Müller-Ötvös said in October), Rolls-Royce is doubling down on what is working now.

“It’s needed,” Müller-Ötvös says. “Customers are increasingly intrigued by all the possibilities we can offer – they want to put their own personal signature on the product. This is super important for us selling extraordinary objects of this calibre.”

Rolls-Royce has increased options for bespoke cars such as the Phantom (US$450,000 base price), which can include a clear gallery-style box set inside the dashboard. Each one is customised to showcase individual collections of object d’art such as pricey mechanical watches, rare stamps or Fabergé eggs.

You know, your standard stuff.

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With the US$325,000 Cullinan, new in 2018 with seating for up to seven, the SUV was designed with extra amenities that beg for customisation: rear work stations trimmed in exotic wood, deep-pile cashmere carpeting, and spots for champagne coolers, picnic baskets and cigar humidors.

The more space you have to work with, the more you can customise – and the more money you can make, the thinking goes. For example: a picnic hamper costs US$46,000; a 9-carat-gold-plated Spirit of Ecstasy bonnet ornament costs US$17,000.

Add in man-hours on more complicated extras, such as custom woodwork, and prices go up from there.

While the Dawn was the brand’s bestseller last year in the US, look for the V12 Cullinan to surpass it in 2019, says Müller-Ötvös, single-handedly accounting for more than 20 per cent of sales.

“Cullinan will come into real play in 2019,” he says. “We are already sitting on a very strong order bank,” with most deliveries starting in the third quarter.

Cullinan is conquering buyers who might be tempted to buy Bentley’s Bentayga (US$200,000) or Lamborghini’s Urus (US$200,000) instead.

More than half of the people who have ordered a Cullinan are new to the brand. (Rolls-Royce’s official stance is that it stands alone in this rarefied air: “Bentley is not a competitor,” Müller-Ötvös says.)

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Bentley Motors, for its part, has gained stature in some circles since Cullinan made its debut. Early reviews of the Bentayga were mixed, with critical jabs taken at its Audi-like body and soft drivetrain. But during a conversation at the Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance, Bentley Chairman Adrian Hallmark said he felt “very good” about the Bentayga after seeing Cullinan’s debut.

“We are in fantastic position,” he said with a smile, referring to how the boxy and bigger Cullinan looked. The implication was that the new, more expensive offering from Rolls-Royce made Bentley’s SUV – which had debuted first – look good.

Indeed, Instagram commenters and other critics had seemingly moved on from beating up Bentayga in favour of Cullinan, which in photos can look like a gilded Mack truck.

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Big, expensive vehicles are easy targets, after all. They tend to photograph poorly and draw the most ire from environment- and class-minded critics, who decry their conspicuous consumption (12 miles per gallon in the city, never mind the cash outlay).

But they continue to be the primary money makers for Bentley, Rolls-Royce, Lamborghini and every other carmaker who makes a six-figure SUV, and even more so when they are bespoke.

Never mind the gas-thirsty drivetrain. It’s very much besides the point.

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