There can be little finer on a sunny spring day than driving down to Goodwood, borrowing a Rolls from the factory, and urging it to effortless progress across the rolling countryside.
The car on offer was a Ghost which is new and only in production since December. It stands alongside the Phantom and is smaller. Rolls-Royce does not say smaller. That would not do as an adjective to entice the world’s wealthy.
What the publicity material says is that the Ghost is more approachable than the Phantom. It’s all part of the special language of the super rich which we are not really supposed to hear but are allowed to overhear very occasionally. It is a bit like the old game of declining to list the power output of the Rolls-Royce engine but to describe it merely as adequate.
Rolls does not advertise. Oh no. It disseminates; and it was very agreeable to be disseminated to. “The Press is very important to us because we never advertise,” said the Press man.
The Ghost demonstrator – the only one they had left because people will keep buying them – was diamond black with black leather and shiny piano-black wood veneer. It was nice to know that four people had taken one whole day to apply the polish before it came off the end of the assembly line in the clinically clean Goodwood factory.
The four-door saloon is the first of what will be a family of Ghosts. By looking at the Phantom family one is able to conclude that the Ghosts will be four-door, two-door, convertible and long wheelbase. The people in the we-never-advertise-department are rather excited that more than 80% of prospects are new to the brand. There are 1,500 on the prospect list, and the conversion rate is always high. Rolls prospects come from the class known as UHNWIs – Ultra High Net Worth Individuals. That means a stash of US$30m or more.
There is no firm view as to whether smaller necessarily means better. Indeed there is no firm view as to whether cheaper is better. Expensive reassures some buyers that there will never be too many imitators. Ghost starts at GBP200,000 while Phantom is nearer GBP250,000.
“The size of the Phantom is both its biggest asset and its biggest liability,” says a director. Go on. “If you live in Monaco there is a chance you won’t be able to get a Rolls-Royce in your garage. But in Beverly Hills there is acres of garage space and the bigger the car the better.”
The absent-minded are good customers sometimes. An American who liked cars and had a lot of them placed an order for a Phantom recently. He rang back a week later and asked if he could put the order on ice. He’d found that he already had one at his Florida home.
There is good money to be mined from the vaults of the very particular. An unusually large Japanese client liked to finish his day by reading The Financial Times in full, take his favoured tipple in the back of the car on the way home, and then drop off. He paid for a purpose-built fridge with nests for the exact size of his drinks can, a special seat for his extensive needs, and a rack for his FT.
Demand does wobble around a bit. Last year it was down on 2008 but only by 10%. In 2007 by contrast, UHNWIs were rushing around trading contracts at $50,000 a pop for the right to buy a new Phantom drop-head coupe. This is the instant-gratification market writ large.
This year the production target is 1,000 cars and that will be fine for keeping 800 workers employed. Over its life-time in Goodwood, Rolls has not had to make a single redundancy. Whatever we think of giant luxury cars there can be no doubt that they add something to the landscape. We would all be the poorer if the weeds were to grow over the wonderfully landscaped grounds of Rolls-Royce Motor Cars manufacturing. The decline of Maybach has been an awful warning.
And the Ghost? Lovely. It looks good, rides as it should and can be made to hurtle. Top gizmo is the little button that summons some unseen force to close your door for you rather than you having the inconvenience of leaning over and pulling.
The hand-built interior is recognisably grander than that of the dominant German cars in the sector. BMW, of course, does not mind because it is the owner of Rolls. Volkswagen is ambivalent because it owns that other British motoring institution, Bentley.
But Mercedes minds a lot because it has had to admit defeat in the quest to re-establish Maybach. For them, seeing a Ghost is not a pleasure; it’s a haunting reminder of what should have been.