Back in the heyday of the coach-built era, practically every luxury car was a piece of unique craftsmanship, with ever y panel and curve hand-shaped for the benefit of a single customer’s desires. Mass product ion was for the masses and had little to do with choice. All that has changed. Today’s sophisticated production lines churn out volume models with dizzyingly vast variations. To be truly unique, you must go back to bespoke.
In the past two decades, the luxury car has undergone a total transformation, with many makers changing ownership along with radical shifts in customer expectation, quality of technology and innovations in branding, marketing and design. Manufacturers who were once happy to mine an anachronistic seam of extravagant nostalgia are now at the cutting edge of technology and design. The VW Group’s ownership of Bentley and Lamborghini has transformed each company, while Rolls-Royce has benefitted immeasurably from BMW’s brand acumen and deep pockets – both of which were essential to once again create the ‘best car in the world’. Aston Martin has ridden out decades of disinterested management to come back to the top of the game, and McLaren is once again flying the flag for independent innovation.
To accommodate these high-spending individuals – be they collectors, enthusiasts or simply eccentrics – special divisions have been created to cater for them. Bentley has Mulliner, named for a famed carriage-maker that can trace its history back to the eighteenth century. HJ Mulliner & Co was bought by Rolls-Royce in 1959, and the name hived off to Bentley when the two marques diverged in 2003. Aston Martin has its ‘Q’ division – no prizes for guessing the inspiration for that particular moniker – while McLaren has the exciting-sounding Special Operations, run from the spectacular high-tech lair that is the company’s Surrey HQ. Ferrari has a long-standing one-off department, capable of catering to the specific whims and demands of its passionate customer base, while Lamborghini’s Ad Personam studio will walk you through ways of making your Italian supercar even more eye-popping. Personalisation programmes aren’t just for the super-luxury, though. Porsche runs the ‘Exclusive’ studio, Jaguar Land Rover has a dedicated ‘Special Vehicle Operations’ and Mercedes-Benz has a ‘Designo Manufaktur’ division.
Typically, these departments offer three types of service. The first is the supply of special colours, trim and equipment. The second is the creation of limited editions that go above and beyond ‘regular’ models, with special details and finishes. Finally, there are unique one-offs. You might think that Rolls-Royce’s special service, called simply ‘Bespoke’, is redundant, given that practically every car leaving their Goodwood factory incorporates some kind of unique customer request. But Rolls-Royce recently went much further, indulging the specific requests of a long-term customer to create something that no-one else could possibly have: a brand-new Rolls-Royce model in an edition of exactly one (see below to find out more).
It’s practically impossible to deviate from the engineering ‘hard points’ that underpin the standard model, but given the endless time and funds, every luxury car maker will push their processes to the limit to indulge special requests. Some liken the process to building a yacht or a new house, where the creative journey is just as important as the final destination. Rest assured that simple requests can still be accommodated. Manufacturers speak of customers wanting to colour match paint to a lipstick, pair of shoes or a favourite painting, or stitching a family crest on to the seats. Perhaps you’d like to incorporate wood from a favourite tree into the dashboard, or recreate the colour scheme from a classic car in your collection?
Armed only with a few swatches or a scrapbook of memories, the personalised car is about creating a greater connection between customer and product. The world of automotive high design has come full circle and the bespoke automobile is back on the agenda. The future of luxury is all about individuality, and with technologies like 3D printing growing in sophistication and scale, the idea of creating unique body styles and cabins will be a defining quality at the upper end of the market. As luxury cars evolve into autonomous compartments for refined, comfortable and private point-to-point travel, design differentiation will make all the difference, inside and out. If you have the time, money and the desire, you’ll find plenty of places willing to make your vision a reality.
The Rolls-Royce Sweptail
With a brief that deliberately evoked the company’s unique cars of the 1920s and 1930s, the Rolls-Royce Sweptail is an imposing two-seater designed to turn every journey into an occasion. The company describes the Sweptail model as ‘automotive haute couture’ and the design process for this monumental coupe took a number of years.
Revealed at the Villa d’Este Concorso d’Eleganza in 2017, the Sweptail is the perfect synergy of client and designer. The Sweptail makes direct parallels to the glory days of unique-bodied cars, but also highlights the extreme complexity of achieving similar results with today’s demanding engineering and safety requirements.
Elements like the aluminium grille (the largest to ever appear on a Rolls – a company not known for modest design statements) and the glass roof required a clean sheet of paper and extensive engineering work. As a result, the budget was apparently around £10m (although Rolls-Royce never discusses anything as vulgar as money), which is positive proof that anything is possible when cost isn’t a restriction. More at: www.rolls-roycemotorcars.com