The showbiz unveiling of the Silver Seraph at this month’s Geneva motor show was a defining moment in the history of Rolls-Royce Motor Cars. With it, Rolls-Royce stopped being the sort of car maker it had been for almost 100 years. Without it, the company would have had no future.
The Silver Seraph is only the ninth all-new model in the company’s 94-year history. To make it, Rolls-Royce has turned its manufacturing philosophy upside down. It has stopped building its own engines and buying in body shells from Rover. Instead, it is making its own bodies for the Seraph, but buying in the engines from BMW.
And the new model is crucial to the future of the company. The sell-by date of the Seraph’s predecessor expired at the end of the 1980s, and unless Rolls-Royce introduced new products quickly, it was in danger of becoming an irrelevance. Although sales hit 3,333 in 1990, almost level with the record of 1978, they plunged to 1,360 in 1993, and only crawled back to 1,918 last year.
So, for all those involved in the design and development of the Seraph, the Geneva launch should have been a moment to savour. But the celebrations were overshadowed by the knowledge that its parent company Vickers, the tank maker, no longer wants the luxury car maker it has owned since 1980. Rolls-Royce is on the market.
‘For the past three months, I have been doing presentations to potential owners, when I should have been concentrating on the car launch,’ admits Graham Morris, Rolls-Royce chief executive.
Whichever company emerges from sales negotiations clutching the Double-R and winged-B Bentley motifs, Rolls-Royce is destined for yet more change. One bidder, BMW, which is to supply the engines for the forthcoming Bentley Arnage as well as the Seraph, says it will invest another £1bn on top of the purchase price to triple production and introduce a smaller model.
But if the private consortium led by Kevin Morley, the former Rover director, gets Rolls-Royce, BMW says it will immediately pull out of the engine contract. And BMW and Mercedes-Benz are ready to develop Rolls-Royce competitors of their own.
There could then be a repeat of today’s sale in another few years. No private consortium, however wealthy, could survive for long in a heavyweight bout with these German bruisers if its core competence is not automotive engineering.
The outlook is not much better if Vickers does not get the right price and takes down the for sale signs. History suggests that Rolls-Royce would be allowed to atrophy, especially now Vickers has decided its future lies in the defence business. Until it was given the go-ahead at the end of 1994, Rolls-Royce was kept on an inadequate cash drip-feed, despite technology strides by its competitors.
But sentiment aside, the fact is that outside the UK, car buyers remain underwhelmed by the Rolls-Royce and Bentley names. Today’s sales figures hide a serious flaw. Rolls-Royce and Bentley sales in the UK soared by 143% from 1993 to 1997. But in the rest of the world, they rose just 4%. In other words, the UK, which accounted for an unhealthy 46% of all sales last year, masks a lack of interest among car buyers in the rest of the world.
It is the job of the Silver Seraph and Arnage to tackle this problem. ‘The US ought to be our biggest market,’ says Morris. ‘We’re looking to the new cars to double our volume there to 750 to 800.’ That would take the new models close to the planned capacity of 55 a week, or around 2,600 annually.
It is more than a decade since Rolls-Royce production was this high, but it is still lower than Ferrari the closest price rival and half the level of the BMW 7 series, one of a handful of models which comes close in terms of size, performance and prestige.
The revolution in manufacturing at Rolls-Royce has slashed costs at the Crewe factory. The Seraph uses the BMW 5.4 litre V12 with a power output of 312hp. The Arnage will use the BMW 4litre V8, modified with twin turbochargers by Cosworth, a Vickers company. Both cars use adaptive five-speed automatic transmissions bought from ZF.
With no experience to draw on, Rolls-Royce contracted Mayflower to help engineer the body, buy the necessary tooling, oversee the body shop layout and retrain employees, many of whom previously assembled engines. Ironically, the Coventry-based firm briefly became a suitor for its client until warned off by BMW. Mayflower supplies around 60% of the pressings for the new cars, the remainder being sourced from Vickers Pressings in Newcastle upon Tyne.
The Seraph body follows an industry trend by increasing torsional rigidity. It is 65% stiffer than its predecessor, and uses steel closures rather than the aluminium of the Silver Spirit.
Other changes have involved the installation of a moving production line for the first time in the company’s history. However, says Morris, ‘You have to look hard to see it moving.’ The final assembly line is flanked by subassembly units where doors and centre consoles are put together. The upgraded paint shop and finished vehicle testing has been automated.
The result, says Rolls-Royce, is a production time of 400 hours per vehicle, compared with 800 hours (including engine assembly) for the old model. Much of that time is devoted to labour-intensive craft work that Rolls-Royce believes its customers want: woodwork, leather and hand polishing of the so-called jewellery.
Other technical highlights include double wishbone all-independent suspension with adaptive damping, four-channel anti-lock brakes, rack and pinion power steering and automatic stability control.
The redesign reduced kerb weight by around 7% to a still chunky 2,302kg. Top speed is limited to 225kph, and acceleration from rest to 100kph takes seven seconds. The car is said to have an overall fuel consumption of 17.4litres per 100km (16.2mpg). It is fractionally wider and taller than the model it replaces, and slightly shorter.
German driveline or not, the Silver Seraph cannot be mistaken for anything other than a Rolls-Royce. Unlike Mercedes-Benz’s swoopy and dramatic Maybach concept car a competitor the Seraph is likely to face early next century the look of the new Rolls-Royce is quintessentially British and unashamedly retro.
Morris says he is unconcerned that the look might date very quickly because the car was conceived on the basis of an eight-year production life 10 years less than the old model had to soldier on.
Who said Rolls-Royce couldn’t adapt to the late 20th century?