Vol. 2, Issue 29, July 27, 2004
For Rolls-Royce, There Is Such a Thing as Too Much Luxury
The name "Rolls-Royce" has been synonymous with luxury automobiles for a century. Legendary vehicles such as the Phantom and the Silver Shadow have inspired awe and envy among people for generations. So it may come as a surprise to find that for Rolls-Royce, the biggest concern today is too much luxury.
"It has become quite a headache to be frank," said Gerald Parker, vice-chairman of development at Rolls-Royce. "When Hyundai started offering optional mahogany interiors, we knew serious action was required."
The problem is that while Rolls-Royce remains the definitive luxury car, it is no longer so far removed from the everyday cars driven by upper middle-class drivers as to be unimaginable.
"The whole point of truly first-class luxury is that it is unattainable for virtually everyone in the world besides the absolute top echelons of society," explained Parker. "A sufficient distance must be maintained in order for the difference to be meaningful."
Today it is common for cars to come with such amenities as air-conditioning, compact disc players, and leather seats standard, with a host of engineering improvements that even luxury-car owners could scarcely have dreamed of twenty years ago.
"The bloody robots have gotten too good at what they do," fumed Parker. "When they were still clumsy orange monstrosities being managed by unshaven welders in Detroit, our craftsmen had a clear advantage. But hardware and software improvements have led to production lines with tolerances that are beyond even the savviest and most experienced of our craftsmen."
The closing gap has led to struggles at Rolls-Royce, which entered into a merger with BMW in 1999 in an effort to revitalize itself. The jointly-produced 2003 Phantom was a significant success, but with the average luxury available to the merely rich increasing annually, the filthy rich who are Rolls-Royce's core consumers have expressed displeasure.
Rolls-Royce experimented with many ideas (including a solid gold version of the Phantom which designers eventually gave up on due to troublesome engineering) before reaching its solution: a multi-year, multi-billion dollar pact with the major automobile companies throughout the world to reduce the luxury options available in their vehicles.
"Mercedes-Benz has agreed to remove hardwood paneling as an option, Lexus is doing away with anti-lock brakes, and Hyundai is even taking air conditioners off the market," Parker said with glee. "It will once again be possible to possess a vehicle so far above the common crowd as to inspire both worship and jealous rage among the common man. Ah, good times."