The man who has the most enviable role in luxury mixes English charm with his native German precision to breathe fresh life into a venerable old marque, writes John Arlidge.
Who has the best job in the £190 billion global luxury goods business? The men and the odd woman who run the great fashion and jewellery maisons are contenders, but not even they win the fine-feathered chapeau. It belongs to Torsten Müller-Ötvös, a wiry fella who was born in Düsseldorf but grew up in Munich.
You may not have heard of him, but you have certainly heard of his product — Rolls-Royce ‘Motor Cars’, as he likes to put it. What he makes is as close as you can get to the definition of luxury.
Rolls-Royces are unique. No other car looks like them or drives like them. They set the bar so high that, unlike any other luxury brand, the marque has no direct competition. Ferrari competes with Lamborghini, McLaren and Aston Martin. Hermès competes with Louis Vuitton. Cartier competes with Bulgari. Aman hotels compete with Armani hotels.
But Rolls-Royce’s sole competitor, Bentley, now sells cars for everyone from footballers’ wives to aristocrats. ‘Why would anyone spend €600,000 on a car when the same brand sells a model for €120,000?
If you have one foot in the mass luxury market, that will erode you. It’s not right,’ Müller-Ötvös argues. He is happy selling a mere 4,000 cars a year, says volumes will never reach five figures and no car he sells will ever cost less than €250,000. ‘For us, competition is not another carmaker. It is a chalet in the Swiss Alps or a fantastic piece of art or jewellery.’ It
sounds bonkers and arrogant — but it’s true, and he’s not. Six years in England have even softened his Germanic stiffness. He now sports Paul Smith trainers with jeans and a Dunhill blazer.
This spring Müller-Ötvös is launching the sixth Rolls-Royce since BMW bought the brand in 1999. (Volkswagen bought Bentley in the same year when the two sister brands split). Dawn is ‘a sociable, true four-seater convertible that looks like a hot-rod, yet is easy to drive,’ he says. At £300,000, it is cheaper than the outgoing Rolls-Royce convertible, the
Phantom Drophead coupe, and smaller too. That’s the point. ‘For many people, the Drophead coupe was too big a statement. They told us, “It is not a car I would drive every day.”’ Many of those ‘many people’ were women, whom Rolls-Royce, like all car firms, is desperate to attract. ‘Around 15 per cent of our customers are women. We think this car will
increase that figure,’ Müller-Ötvös says. He also wants more young customers. ‘We’ve got the average age of our customer down from 55 to 45, with new models such as Ghost and Wraith which our owners love to drive, not to be driven in by a chauffeur. Dawn will rejuvenate us further.’ It will also increase the marque’s profits.
Driving the new V12, 6.65-litre, 563bhp Dawn is not like driving any other kind of car — except another Rolls-Royce. It’s more like sailing, on land. Press the accelerator and the prow of the bonnet rises and the car glides ahead effortlessly and races up to 150mph
without a murmur of protest. The loudest thing you can hear is not the fabled ticking of the clock, but the wind as it races over you. Close your eyes, if you dare, and you could really be on water.
How has BMW pulled off the trick of reviving the most exclusive car marque (while also reviving the quintessential people’s car, the Mini, that it plucked from the wreckage of the Rover Group)? The answer lies in a curious mix of the best of Britain and the best of Germany. ‘British luxury brands are more charming than German brands,’ says Müller-Ötvös. ‘German brands are engineering brands and engineering tends to be cold. British brands have great personality, charisma. They are quirky, eccentric and bold. And, of course, they have long history. You can go to the smallest, most remote city in China and everyone knows what Rolls-Royce is. No other country has brands like that.’
In spite of a decline in manufacturing, Britain still has a great tradition of craftsmanship. ‘Some people say that it is impossible to build things in Britain any more. That is totally wrong. The craftsmen in Britain are brilliant. On the way to creating a Rolls-Royce, there are lots and lots of battles and our craftsmen are brilliant at firefighting. If they need to, they improvise. They rip up the rule book and come up with an innovative solution quickly — while many Germans would still be studying the rule book.’
However, Britons are not very good at planning ahead. ‘If there is one thing that drives me mad about Brits, it’s the way they say, “We’ll cross the river when we get to it.” No German would ever say that,’ Müller-Ötvös laughs. ‘A German plans three days before he gets to the river, so he can be sure he will make it. He also probably carries a second bridge with him, just in case the first does not work. Germans are really great at structure and implementing rigid processes that mean, at the end of the day, you get what you are asking for.’
Combine British quirk and charm with German planning and process and the result is the ultimate driving machine. ‘Brits and Germans are a unique and perfect fit,’ says Müller-Ötvös.
The spiffy Anglo-German alliance will soon be put to the toughest test. Shortly after Dawn, Müller-Ötvös will launch two more cars. One is the latest model of not only Rolls-Royce’s but the luxury market’s most famous limousine, the Phantom. BMW began its ownership of Rolls-Royce by creating an allnew Phantom. The new, new model will be launched in 2018. ‘It will be a new, bold, confident statement. When you see it you will know instantly that it is the new Phantom,’ Müller-Ötvös says. It will need to stand out, as sales of limousines around the world are in decline.
After that, he has to go one better. With the likes of Bentley, Maserati, Porsche, Jaguar, and Lamborghini launching 4x4s, Rolls-Royce has no choice but to make one of its own. One is being developed under the name Cullinan. Can an off-road vehicle really bear the Spirit of Ecstasy atop the bonnet?
‘In the early 1900s there were lots of Rolls-Royces made for the desert, for jungle cruises, for tiger hunts. The cars that went to South Africa and Australia were very much off-road cars. They were not four-wheel drive but they were rugged. Lawrence of Arabia drove a Rolls-Royce in the Middle East. There is history and credibility. Plus, don’t forget we make big cars. We will make the Rolls-Royce of SUVs. Watch this space.’