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Rolling in it

Increased Rolls-Royce sales highlight growth of super-rich

FILE - In this Nov. 21, 2013 file photo, models pose beside the Rolls-Royce Canton Glory at the company's booth during Guangzhou 2013 Auto Show in China's southern city of Guangzhou. Britain-based Rolls-Royce on Tuesday, July 8, 2014 said that global sales in the first half of the year were up 33 percent compared with the same period in 2013.  (AP Photo/Kin Cheung, File)

FILE - In this Nov. 21, 2013 file photo, models pose beside the Rolls-Royce Canton Glory at the company's booth during Guangzhou 2013 Auto Show in China's southern city of Guangzhou. Britain-based Rolls-Royce on Tuesday, July 8, 2014 said that global sales in the first half of the year were up 33 percent compared with the same period in 2013. (AP Photo/Kin Cheung, File)

LONDON — They are rolling symbols of wealth and excess, starting at $263,000 a pop, with many buyers choosing custom options that can easily double the price. And they are more popular than ever before.

Rolls-Royce reported a startling rise in demand for their distinctive cars Tuesday.

The British-made cars, updated to reflect the technical know-how and marketing might of parent company BMW, have become must-haves for the new global elite. That group is growing in number even as much of the world struggles to get by in an era of low growth, low expectations and high unemployment.

The company said 1,968 cars were sold in the first half of this year compared to 1,475 in the same period last year.

The 33 percent rise in sales for the first six months of 2014 compared to the same period last year is explained not just by the cars’ plush leather seats and gleaming paintwork — those are old standbys for the brand, which used to focus on the British aristocracy — but also by the rising number of billionaires worldwide.

A Forbes survey says there are 1,645 billionaires in the world, 219 more than a year ago.

“If you look at the number of ultra-high net worth individuals around the world, that number is clearly growing,” said company spokesman Andrew Ball. “The luxury market is growing at the high end and we are delighted to be part of that.”

The phenomenon helps to explain the strong sales of mega-yachts, rare jewelry and complicated, handmade Swiss watches. There are more people with more money looking for ways to stand out from the crowd — and in this context, a Rolls becomes a very noticeable statement.

Ball said 70 percent of Rolls buyers are new to the brand, and roughly half choose to customize their cars by adding expensive personal touches. The cost of making a Rolls “bespoke” — the British term for custom-made suits — rather than “off the rack” can dwarf many household budgets.

“It can be simple, like having your initials stitched into the headrest or the veneer,” said Ball. “Customers enjoy this. It’s an emotional process.”

It’s also a level of consumerism that soars as high as London’s famous Shard skyscraper: A refrigerator inside the automobile can be custom built to accommodate the shape and size of the owner’s favorite beverage — at a cost rivaling a year in a U.S. college.

At Rolls-Royce Motor Cars London, the showroom in a particularly posh section of Mayfair, visitors are drawn to a sparkling black Phantom (starting at $600,000) and the Wraith, a bargain at $400,000 unless you want some options. The back of the dealership resembles a home furnishings store, with samples of different woods and hides.

Gone are the days when Rolls-Royce traditionalists sneered at Beatle John Lennon for adding a psychedelic paint job to his Phantom V. When a man walked into the Mayfair showroom carrying his wife’s favorite pink lipstick and asking for a Rolls in the same shade, the company was happy to provide one, said salesman Stephen Foulds.

He said the customer base was growing younger, with one Chinese man in his 20s recently ordering his second Rolls in an unusual all-white color scheme. Another traded in his Lamborghini when he was starting a family because he needed a backseat.

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