Strive for Perfection

The house of Rolls-Royce

The house of Rolls-Royce

An aerial view of a large building with a pond in the background.

Former Rolls-Royce spokesman Fred Fruth reflects on how, 20 years ago, Goodwood became the luxury marque's inspirational new home

"The HQ and manufacturing plant most definitely will remain in Britain; even in England to be precise.” This was the promise made on 28 July 1998 by Bernd Pischetsrieder, the then chairman of BMW Group, at an international press conference held in London’s QEII Centre, where he confirmed BMW Group’s acquisition of “the rights to the brand Rolls-Royce for automotive business” from its sole legal holder, Rolls-Royce plc.

The group’s strategy was to preserve the values and integrity of the world’s most celebrated automotive marque by clearly positioning it as independent of the BMW brand, rather than incorporating it into its wider product portfolio.

How it all began

From the 1980s onwards, more stringent safety and environmental standards meant ever-increasing costs for car manufacturers. They sought to mitigate these by entering into co-operation and joint ventures, particularly in their research and development efforts.

BMW was already a long-standing partner of the then similarly named but entirely separate Rolls-Royce plc, with their joint-operated plant – BMW Rolls-Royce Aero Engines GmbH (BRR) – building medium-sized jet engines in Dahlewitz, Germany, on the outskirts of Berlin.

During the 1990s, BMW became an increasingly important development partner for Rolls-Royce Motors Ltd at Crewe. From the beginning of this partnership, BMW expressed its interest in establishing an even closer relationship, with the aim of a complete takeover at a later date, should such a possibility ever be considered. Indeed, as early as 1990, BMW had already made an initial offer, but this had been rejected by Vickers plc, the main shareholder of Rolls-Royce Motors. The timing, it would seem, was not quite right.

In December 1994, an agreement was reached for the delivery of complete BMW V12 and V8 engines, as well as other components such as onboard electronic devices, airbag technology and air-conditioning units. These were for the new Rolls-Royce Silver Seraph and Bentley Arnage model ranges, due for launch at the Geneva Motor Show in March 1998.

Then, in October 1997, Vickers announced its intention to sell. BMW confirmed its interest and tabled an offer, which Vickers accepted, thereby acquiring the “rights to the brand Rolls-Royce for automotive business”. However, later that same year, Volkswagen Group also placed an offer, eventually leading to its takeover of the entire Crewe premises, together with the Bentley brand.

As a consequence, 72 years after their 1931 merger, Rolls-Royce and Bentley became legally separated once more. Recent history tells us that this was in fact to the benefit of the individual development of both marques, in line with their distinct brand values.

Following the famous “Memorandum of Understanding” reached by Rolls-Royce plc, BMW Group and Volkswagen Group, BMW held the aforementioned press conference in London to formally announce its acquisition of the Rolls-Royce brand.

BMW’s first task was to find a suitable location for an all-new global head office and Centre of Luxury Manufacturing Excellence – what would become the home of Rolls-Royce. It also had to recruit a skilled, highly trained workforce and, most important of all, ensure a prosperous, secure and profitable future for Rolls-Royce Motor Cars by developing new products that delivered a contemporary interpretation of its traditional values.

A so-called “transition period” of five years was agreed, allowing BMW the time it needed to address these challenges. In the meantime, the now Volkswagen-owned Crewe company was “licensed free of charge” by BMW to continue manufacturing Rolls-Royce products and marketing the brand until 31 December 2002. This avoided its disappearance from the international market, in the interest of customers and dealers worldwide.

The house of Rolls-Royce

An aerial view of a large building with a pond in the background.
Goodwood, the home of Rolls-Royce Motor Cars, blends into the South Downs landscape
A vintage car is driving down a country road.
An early-morning run for the 1912 Rolls-Royce Silver Ghost "Taj Mahal" on Sussex's country roads, on the way to the famous Goodwood motor circuit
A silver rolls royce car.
Employees mark the end of Rolls-Royce production at Crewe, August 2002
Three men in suits shaking hands with each other.
Sir Ralph Robins (left), Bernd Pischetsrieder (centre) and Ferdinand Piëch (right) of Rolls-Royce plc, BMW and VW respectively shake hands in July 1998

A new home for Rolls-Royce

Rolls-Royce’s new head office and production centre not only had to be in England, as promised, but also had to fulfil a number of other, very specific requirements. It should be an inviting, attractive place for customers to visit when commissioning a bespoke motor car. It should also be an immaculate, well-considered and impressive facility, befitting of the luxury cars being handmade there by skilled experts. Conventional industrial estates, though perhaps more attractive initially from a commercial perspective, were therefore absolutely out of the question.

More than 100 potential locations were offered by communities all over Britain, who hoped to benefit from the huge investment and job creation that a successful bid would inevitably result in. From these, a shortlist of just five was selected. The firm favourite was Goodwood, near Chichester in West Sussex, in the beautiful south of England.

The estate of Charles Gordon-Lennox, 11th Duke of Richmond (then Lord March), Goodwood was chosen for a host of reasons. Its beautiful environs would meet clients’ high expectations perfectly, while the estate’s impressive Goodwood House could serve as a potential venue for social events and presentations, alongside its hotel and two golfing resources. Goodwood’s famous racecourse and motor circuit, airfield and Chichester Festival Theatre further boosted its appeal, as did the region’s cluster of specialist automotive firms, abundance of skilled craftspeople from the yacht industry and others, and universities and colleges. Add to that the proximity to London, international airports and the seaports of Southampton and Portsmouth and the case for choosing Goodwood was overwhelming. Last but not least was its position just eight miles from the village of West Wittering, where Sir Henry Royce lived from 1917 until his passing in 1933.

“Conventional industrial estates, though perhaps more attractive initially from a commercial perspective, were absolutely out of the question”

So far, so good. The duke and Karl-Heinz Kalbfell, who headed up BMW Group’s “Project Rolls-Royce”, soon reached an agreement, securing obvious benefits for both parties. But what about the “rest of the world”: immediate neighbours; local, regional and national authorities; and, not least, the Environment Agency? Would they support or oppose the project? Would Rolls-Royce ever obtain permission to build a modern manufacturing plant close to what was (and remains) an officially designated Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, less than a mile from the South Downs National Park boundary? These and a myriad of other obstacles faced the team, all with the potential to block the project before it even started.

However, these were balanced from day one by a large number of significant voices offering their pragmatic and enthusiastic support. Among them were the Rolls-Royce Enthusiasts’ Club, under the presidency of the late Eric Barrass, and in particular the Central Southern Section, with backing initiated by its secretary, Ted Meachem; the US-based Rolls-Royce Owners’ Club; and Andrew Wood and his late twin brother Paul of P&A Wood fame, to name but a few.

Very quickly, businesses from across the South, as well as local colleges and universities, became aware of the potential for becoming partners or suppliers to Rolls-Royce once the site was up and running. Their representations to the various regional and national authorities in support of the planning application would also prove to be highly significant.

Indeed, getting the final go-ahead, including gaining planning permission from the authorities and winning over the immediate neighbours, the sometimes sceptical or even negative media and the worldwide fraternity of Rolls-Royce enthusiasts, proved to be the project’s greatest challenge. It was also its most significant accomplishment during that pioneering period.

The project team finally received approval in principle from Chichester District Council in the late summer of 2001. With the blessing of the central government in Westminster, underlined by a visit by Prime Minister Tony Blair’s office in March that year, construction preparations could finally start. However, time was now running alarmingly short: BMW had promised the world not only a grand opening of its facility on 1 January 2003, but also to deliver the very first Goodwood-built motor car to a customer the same day. The race was well and truly on.

The sun is shining through the trees.
The landscaping around the facility includes more than 400 trees and plants
A spiral staircase in front of a building.
The striking, contemporary architecture of award-winning Nicholas Grimshaw & Partners

Building the vision

Four of the UK’s most renowned and prominent architectural practices were invited to submit entries for the opportunity to design the new Rolls-Royce building. The winner was Nicholas Grimshaw & Partners (now Grimshaw) of London; Sir Nicholas’s most famous design masterpiece at that time was the Eden Project in Cornwall.

A requirement of planning was for the building to be discreet. The design team came up with a clever solution – a partly transparent building complex cleverly integrated into the surrounding parkland. To make it even less visible, some of the structure would be below ground level. In addition, the entire building complex was to be covered by the largest “living roof” in the UK to help it blend seamlessly into its 42-acre site within the picturesque, 300-year-old Goodwood Estate. The planting of some 400,000 trees and shrubs was the final stage of the construction process.

A beautiful lake in front of the office building collects surplus water from the roof and the built-up areas after heavy rain, and also serves as an integral part of the indoor cooling system. As an added benefit, the lake provides a charming view when entering the site from the main drive.

The jewel in the crown of Rolls-Royce’s home is the “Glass Mile” – a vast space comprised entirely of windows, allowing natural light to stream in and provide an illuminated view of the entire production line.

Construction had started on 24 August 2001 with a formal groundbreaking ceremony attended by the media and local dignitaries. One was tempted to say, “Gentlemen, start your engines”, referring not to racing cars, of course, but to the numerous diggers and other machines on site. By then, there were just 16 months left before the scheduled grand opening.

What happened next has passed into automotive legend. The joint efforts of everybody involved, under the most challenging circumstances, ensured that construction was completed as the end of the year approached. Car production began precisely on time, and the keys of the very first Goodwood-built Phantom (chassis number UH00001) were handed over to the proud owner at one minute past midnight on 1 January 2003.

Thus, after Manchester, Derby and Crewe, and almost 100 years since the company’s foundation, Goodwood became the fourth headquarters of Rolls-Royce Motor Cars. Including Springfield, Massachusetts in the US, it was also the fifth manufacturing site for the iconic marque.

An assembly line in a factory.
A view inside the Nicholas Grimshaw-designed building, showing the cars' final testing area
A large glass building with a lot of windows.
The facility’s “Glass Mile” affords an illuminated view of production at dusk, and in natural light by day

The Goodwood Phantom

During the construction work, an equally enthusiastic team of engineers and designers were busy, under very similar conditions and time pressure, creating an all-new motor car, the aforementioned “Goodwood Phantom”. To mark a completely new chapter in the company’s history, it was decided to present the world with a car that combined the very latest technology with a contemporary interpretation of Rolls-Royce’s traditional brand values. The result, later known as Phantom VII, was launched at the North American International Auto Show (NAIAS) in an ice-cold Detroit on 4 January 2003. Chief Designer Ian Cameron invited John Blatchley, designer of the iconic Silver Cloud and other famous Rolls-Royces, to view and give his opinion on the final design of the new Phantom. John delivered his verdict in a personal letter to Ian, dated 14 August 2002: “What you and your team have created: a Rolls-Royce through and through from nose to tail.”

Fred Fruth was the first General Manager of Public Affairs at Rolls-Royce Motor Cars, Goodwood. He is now retired.

A house with trees and grass in front of it.
A pathway leads to the expansive space that houses Goodwood’s production line