Made to treasure: creating bespoke cars for the luxury set

Words by
Jonathan Bell

19th December 2016

As customisation becomes standard for luxury brands, top car manufacturers are offering ever-more exclusive personalised services for their clients.

For some customers of luxury cars, the latest model will do. Not so for a distinct breed of customer, who wants even more panache than a £150,000-plus model offers. Why have a brogued, hand-stitched calfskin seat — which comes as “standard” — when you can integrate a sterling silver Asprey vanity set into the rear picnic table of a Mulsanne, complete with hairbrush and mirror set into their own custom-made compartment? This was the request of a recent Chinese client at Bentley.


Hand-painted floral motifs in the Rolls-Royce Serenity Phantom

The generous rear space in the Mulsanne and Flying Spur lends itself to all sorts of special storage requests, including humidors, cocktail cabinets and even tissue boxes. Colours are an emotive subject. Bentley has matched many things, including a dress to create the shimmering Sequin Blue, The company subsequently added to its extended range and it served as the launch colour for the Bentley Continental GT Speed. On another occasion, a favourite shade of nail polish was to be the inspiration. Rather than part with the bottle itself, the client applied it to the nails of Bentley’s sales manager, who then returned to the factory to get the match. For those who work in these exclusive departments, it comes with the territory.


The red upholstery of the one-off Rolls-Royce Phantom Chicane Coupe

As any motoring historian will tell you, the luxury car market began as a purely bespoke service, with individual cars tailored to each customer. Manufacturers and coachbuilders collaborated to fuse engineering excellence with the most exquisite designs of the day, leading to a plethora of literally unique creations. And nowadays even the most prosaic executive saloon is rarely identical to the car that follows it down the production line. Hundreds of thousands of combinations of paint, leather, interior trim and options, specified months in advance at a dealership or client laptop, make mass-market customisation integral to manufacturing.

Luxury brands are duty bound to go further. Today, every major luxury car-maker has a specialist division to cater to extraordinary requests. There is Q by Aston Martin, the Ian Fleming-esque workshop that brings customers’ fantasies to life. Rolls-Royce has its Bespoke service, while Bentley has Mulliner, a name with a long-standing connection to high-end customisation. McLaren runs its own Special Operations, while Jaguar Land-Rover has Special Vehicle Operations based in a glassy new facility near Coventry. And that’s just in the UK. Ferrari has its One-Off programme for unique machines, currently booked solid through to 2021 (simpler changes can be made through its Tailor Made service). Porsche has a separate Exclusive studio (“making the special even more special”) and Lamborghini launched the Ad Personam Studio at its Sant’Agata Bolognese headquarters in July this year.


Customised detailing by McLaren’s Special Operations service

A bespoke car begins as a conversation, says Geoff Dowding, head of Bentley’s Mulliner division. Over the years, Mulliner has created one-offs and limited production runs, as well as a host of small enhancements ranging from monograms to custom cocktail cabinets. “The desire for personalisation and to be different is clearly there in the very act of buying a Bentley,” says Dowding. “It’s a service for those who intend to keep the car for a long time. This is an emotional purchase and customers are adding emotion through the personalisation process.”

Dowding is at pains to point out that Mulliner can only work on projects that are “legislatively viable”. A modern car is shaped by a thousand regulations and the close collaboration between the styling and engineering team ensures that the Bentley DNA is preserved. “Our cars can achieve 200mph, so our modifications have to respect that engineering integrity,” he says. The majority of the division’s work lies in material changes. Mulliner can etch into carbon fibre, such as the graphics for the Breitling aerobatic display team that formed a centrepiece of the limited-edition Breitling Continental GT Speed. It can use traditional marquetry, as with the edition of four special “Blue Train” Mulsannes, each with a representation of Woolf Barnato’s legendary Gurney Nutting Sportsman Coupé inlaid in shades of Burr Walnut onto the dash.


Testing the hardness of a coating at McLaren

The Rolls-Royce Phantom Metropolitan features deco-inspired skylines set into the underside of the rear-seat picnic trays. The Goodwood manufacturer will happily take the wood from a favourite tree at a client’s holiday home and shave it into wafer-thin slices of finely polished grain for installation in a custom interior.

The Serenity Phantom represents one extreme of its craftsmanship, with its 10,000 hours of additional work. “We like to challenge ourselves and explore the cultural depth of the brand,” says James Warren, UK Communications Manager for Rolls-Royce. The silk upholstery harks back to the days when humble leather was reserved for the chauffeur. “Bespoke is about anticipating customer demands,” Warren continues.

“Our team comes from the worlds of textile design, fine art and yachting, so we have a good understanding of modern luxury.”

He points out that every Phantom is unique, as are 95% of the marque’s Ghosts and 97% of its Wraiths, and every Dawn so far. “Customers are seeking beyond just acquisition,” he says, recalling a client who picked a purple flower from the ground at the handover of his car and “told us it would be the colour of his next Rolls-Royce”. A music industry customer wanted his Phantom Coupe to evoke Tanzania, a place he found especially relaxing. Rolls-Royce responded by incorporating the violet-blue mineral Tanzanite in the interior design.


A customer treadplate on a Rolls-Royce Wraith

Even more eccentrically, an American client wanted his fifth Rolls to reference one of his favourite television shows. The team ended up developing a two-tone paint job for the Wraith based on Inspector Morse’s much-loved Jaguar Mk II. “It took 18 times longer to paint than a regular car,” recalls Warren, “and the treadplate even reads ‘Hand Built in Goodwood for Chief Inspector Morse’. Mass luxury can’t do this.’ 
Attention to detail is also manifested in Rolls-Royce’s popular “Starlight Headliner” feature in which tiny fibre-optic lights are woven into the leather lining of the roof to create a personalised constellation. Should you desire the night sky to mark a particular time and date, then Bespoke works with the South Downs Planetarium to get the stars aligned.

McLaren’s Special Operations division first came to prominence with the outrageous X-1, a McLaren MP4-12C altered beyond recognition via the futurist forms of Harley Earl and Gerry Anderson. Like the Grand Limousine — and several of Ferrari’s more outré coach-building efforts — the X-1 was a massive undertaking for both client and manufacturer. Almost completely bespoke, it took three years and a substantial investment to produce this retro-futuristic one-off. Some of the marque’s projects are more prosaic. One particularly delicate paint job was to match the early morning snow outside the owner’s chalet; they loved the glow of sunlight on the white and the blue tint that shone through as a result.


Hand-crafted stowage for the Bentley GQ Korea Flying Spur

Such bold commissioning sustained the big luxury brands during the economic doldrums of the 1980s and 1990s. The ruling family of Brunei infamously commissioned more than 1,000 unique cars, instructing premium brands to develop vehicles that never saw the light of day. Those days are over thanks largely to stricter regulations, rising costs and a far greater duty of care to brand values such as craftsmanship, reliability and performance. Even so, there is plenty of scope to go off-piste.


Colour samples for McLaren’s F1 supercar

The Q by Aston Martin personalisation service handles about 300 special orders every year, as well as an already rich list of options offered to Aston’s 4,000 “normal” customers. A “Q” car is something special but, explains Matthew Bennett, the marque’s General Manager of VIP and Q Sales, the service is first and foremost about connection and communication: “The biggest differentiator is the human interaction. It turns a purchase into a consultation and at the end you have a commission. It’s like a tailor-made suit — you become part of the process.”

Aston Martin is a relatively small operation and customer visits to its factory in Gaydon, Warwickshire, are a rewarding and highly recommended part of the buying experience. “We want to make the customer feel they’ve joined us,” says Bennett, recalling a recent occasion when Aston Martin’s chief designer, Marek Reichman, just happened to be passing the meeting room and popped in to offer some advice to a prospective client: “Only a very, very few people can say they have spoken personally to Marek about the design of their new Aston Martin.”

Q by Aston Martin brings customers into the marque’s family, for all its cars demand a close relationship with the design department. “We work hand in glove with Marek’s team,” says Bennett. “It’s fundamental that we look for inspiration — customers might be inspired by a suit, a painting, a piece of material.” He recalls a recent car that a client wanted to be reminiscent of a Norwegian forest. “There are subtle tones, hues of brown and green, beautifully book-matched wood,” he says. Another commission was the creation of a set of Aston wings using the metallic iridescent wings of the scarab beetle. The company commissioned a UK-based jeweller, which made a single set to grace the front and rear of a V12 Zagato.


An equestrian-themed Aston Martin DB9 Volante

One of the Q service’s most recent projects is the Vantage GT12 Roadster, an open-topped version of the acclaimed GT12 Coupe, which included reconfigured suspension and ceramic brakes, extra aerodynamic elements and a titanium exhaust. “It’s totally unique to the customer and there’s only one in existence,” says Bennett. “The customer was looking at the journey and not just at the end result.”

The modern bespoke car demands a far more discerning design approach than existed in the heady days of stocking the Sultan’s garage. Even so, diplomacy is required. “We try extremely hard not to say no,” says Bennett, “and we have a duty of care to give customers something with longevity.”