On the Road from Ordinary to Extraordinary: A Careful Drive


Suzanne Denbow | November 23, 2009

Relatively standardised when compared to other sectors, luxury auto materials are more a question of lavish quantities, performance ratio or loving treatment.

Relatively standardised when compared to other sectors, luxury auto materials are more a question of lavish quantities, performance ratio or loving treatment.

PHILADELPHIA, USA – In the rarefied world of elite automobiles, the “baubles and kitsch approach” to luxury has never really been a guiding design principle. First-class aesthetics — and the luxury materials that bind them — are often a by-product of superior quality and engineering. Whether the nameplate reads Kia or Koenigsegg, the mandate of the automobile doesn’t differ as wildly as in other industries. Consequently, luxury is not defined so much by what is used but, rather, how it is used.

In order to distinguish themselves from pack automakers, tier-one manufacturers must pay careful attention to strategy and engineering, meaning the best way a company can demonstrate its luxury prowess is by how it achieves its performance goals. Make it stronger, lighter, faster — get it from point A to point B in a manner that leaves an indelible impression on your client base. And, yes, make it softer, shinier and prettier too, through subtle and sympathetic execution.

For automakers like Rolls-Royce, this means maintaining a century-old stance on painstaking attention to detail despite the fully-automated assembly procedures made possible by the great advancements of 21st-century technology. To ensure that Rolls-Royce maintains its competitive edge while still using relatively commonplace materials, the engineering process is made extremely hands-on from conception to delivery. While the burr walnut wood and soft leather hides that are used differ very little in physical composition from those of many of its competitors, what is unique to the Rolls-Royce firm is the process by which they are selected and procured.

Wood veneers are not merely imported from large, anonymous suppliers, but hand-selected by the head of Rolls-Royce’s Goodwood-based woodshop in the UK. Leathers are treated using a specialised dying process aimed at preventing the deep cracking often seen in older vehicles, thus ensuring that the material, like the vehicle itself, ages gracefully. “This whole concept of Rolls-Royce [has always] been about the best that exists. Take the best that exists and make it better,” says Rolls-Royce’s product PR manager Jon Stanley.

Bentley too earns the bulk of its reputation from the hours devoted to moulding and crafting its interior materials. For their latest flagship model, the Mulsanne, Bentley has taken a renewed approach to satisfy the exclusive touch customers crave in their luxury automobiles. To imitate the stately, intoxicating aroma of a vintage Bentley that has enamoured so many loyal customers over the years, the process by which the leather is tanned has been altered to mimic the time-consuming methods used in the past. The sumptuous, unbroken rings of the burr walnut veneers, which begin life as a rough root-ball in a forest somewhere around Bentley’s Crewe-based British factory, take a full two weeks to evolve into the mirror-polished inlays seen in the finished vehicle. The stretch of cow hide on a single steering wheel can take as long as fifteen hours to hand-stitch, and that time triples if the customer requests cross-stitching.

Exterior and interior views of the Bentley Mulsanne

A further ten hours are devoted entirely to polishing the stainless steel brightware, which is roughly equivalent to the amount of time it would take a standard automaker to produce a mid-size vehicle on an assembly line. “Over 170 hours — almost half the entire build process — goes into crafting the interior of the new Mulsanne,” explained Bentley’s head of interior design, Robin Page. “At Crewe, Bentley’s way of working is the opposite of mass production — we start where others stop.”

For other luxury automakers, the same concept — putting a new spin on material conventions — is exploited through exterior construction materials. Rather than relying on the development and implementation of wood and leather as their “power materials”, so to speak, it is with metallurgy that they reign supreme. When it comes to triple-digit speed limits and sub-five-second launch times, the two metals relied on most by engineers are titanium and carbon fibre.

On their own, neither conjures stately refinement, yet they are to mechanical engineering what pashmina and silk are to the fashion industry. At roughly six to ten times the cost of steel (depending on market fluctuations), titanium has been a favourite of prime designers thanks largely to its outstanding strength-to-weight ratio. The production of titanium yields relatively low units at an extremely high cost, which means only the most exclusive firms can afford to liberally use it and even then, often only in limited engine applications, such as connecting rods, wrist pins, valves, retainer springs, camshafts, etc.

The other lightweight, virtually indestructible material that is relied upon heavily by nearly every manufacturer within the upper segment is carbon fibre. Like titanium, carbon fibre is both extremely lightweight and durable; yet unlike its alloy brethren, carbon fibre is much more common as an aesthetic accessory. Its very unique woven design coupled with its high-profile appearance on Formula One vehicles has made it a popular “accessory choice” for many enthusiasts. But once again the genius is not in the material itself but in its application. For a relatively small firm like Gumpert, this has resulted in achieving feats of engineering previously held as urban legend. At the live unveiling of the Gumpert Apollo Speed at the Geneva Motor Show in March of this year, the German brand stunned press and industry professionals alike with its revised carbon fibre monocoque safety cell that renders the added weight of the driver as essentially neutral and allows the Apollo Speed to enjoy a significantly increased downforce. This, according to the Gumpert spokesman on hand at the show, “theoretically enables the Apollo to drive in a tunnel with a speed over 270 km/h, topside-down, at the ceiling, without falling down.”

The Gumpert Apollo Speed

Although they may not necessarily duplicate engineering achievements as fantastic as Gumpert’s feat of driving upside-down, all top tier automakers of truly distinguished vehicles watch every seam and stitch of their materials. In a market that’s largely limited in terms of which materials can be used, it’s imperative that heavy emphasis be placed on the details in order to build a product immediately identifiable as unparalleled in its class. For Rolls-Royce, this means dispatching design engineers to inspect felled trees by hand, whereas for Bentley, it means allowing their future leathers to graze in a free-range pasture, lest their hides be blemished by contact with rough surfaces. For the more aggressive, track-bred vehicles, it means splurging on purchasing metals at an exorbitant cost that, to the untrained eye, could easily be mistaken for something as mundane as roofing materials.

These details, while perhaps not as eye-catching as diamond-encrusted radio controls, nonetheless mean the difference between a six-figure vehicle truly deserving of the staggering price and a quick flash in the pan that will do well in initial sales but eventually fade into obscurity after the warranty expires. Ostentatious displays of wealth are easy to come by in an industry littered with aftermarket equipment specialists, but the true mark of superiority is much more subtle in its features and begins with a keen knowledge and mastery of the most basic materials.

Suzanne Denbow is editor-in-chief of Ridelust, a car blog for car enthusiasts

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