Rolls-Royce sales glide smoothly ahead

Cruising one of the world's most glamorous shopping districts in an open Rolls-Royce convertible, you can't help but feel the love.

A man waves from a seat inside a coffee shop. Valet parking attendants at Spago restaurant hail the sapphire-blue whale. A panhandler in a white running suit accepts a crisp $5 bill and offers to drag race down Rodeo Drive for the pink slip: his overloaded pushcart vs. the car's 453 horses.

The driver, Paul Ferraiolo, politely declines. But as president of Rolls-Royce Motor Cars' U.S. operation, Ferraiolo knows that even in Beverly Hills, the city where more of his cars are sold than any other, the sight of a sparkling Phantom Drophead Coupé still creates a stir.

While the rest of the auto industry struggles, the good times are still rolling for Rolls sales. Millions of strapped Americans are cutting expenses. Even luxury car sales are down. But so far — knock on the convertible's hand-tooled teak deck hiding the folded top — the super-rich aren't buckling.

"They don't check to say, 'Can I afford a Rolls?' " says Alexander Edwards, president of the automotive division of consulting firm Strategic Vision, who is bullish on the brand.

Rolls-Royce, bought by BMW in 1998, is on pace to surpass the 322 cars that Autodata estimates it sold in the USA last year. For the first quarter, Rolls sold 149 cars, up 67% over the period last year.

Worldwide, Rolls sold only 1,010 cars last year — about one for every 915 Toyota Camrys sold in 2007. Then again, it takes a garage full of Camrys to add up to Drophead's jaw-dropping list price of $407,000. Yet, the Drophead is sold out through next year.

Exclusivity is Roll-Royce's appeal. Even its former stablemate Bentley, now owned by Volkswagen, offers cars at half the price of a Rolls.

"They are not trying to get everyone behind the wheel of a Rolls," says Brett Anderson, editor-in-chief of Robb Report, the lifestyle publication aimed at readers whose average net worth hovers around $10 million.

'Entry-level' Rolls coming?

For now, Rolls makes only variants on the Phantom — the convertible, a sedan and just unveiled in February, a two-door hardtop. A new, slightly smaller Rolls is on the way by 2010, but Ferraiolo says it still will cost well north of a Bentley, so, don't expect to see a bevy of Rolls-Royces at the mall parking lot.

"One of the things that Rolls-Royce has been particularly good at is not corrupting its brand in the name of growth or profit," says Tom duPont, publisher of duPont Registry, a publication for car connoisseurs. Nor is it corrupting it in the name of ecology or economy: The sticker price includes a $3,000 federal gas-guzzler tax, thanks to the V-12 power plant that gets 11 miles per gallon in city driving, 18 on the highway.

Ferraiolo isn't ready to declare the Rolls recession-proof. Asked whether the sour economy could infect even the toniest of brands, he responds, "It could," and leaves it at that.

Keeping in touch with buyers

If there's sales trouble afoot, however, there's probably no automotive executive better positioned to spot it firsthand. Ferraiolo personally meets with up to 20% of the brand's customers a year.

He knows a third own yachts. A third have access to a private jet. Beyond that, little else binds them except wealth and "being very passionate about cars and life."

How passionate? One owner redid the Spirit of Ecstasy, the figurine that sits atop a Rolls' distinctive, boxy "radiator grille," to give her a bigger bust line.

Because so few Rolls-Royce cars are built each year at the factory in Goodwood, England, owners can get them virtually made to order.

Rolls can match any paint color desired. Owners add monograms to seats or door sills. Some have put in backseat bars, refrigerators or about any other personal accessory they fancy. A sumo wrestler had Rolls artisans custom cut the holes in the cup holders to fit the diameter of cans of his favorite soft drink. "The only thing we can't do is something that will ruin the integrity of the engineering," Rolls spokeswoman Karen Vonder Meulen says.

Out on Rodeo Drive, clothier Bijan Pakzad often parks his new Drophead at the parking meter in front of his Bijan boutique, a Beverly Hills mainstay for 32 years. The car is painted "Bijan yellow" — a mustard hue — and carries his shop's badge on the side. Sightseers snap pictures of it.

It fits the Bijan lifestyle: His shop is strictly high end, from $1,000 ties to a $32,000 lion-skin jacket.

"I want comfort and luxury together. That is Rolls-Royce," Pakzad says. He says he's owned the brand since he bought his first one three decades ago.

Features fit for a Phantom

Custom touches aside, your average Rolls already has enough quirky features to set it apart from mundane cars.

Full-size umbrellas are tucked into a tube extending forward from the door frame on each side. The RR logo on the hub of the 21-inch chrome alloy wheels is self-centering — designed to rotate so the R's are always straight up when the car is stopped. The Ecstasy hood ornament descends securely into the radiator grille at the press of a button.

"The attention to detail is in every aspect of the car," Anderson says. "It's for the buyer looking for something absolutely unique."

And willing to pay for it.