GENEVA - A Rolls-Royce for the new generation of Internet multimillionaires?
For one of the world's most tradition-laden brands, that sounds unlikely.
But BMW is looking to expand Rolls-Royce's customer base when it takes over the brand from Volkswagen in 2003.
Karl-Heinz Kalbfell, leader of Project Rolls-Royce and director of brand and product strategy for BMW AG, said the Project Rolls-Royce market research team is looking to members of the 'new rich society' as possible customers. It could include buyers whose wealth comes from Internet businesses.
A new Rolls-Royce will arrive in 2003. It likely will have to compete on showroom floors with the existing Silver Seraph, launched in 1998 as an all-new car.
Under an agreement between BMW and Volkswagen, the Silver Seraph will continue to be made at the VW-owned factory in Crewe, England, as long as there is demand for it.
The same applies to the Corniche convertible, introduced earlier this year in Los Angeles, and the Park Ward limousine, which made its debut here.
So where will the new Rolls-Royce be made? What dealers will sell it? BMW isn't saying.
But Kalbfell said the factory and management for the new company will be announced this spring. He said the list of locations was narrowed to five, all in the United Kingdom. The factory would employ about 400.
'Rolls-Royce is a national monument for England,' he said. 'There is no question that we would not do it there, even though the (U.K. currency) exchange rate hurts us.'
Rolls-Royce will produce 800 to 1,200 cars annually on the site, about twice the number now being made.
Design is complete
The design for the new car was completed at the end of last year. An international team of 20 and the design studio in the Hyde Park neighborhood of London were dismantled.
While conceiving the design, the team spent time in the Jack Barclay Ltd. Rolls-Royce and Bentley dealership in London's Berkeley Square.
The team also talked to Rolls-Royce owners worldwide, including members of Rolls-Royce owners' clubs.
Contrary to some rumors, the new BMW-made Rolls-Royce will not be based on a BMW 7-series platform, nor will it be built in Bavaria, Kalbfell said.
'It's a completely new car,' said Kalbfell, a 50-year-old career BMW marketing executive.
Tired of skeptics
Kalbfell said he was tired of hearing skeptics who doubt BMW's ability to carry through with the Rolls-Royce project.
Rolls-Royce will have the full modern technological capabilities of BMW, but the cars still primarily will be made by hand.
BMW will have to find skilled craftspeople to do the job, and Volkswagen officials already have warned BMW to stay away from their valued workers at Crewe.
Kalbfell is confident workers can be found to carry the Rolls-Royce tradition onward.
He said: 'The future of brands like Rolls-Royce and Bentley can only be guaranteed when a strong car company with modern capabilities is behind them.'