In San Francisco right now, there is no more controversial mode of transport than the so-called Google Bus – the fleet of private coaches that carries the upwardly mobile tech community on its commute south to Silicon Valley each day, which many see as a troubling symptom of income inequality in the city.
Now, a firm far older than any of the Bay Area's tech titans is encouraging Silicon Valley's wealthiest denizens to drive an altogether different vehicle – though whether it will appease the protests of the 99 per cent is another matter.
In January 2013, Rolls-Royce unveiled its latest model, the Wraith, which the marque's marketeers describe as "the car Charles Rolls would choose to drive". More recently, a New York Times motoring critic called the Wraith "the automotive equivalent of molecular gastronomy… excruciating, elite and outrageously delicious".
In its public pronouncements about the Wraith, Rolls-Royce's representatives suggest it was designed with a younger crowd in mind, and that it has attracted thirty and fortysomething self-made men and women, who might previously have waited another 10 or 20 years to purchase their first Roller. Though the company won't disclose details of individual customers, James Warren, its UK communications manager, says the balance of Rolls-Royce's US market is shifting from Wall Street on the east coast to the dot-com entrepreneurs of California.
"In Silicon Valley, those guys are getting rich young," Warren says. "We see a lot of California suntans coming in and out of [Rolls-Royce's HQ at] Goodwood. These guys develop a fantastic tech product, they IPO it and then they want to reward themselves. It seems Wraith has become the reward of choice."
The quintessentially British car brand was bought by BMW in 2002, and the following year launched the latest incarnation of the Rolls-Royce Phantom: grand, imposing, designed for chauffeur-driven royalty. In 2009 came the Ghost, a less formal sedan model, which brought the Rolls-Royce buyer's average age down marginally, especially in the Middle and Far East.
The Wraith, however, is a game-changer. With its fastback profile and 624 brake horsepower engine, it is more sporty than stately. North American deliveries began last November and despite its basic US price of $288,600 (£173,700), it has sold out until the second half of this year. Around 70 per cent of those orders are reportedly to people who have never previously owned a Roller. In 2013, Rolls-Royce sold 3,600 cars worldwide – a company record.
Melissa Perry is the Rolls-Royce sales manager at a Los Angeles dealership in the O'Gara Coach Company group – the largest Rolls-Royce dealer group in the Western hemisphere. Perry, who previously worked for Ferrari, says: "The Wraith has definitely opened doors to a younger clientele and it also appeals to clients who are sports-car enthusiasts and may not have thought to buy Rolls-Royce before for that reason."
One satisfied customer is the rapper/entrepreneur Rick Ross, who once liked the Mercedes-Benz luxury brand Maybach so much that he named a music label after it. He recently ditched the Maybach for a Wraith. Supermodel Gisele Bündchen is also a fan: she was photographed emerging from a Phantom on the cover of Vanity Fair's 2007 "Style Issue" and recently she and her husband, Tom Brady, were snapped driving a Wraith. Bündchen and Brady are both, by the way, in their mid-thirties.
The car is filled with sophisticated gizmos to appeal to tech-industry buyers, not least its signature feature, the "Starlight Headliner": more than 1,300 individual LEDs hand-sewn into the interior roof to create a faux night sky. Who needs a convertible? Warren asks. "Guys as young as their late twenties are coming to our events and saying, 'Hang on a minute, I always thought Rolls-Royce wasn't for me just yet, but in fact it's a little bit rock'n'roll, a little bit rakish, a little bit cool and contemporary'."Reuse content