At long last, Rolls-Royce and Bentley cars are to be made on an assembly line. But the craftsman tradition continues. By Gavin Green
More than 70 years after Henry Ford gave the world the moving production line, Rolls-Royce has followed. That dedicated follower of the old-fashioned has finally entered the 20th century - a few years before it's over.

The new moving line is due to be finished next year to make the next generation four-door Rolls-Royce and Bentley models, to go on sale in 1998. Not that Rolls-Royce has discarded its hand-built reputation. Rather, extra space at the Crewe factory is now devoted to the craftsmen who cut and stitch the leather, and to carpenters who work with the walnut, elm, mahogany, redwood and birdseye maple (or, for that matter, any other wood the customer may specify) for door trims and dash.

Rolls' chief executive, the appropriately named Chris Woodwark, is keen to stress than the new cars will be no more mass-made than the current Silver Dawn or Bentley Brooklands models. "At the moment, our bodies are supplied from Rover in Cowley, so we're about to make in-house what we have brought in from outside," says Mr Woodwark, who is the former boss of Rover's international operations and, before that, head of Rover in America. "In fact, our cars will become more bespoke. My goal is for no two Rolls-Royce cars to be the same. We'll achieve this differentiation through a variety of paint colours, trims, specifications, wheels, tyres, carpets and wood finishes."

In addition, the Mulliner Park Ward wing - the coach makers of the Crewe factory - will modify your Rolls or Bentley in any way you want (at a price, of course). "We'll paint your car candyfloss pink and fit a chrome interior if that's really what you want," says Mr Woodwark. Thankfully, most of the work is far more tasteful. Popular modifications include bullet- proof glass, drinks cabinets, fax machines, TV sets, exotic wooden dash finishes and longer wheelbases and higher roofs.

"We want to make Rolls-Royces more individually crafted so that they're very different from mass-made German or Japanese luxury cars. We also want to be recognised as making the world's finest cars." Mr Woodwark doesn't claim that now. How can he, when the current Silver Dawn (in fact just a rebadged and mildly altered Silver Spirit) goes back more than 16 years and technically isn't in the same league as the latest hi-tech BMW, Mercedes or Lexus luxury cars?

His strategy is to concentrate on the hand-made luxury touches, rather than try to beat the Germans in technology. "We don't really compete with the likes of Mercedes, anyway. Most of our customers own Mercedes cars as well. They often use the Mercedes for every day, and the Rolls for special occasions." Mr Woodwark likens a Rolls to a pricey mechanical watch such as a Rolex, and a Mercedes to a precision quartz: the quartz may do a better everyday job, but there is something marvellously desirable about the Rolex - if you can afford it.

Mr Woodwark is one of the new breed of Rolls managers. He's an everyday sort of bloke, open and friendly, like Peter Ward, his predecessor. Mr Ward left in the wake of the decision to collaborate with BMW in the manufacture of new Rolls and Bentley engines. He favoured Mercedes as a partner, and had shaken on a deal with the Stuttgart maker. BMW reversed the decision after pulling strings with the aero-engine wing of Rolls-Royce and with Vickers, Rolls' owner. Mr Ward now runs Cunard, the shipping operator.

Mr Woodwark defends the decision to source Rolls and Bentley engines from BMW. "We want to concentrate on what we can make best - and that's the hand-crafted part of the car," he says. "Other things we will source from the world's top suppliers. BMW is renowned as a marvellous engine maker."

The next generation Rolls-Royce will use the BMW V12, suitably modified for use in a Rolls, while the new four-door Bentley will get a twin-turbo version of BMW's V8 engine. Two-door Bentley models, including the Continental T, will continue to use Crewe-built V8 motors. A new two-door Bentley is expected sometime early next decade, probably using BMW power.

A few years back, when Rolls was run by stiff-collared bosses who acted like Edwardian bank managers, all visitors were ushered though a tradesmen's entrance at the side of the Crewe building. Only royal guests and other VIPs came in through the official entrance at the front. That's all changed under Mr Ward and Mr Woodwark, as Rolls hunts new-money customers and loosens its collar a little. The boss now eats in the staff canteen and does regular tours of the factory. Despite its reputation, Rolls is actually one of the least upstairs/downstairs car makers in Britain.

Mr Woodwark moves on next spring, moving up the ladder at Vickers. His replacement is Graham Morris, another ex-Rover man who joins from a short stint at Audi in Germany. He's another everyday, friendly bloke, not given to airs.

The top Rolls job has also taken on extra importance, now that almost every other British car maker has been sold to foreign firms. In turnover, Rolls is now Britain's biggest indigenous maker, as well as being its most famous. The fact that the company also builds the most traditionally British of cars is a nice bonus. Nothing will change that - not even now they've adopted an assembly process that was invented by the father of mass production.

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