At the wheel of the ultimate Christmas present

HMS Richmond

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It would need a heck of a lot of wrapping paper and there's no way it would fit under the tree. But some people are going to wake up on Christmas morning to discover they have a very special present this year – a gleaming new Rolls-Royce.

Of the 15 models rolling off the assembly line each day at the company's Goodwood plant near Chichester, several are destined to be given as the ultimate in festive gifts to some extremely lucky new owners.

At a basic 250,000 for the flagship Phantom model (plus any bespoke extras), that's quite a token of affection.

Meanwhile, other members of the super-rich just want to celebrate another good year by buying themselves the world's most luxurious car.

A firm such as Rolls-Royce is far too discreet to name names when it comes to customers. But apparently a Premiership football manager bought a Phantom for his father as a Christmas present.

Meanwhile, American socialite Paris Hilton was in the Rolls-Royce dealership in Beverly Hills last week, reportedly getting herself a 196,500 Ghost.

Marco Jahn from Rolls-Royce says: 'Some customers choose to buy a Rolls-Royce for special occasions and our sales have consistently peaked in the fourth quarter of the year since we started in 2003.'

One story he is willing to tell is that of the Australian customer who recently bought his wife a Phantom coupe for her 60th birthday – and now they have his-and-hers Rollers.

To Marco and his colleagues, such affluence is quite normal. A typical customer may own six or seven cars and might well have more than one Rolls-Royce in a collection.

In Russia, there really are cashpoints at Rolls-Royce dealerships because oligarchs want to pay for their new Rollers in hard roubles.

While the rest of us have been hit by the economic crisis and struggle to make ends meet, the extremely wealthy appear completely unaffected. How else do you explain Rolls-Royce more than doubling its sales at a time when the global car market has slowed down?

Last year saw 1,002 Rollers sold, but by the beginning of this month, 2,282 had been shifted in 2010. As December is traditionally a busy month for the company, those figures are going to look even better by the year end.

Rolls-Royce puts this year's success down to the new, smaller Ghost model, produced on a specially-built assembly line at Goodwood and now outselling the Phantom three to one.

Eighty per cent of its buyers are new to the brand, while Ghost buyers are 10 years younger on average than Phantom owners.

Somehow, Rolls-Royce has managed to appeal to a new market while still looking after its existing customer base.

Marco says: 'There were reservations outside Rolls-Royce about us building a smaller car, but it has been a great success.'

Rolls-Royce now has 80 dealers around the world, with more set to open in 2011. America is still the strongest market, but the new economic powerhouse of China is second in the sales charts, overtaking the UK.

To the business moguls of the Far East, nothing says success quite like a chauffeur-driven Rolls-Royce Phantom.

Walking round the Goodwood plant, you can see rows of completed Rollers waiting to be delivered to new owners all around the world. White ones and sand-coloured ones are destined for the Middle East and the US, while more understated black ones are more likely to stay in the UK.

The Rolls-Royce worldwide headquarters may be hidden away in the West Sussex countryside, but it's a huge operation.

There are now 850 employees, made up of 21 nationalities. But the company is at pains to point out that 80 per cent of the workforce are still British.

Marco says: 'Every single Rolls-Royce is produced here at Goodwood. We are a local business.'

In the vast assembly area there are no blaring radios, glamour model posters or loud machinery. Instead there is a calm, quiet air as workers in polo shirts put together the finest cars in the world in conditions probably cleaner than some NHS hospital wards.

The cars boast the very latest technology, but this is no automated production line. The only robots are used for painting the car bodies that arrive from Germany.

Rollers are put together by hand and the wood and leather departments still use traditional skills.

The finest cow hides are closely inspected and imperfections such as mosquito bits are removed. Veneers are painstakingly built up with 28 layers (including aluminium sheets for rigidity in a crash). Coachlines are still applied by hand by a signwriter and can take 12 hours per car.

When cars are finished, exhaustive tests are carried out in which they are soaked and shaken. Finally, a road test is performed to ensure every Roller is perfect.

Because when people are spending the equivalent of a nice house on a car, they tend to have high expectations.

SIMON'S TEST DRIVE

We're all used to those shots in The Apprentice of Lord Sugar being wafted around in the back of his Phantom long wheelbase.

Well I have news for him – he really should get behind the wheel himself.

While at the Rolls-Royce plant at Goodwood, I got to drive a Phantom and a Phantom drophead. These are big cars but they are easy to drive once you're accustomed to the sheer size and power.

Surrounded by luxury and all mod cons, you can put your foot down or just glide along in library-like silence.

And the heater is so good I even had the top down in sub-zero temperatures (which got some strange looks).

I also had a go in a Ghost and can see why it has helped Rolls-Royce to double sales this year. The white test car certainly stood out and proved a mightily impressive marriage of technology and tradition.

UNIQUE ROLLER

For most buyers, simply ordering a new Rolls-Royce is not enough. They want their Roller to be unique - and that's where the bespoke department at Goodwood comes in.

Thomas Jefferson, sales and marketing manager for bespoke, below, says: 'Some clients are very conservative and some are very bold. We are not the taste police.

'In some cases clients will discuss a combination of colours that will make our chief designer quite uncomfortable. But beauty is in the eye of the beholder.'

He adds: 'It is difficult to tell a client ''no'', but we do reserve the right to politely refuse a request.'

Thomas says one American car collector ordered a Phantom drophead coupe in bright yellow with yellow leather interior.

Other bespoke items have ranged from mother of pearl inserts made by a London jeweller to cocktail cabinets, picnic sets and humidors.