Each station is allocated a rigid 28 minutes’ worth of work at Rolls’ Goodwood factory
We speak to the man responsible for adapting Rolls’ meticulous production line for its most transformative model
What can you do in 32 minutes? Mow the lawn, perhaps, or make a carbonara? Maybe even squeeze in a couple of episodes of Friends if you skip the credits and fast-forward through the adverts.
If you’re one of the 600 people employed on Rolls-Royce’s Goodwood production line, you know exactly what you can achieve in 32 minutes.
That’s the ‘takt time’ afforded to each of the 42 production stations between the shutter door of the paint shop and the pre-delivery inspection pen, and meeting that rigid deadline – whatever your team’s specific task may be – 14 times per shift is utterly crucial to avoiding costly hold-ups and delays to the delivery of cars that have cost their VIP customers (who probably ordered around two years ago) an average of £440,000 each.
In reality, each station is allocated a rigid 28 minutes’ worth of work, with four minutes of contingency time built into the schedule at each stage to allow staff to sort out those rare tricky bolts and kinked wires.
Over the course of two daily shifts, the Goodwood line must paint, assemble, furnish and propel 28 entire cars, ready for inspection, road testing and finally shipping.
That’s small fry compared with the output of Toyota’s, Nissan’s and even Bentley’s UK factories, but remember: these are not normal cars. Instead, these are painstakingly specified celebrations of their owners’ personalities, and as such are referred to as ‘commissions’ rather than orders, each wildly different from the last and subject to post-production quality control processes that would make Nasa wince.
It is into this rigid, time-honoured framework that the new electric Rolls-Royce Spectre must slot, seamlessly, sensibly and with minimal concession to the somewhat glaringly obvious fact that it swaps Rolls’s mammoth 6.75-litre V12 for an electric motor at each end and a whopping 102kWh slab of lithium ion battery betwixt.
Compounding the complexity is that Rolls-Royce cars remain predominantly hand-built, with little scope for the simple reprogramming of robots and adjusting of conveyor belts.
That’s where Greg Denton comes in. As general manager for Rolls-Royce production, it is his daunting responsibility to ensure the system runs as smoothly as the priceless Audemars Piguet timepiece housed in the dashboard of the company’s £30 million Droptail roadster.
Denton came to Goodwood in 2019 from the Mini factory in Oxford, where he had served in various roles since 1992, starting in the Pressed Steel Fisher facility stamping body panels for… Rolls-Royce cars. “It feels like a whole journey,” he says of his return to the brand.
“I’ve seen the whole evolution of car production in the UK,” he says, reminiscing about the Oxford plant’s journey from British Leyland ownership to BMW and through three generations of reborn Mini. But of most relevance to his role in Goodwood were his formative final months at Cowley, when the plant was in the process of introducing its most transformative and technically unfamiliar model in decades.
“Just as I left Oxford, we’d just finished installing the electric car into the production system,” he says, referencing the early-2020 arrival of the first-generation Mini Electric. It’s a car whose familiar silhouette and front-driven architecture belie the extent to which its innards differ from the petrol Cooper’s – and thus the work that needed to be done to adapt the Oxford line to build it.
Denton, then, was the obvious man for the job when it came to integrating the Spectre into Goodwood’s output, journeying down the M40 and A3 armed with one clear and crucial takeaway from the Oxford transformation process. “It was really the flexibility,” he says, when asked to name the crucial ingredient for the successful production of two drivetrains at once.
“Creating a system that was able to cope with both internal-combustion engines and electric. It was the key, and you can see that when you walk around: we really have full flexibility, and that is absolutely the right way to do it.”
From our vantage point on the viewing gallery above the start of the production line, we can see what he means: the paint shop door zips up to reveal a glimmering new Spectre.
It is conveyed swiftly into station one, which has just been vacated by a Cullinan (notable for being of an entirely different size, shape and propulsion method to the Spectre), which itself displaced the Ghost now chasing a larger Phantom into bay three. And so on and so forth. It seems dizzyingly complex.
The 230 workers on shift dance around each other effortlessly in a well-choreographed routine that conveys an almost unfathomable sense of confident relaxation, given the deadlines at hand.
Door panels, headliners and dashboards are arranged in neat, snaking rows at the side of the production line, each destined for a specific car and decorated accordingly with dazzling bespoke colour schemes or personally specified star constellation motifs meticulously woven into fabric with hundreds of metres of fibre-optic strands.
Little electric carts whisk up and down the line to replenish each station with the stock it needs for the next car, delivered every – you guessed it – 32 minutes from an on-site parts warehouse.
“It’s real just-in-time logistics,” explains Denton, once again alluding to the importance of avoiding hiccups in starting production of the first EV.
I ask him whether it might have made more sense to just set up a new, separate line for the Spectre, designed from the ground up for building EVs, but there’s a crucial reason all four Rolls-Royce cars are built in sequence.
“If demand for any of those products changes, we’re able to cope with it,” he explains. “If you have a stand-alone facility and you plan at, say, 10 a day and the demand isn’t there, what do you do with the capacity that isn’t needed? Conversely, if the demand goes up and you’ve limited yourself to 10, you then have nowhere else to go.”
Helpfully, all current Rolls-Royce cars, including the Spectre, are based on the same fundamental Architecture of Luxury skeleton, which means many of the fixed points and dimensions are shared across model lines. It all aids in this relentless pursuit of flexibility.
This Spectre is one of the first customer cars to be built, production having started just days before we visit. One of several ordered by early adopters when Rolls-Royce announced it was developing an EV in September 2021, it is now just five days away from reaching the hallowed ‘F2’ point, at which a car is deemed ready for handover to the distribution network.
That can mean it’s loaded onto a car transporter on site, a ship at Southampton or – this being Rolls-Royce – a chartered jet for delivery to its excited owner.
After ‘finger two’, where the car is “90% finished” with the fitment of its headliner, dashboard, interior, trim, doors and windscreens, it is rotated 90deg to rejoin the main line. “This is probably the biggest area that had to be adjusted to be able to cope with electrification,” explains Denton.
This is the ‘hanger line’, where each car is picked up by a gigantic, ceiling-mounted cradle, to be shuffled along the final stages before it finally receives the wheels and motors it needs to move under its own power.
“We had to completely change how we pick the car up, because we needed to leave the space clear where the battery goes,” says Denton. The extra weight of the battery meant the Spectre couldn’t be placed back on a trolley with its powertrain in situ.
The solution was to extend the line by three hangers and keep the cars in them for the entirety of this stage, and then fit the wheels earlier in the process to get them rolling for the first time.
“This was a fundamental change,” says Denton. “Two years ago we had a two-week summer shutdown and completely rebuilt this line.” The process involved 150 contractors re-engineering this specific section in the biggest fundamental change to the production process since Rolls-Royce had opened its Goodwood factory in 2003.
Overall, what becomes clear is just how little Rolls-Royce actually had to change in order to prepare for the electric era. “In some sections of the line, it’s a little bit more complicated,” admits Denton, “but there are some where it’s exactly the same, and there are a few areas where it’s actually a little bit simpler.”
He cites the powertrain assembly area as one example: “You take the engine and join it to the axle, you join the gearbox to the axle – but in an EV that doesn’t happen, so there are some stations where the content is significantly less.”
Some areas are particularly cleverly repurposed for the Spectre: the station that installs engines deals with the battery, and the team that fits fuel tank filler necks instead fits the charge port, for example. The fuel line fitters, appropriately, are charged with threading the Spectre’s high-voltage battery cable through its chassis.
“Really the majority of it is very, very similar, and I think that was maybe the thing that most surprised us,” concludes Denton. “A nice surprise, that actually it isn’t so different.”
Appropriately, we’re now watching our Spectre – wheels on and windows fitted – come to life for the first time as it rolls slowly under its own power towards the rolling road for high-speed testing.
It occurs that, really, even though the shift to all-out electrification is perhaps the most transformative move the marque has made in its 120-year history, Rolls-Royce hasn’t really changed much at all.
“As minimally as possible,” agrees Denton, smiling. Exactly as they always planned it.