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RR Ghost - Who will ride the Ghost?

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Rolls-Royce Motor Cars Asia Pacific Director Colin Kelly compares his company’s recently launched the Ghost to a sports jacket and the Phantom to a Tuxedo. The Ghost, a smaller car, sticks to the Phantom’s 2:1 roof-to-wheel height ratio. What is more, it has the same centre opening door configuration as its predecessor. It also has the same hand-crafted interiors and grill. But where the family of Phantom costs between Rs 3.9 crore and Rs 4.1 crore, the 16-inch smaller Ghost’s on road price is significantly lesser at Rs 2.5 crore. That’s nearly a third less than the Phantom. “We wanted something less formal and pretentious and more everyday,” says Kelly. Indeed, they’re both jackets, clearly addressing two very different niches.

The Ghost’s launch was first announced three years ago at the Paris Motor Show. Little was seen of the new car, codenamed RR4, until last year when the company released the official sketches. The styling was instantly recognisable as a Rolls-Royce, although less traditional than previous models. At that time, Chief Designer Ian Cameron had said, “The RR4 has a more informal presence than the Phantom models with a greater emphasis on driving. In design terms, this is expressed through its slightly smaller dimensions, yet with powerful, purposeful proportions.”

Thus, the design team had its task cut out. While it had to break away from the marquee in certain areas, it had to remain true in others. After much deliberation, it was decided that the car would feature contemporary furniture and architecture, coupled with a sense of 1930s adventure. It would be called the Ghost. “It is one of the most revered names in automotive industry,” said CEO Tom Purves at the Frankfurt Motor Show. “It evokes images of adventure and technological innovation.”

The meltdown effect
At the time of its conception, nobody imagined that the Ghost’s launch would coincide with the economic meltdown. Even as the bad news started to trickle in, the automaker remained least perturbed. It literally went to town with its new model. The reason for such cheer is probably the company’s admirable performance last year. Sales were up 20 per cent in 2008. Not only was this the company’s fifth straight increase it was also its best performance in 18 years. Earlier this year, the automaker also increased its work force by a massive 50 per cent.

However, the economic headwinds eventually caught up with Rolls-Royce. In the first half of this year, sales have dropped 34 per cent. Still executives at the company remain hopeful.”We first launched at the Frankfurt Motor Show in September this year. We saw the mood of the people is very upbeat and they are ready to show their wealth,” says Kelly.

The company is relying on this mood to give sales a shot in the arm. “For every two Ghosts that we sell, we’ll sell one Phantom,” admits Kelly. The reason? “It’s less formal than the Phantom and, of course, it costs lesser as well,” adds he. Not surprising then, the company believes it is suitable for anyone between the age of 20 and 70. The company estimates that it will sell 1,500 to 2,000 Ghosts in 2010.

Tapping a goldmine
For India though, it is targeting the chauffeur driven lot, thus still maintaining exclusivity while hoping to sell about 50 units of the car. That’s about 3 per cent of the global share, a big figure, considering Rolls-Royce returned to the country only in 2005 after a gap of 50 years. The British luxury car maker thinks India is a goldmine in the auto sector and anticipates it to become the top market in a decade. Historically, India has always been home to sports cars made by Rolls-Royce. The patrons were mostly the royal families in the pre-Independence era. So much so that some even refer to it as the Rolls-Royce period. “India and China are a big deal for us,” Kelly says.

Thus, the company is tweaking its cars for the Indian market. “The trend in India is that the cars tend to be personalised. Thus we make customised interiors and so on,” explains Kelly. For instance, Indians insist on a built-in drinks cabinet. And Rolls-Royce is more than happy to comply.

Still, last year, the carmaker sold only about 14 cars in the country. On top of that, Rolls-Royce does not dabble in routine marketing and advertising activities, so how does it intend to spread the word? “We are a very small company. We don’t have money for advertising; so we rely on the media to tell our compelling story,” says Kelly. Further, the company ensures it attends every motor show there is. Still, the main core of its marketing is working with dealers who connect with wealthy people. To that end, both the carmaker’s dealers in Mumbai and Delhi will have exclusive media and customer previews in each city coinciding with its launch in the country towards the end of November. “We sell on a one-on-one basis,” he adds. According to him, 85 per cent of the prospective buyers have never owned a Rolls-Royce in their life.

Does that encourage the company to go lower on its pricing? “It’s more likely that the car will become more expensive and eventually become a replacement to the Phantom,” replies Kelly. No doubt this is the company’s way of ensuring that it boosts sales but not at the cost of its exclusive label.

Meanwhile, industry observers point out that Rolls-Royce is launching the Ghost to compete with Bentley’s continental line of luxury cars, which has been doing enviable business. Since it launched six years ago, Bentley sales have soared ten-fold. For its part though, Rolls-Royce denies the allegation. “We don’t set out to compete with anybody. All we did was sit with a blank sheet of paper and decide on how to bring the brand back to life,” Kelly responds.