CREWE, UK - Five years ago, Rolls-Royce needed 48 days to build one of its sedans. Now, after making improvements in logistics and productivity, the build process takes an average of 30 days.
In a few months' time, when Rolls-Royce will probably be under new ownership, products from the tiny Crewe factory should require even less time to make.
Next-generation sedans due off the company's first moving-track assembly system will take 17 days to produce.
Now being installed, the 320-meter track and feeder system stretches the entire length of the assembly hall.
The cars are expected to be previewed at the Geneva auto show in March. They are the first and final fruits of a £40 million ($64 million) improvement program funded by Vickers, the industrial group which is selling the UK's greatest brand name for engineering excellence.
Estimates of the likely sale price vary. But analyst Garel Rhys of Cardiff University, UK, says the Rolls-Royce brand remains a powerful force around the world.
'What has changed is the recognition that the company is small and that its products are not as technically advanced as a Mercedes-Benz or Lexus,' he said. 'Vickers has done a good job with limited resources, but you can go only so far to justify premium prices when you can't achieve economy of scale. People know Rolls-Royce can be developed further - that's why potential buyers are clamoring to take over.'
Rolls is a small company, but its profit potential is not.
'In the days when annual output reached 3,000, the factory made the profit you'd expect from 60,000 Fiestas,' said Rhys. 'With two shifts running, capacity at Crewe could rise to 8,000. That volume would match the profit from 150,000 superminis and it could be unlocked by a buyer with better distribution than Rolls-Royce has at present.'
Rolls-Royce Motor Cars was created in 1971 after its airplane-engine parent took a spectacular dive over the development of the RB211 jet engine. Nine years later, it became part of Vickers and survived the recession of the early 1990s only by halving its workforce and reviving Bentley, a brand which now accounts for 60 percent of total sales.
Java, the surprise Bentley concept shown at Geneva three years ago, nearly took Rolls-Royce down a different path.
Positive reaction to the sporty model led strategists to make a case for producing it while merely freshening the four-door range.
Instead, Vickers decided a replacement for its aging sedan offered a better long-term return.
'Much as we liked it, Java was killed and buried,' said an insider, 'but the idea of a small, sporting Bentley is still alive. It all comes down to funding.'