GENEVA - BMW is looking to expand Rolls-Royce's customer base when it takes over the brand from Volkswagen in 2003.
Karl-Heinz Kalbfell, leader of project Rolls-Royce and director of brand and product strategy for BMW AG, said the Project Rolls-Royce market research team is looking to members of the 'new rich society' as possible customers. That could include buyers whose wealth comes from Internet businesses.
A new Rolls-Royce will arrive in 2003. It will likely have to compete on showroom floors with the existing Silver Seraph, launched as recently as 1998 as an all-new car.
Under an agreement between BMW and Volkswagen, the Silver Seraph will continue to be made at the VW-owned factory in Crewe, England as long as there is a demand for it.
The same applies to the Corniche convertible, introduced earlier this year in Los Angeles, and the Park Ward limousine, which made its debut here in Geneva.
So where will the new Rolls-Royce be made? Which dealers will sell it? BMW isn't saying yet.
But Kalbfell said the factory location and management structure for the new company will be announced this spring. Rolls-Royce will produce 800-1,200 cars a year on the site, about twice the number being made now.
The design for the new car was finalized at the end of last year. The design studio in the Hyde Park neighborhood of London has been dismantled and an international team of 20 has been disbanded.
While conceiving the design, the team spent time in the Jack Barclay Ltd. Rolls-Royce and Bentley dealership in London's upmarket Berkeley Square. The team also talked to Rolls-Royce owners all over the world, including members of Rolls-Royce owners' clubs.
Contrary to some rumors, the new BMW-made Rolls-Royce will not be based on a BMW 7 series platform, nor will it be built in Bavaria, Kalbfell said.
'It's a completely new car,' said Kalbfell, a 50-year-old career BMW marketing executive. 'Why should we do that (make a 7 series-based Rolls-Royce)?'
Kalbfell said the location of the Rolls-Royce factory has been narrowed down to about five places - all in the UK. The factory would employ about 400.
'Rolls-Royce is a national monument for England,' Kalbfell said. 'We will (locate the factory) there, even though the (UK currency) exchange rate hurts us.'
Kalbfell said he was tired of hearing skeptics who doubt BMW's will to see through with the Rolls-Royce project.
Kalbfell envisions Rolls-Royce at the pinnacle of BMW Group's multi-brand strategy, which also includes BMW, Land Rover, Mini, MG and Rover Cars.
Rolls-Royce will have the full modern technological capabilities of BMW, but the cars will still be primarily made by hand.
BMW will have to find skilled craftspeople to do the job, and Volkswagen officials have already warned BMW not to try and poach any of their valued work force at Crewe.
Kalbfell is confident workers can be found to carry the Rolls-Royce tradition onward.
He said: 'The future of brands like Rolls-Royce and Bentley can only be guaranteed when a strong car company with modern capabilities is behind them.'