The unique, bespoke Rolls-Royce that cost more than £20 million to create

One of a kind: the design sketch of Rolls-Royce Droptail 2
One of a kind: the design sketch of Rolls-Royce Droptail 2

Horizontal rain was treating sturdy umbrellas with disdain and the roller-shutter door security pad allowing access, restricted to only a few people, was ignoring the steadily-soggier ensemble.

Then the door quietly rattled open, revealing a neat and tidy workaday ante-room, what might have been a hardware store click-and-collect counter. A reminder of no photos, no touching, to remove watches or jewellery – and that secrecy documents had been signed.

After an earlier welcome presentation by the project leader and his team and a walk to an outlying building referred to by some, perhaps inelegantly, as the Rolls-Royce skunkworks (after the Lockheed Martin fighter jet development facility for secretive projects established in 1939), I for one expected to encounter a modern take on a 1920s hot rod. For, mystifyingly, such a pared-down machine had been described as part of the “design inspiration” for what lay behind the inner doors.

They opened. And there she was.

“Arcadia”. Iridescent white with black bonnet and highlights, a one-off “£20 million-plus” (said a spokesperson...) Rolls-Royce Droptail two-door roadster – the contrasting starkness of the room, completely devoid of distraction, amplifying its appearance and presence.

The wood section consumed 8,000 man hours, with several pioneering wood treatment processes
The wood section consumed 8,000 man hours, with several pioneering wood treatment processes

The Arcadia was handed over privately and secretly to its new owner at the end of February. But when collecting your next car it will likely look similar to thousands of others sharing the badge, with a few choices of colour and specification, often even ordered online via software probably not much different from that used by the likes of Deliveroo for processing home-delivery orders.

Not this unique car. Every progression of design and development involved personal contact with the commissioning client. Little of your email malarkey: key discussions and updates were face-to-face at the ends of long flights.

In complete contrast to the wild Sussex weather outside, Arcadia is a mythical and idyllic Greek utopia. Such visions can often sit in the originator’s mind and be difficult to extract.

Which meant the Rolls-Royce Coachbuilt Design team, headed by Alex Innes, 38, spent months getting inside their client’s mind and lifestyle, interacting to understand exactly what was in their client’s head, a key element being a collective effort to decide on the name. Discreetly, Rolls-Royce declined to say who came up with it.

Absorbing that understanding, interacting with the client, then developing a design from first inkling to completion took four and a half years. Arcadia was constructed in a restricted access area of Rolls-Royce’s factory and, like a superyacht, that’s where it stayed as parts were brought to it.

“It was profound to see our client’s sensibilities projected back at him when he saw the car,” said Innes.

That’s not a statement you’d hear when collecting your new family SUV from an out-of-town retail park car dealer...

A specialist was engaged to create a unique clock; it has 199 facets, representing the 199 years of Rolls-Royce
A specialist was engaged to create a unique clock; it has 199 facets, representing the 199 years of Rolls-Royce

The client – Royce customers are always “clients” – whose identity remains secret, is an immensely successful entrepreneur largely based several time zones away from Rolls-Royce’s HQ on the Goodwood Estate. There’s a “uniquely close relationship” between client and marque, says R-R.

“This motor car is one of the most faithful expressions of an individual’s personal style and sensibilities we have ever created within the Coachbuild department,” intoned Innes.

“He has achieved a huge amount in his life. In his daily work he is surrounded by huge amounts of complexity. The measure of his success has been his ability to see through that complexity and make very concise and very, very clear decisions. And that clarity is something that I recognised in his approach to the curation of this Droptail and how he understood we were dealing with a lot of complexity.”

The purity of design of this car – from its lines to its simple analogue dashboard – reflects the new owner’s domestic and business lives. Beyond the desire for design simplicity – and we’re not talking over the top minimalism here – he values the natural world, something seen in everything from the art he collects to the furniture and design of his home. One indulgence – in the circumstances – was the creation of a Rolls-Royce clock as opposed to the high-end luxury items usually found in Rolls-Royces. A specialist was engaged to create it; it has 119 facets representing the 119 years of Rolls-Royce in 2023, and took two years to develop and five months to assemble.

As the Arcadia is powered by Rolls-Royce’s V12, inevitably progress will be effortless. Attempting to discuss performance or dynamics was met with polite references to the irrelevance of such matters in context, although there was clearly some pride in ensuring aerodynamic work at the rear of the car actually achieved the opposite of what the design suggested. “The rear of the car is as low as possible, the opposite of the aero preference of the design team, but the sculpture of the wood creates an airflow and pushes the car down on its axles,” said Innes.

In terms of design, he added: “A large amount of our job is to listen, to learn, to understand and to witness what the client represents, what they surround themselves with, but also their traits and their characteristics and take note of that, then let that inform the design and the creative work that we’re doing,” he added.

“It was hugely fulfilling seeing that projected back to him and his family and it being so accurate without him ever having to explicitly explain it. It was exactly the car that he felt represented his characteristics.”

I was shown one of the original design mood boards. Both the words and images said and portrayed “protection”, “cosseting”, “calmness”, “solace” and “tranquillity”. The client’s personality was defined as “calm, measured, clear-thinking”.

A Rolls-Royce Droptail from the 1920s
A Rolls-Royce Droptail from the 1920s

Then another mood board: a picture of a 100mph, 1920s Rolls-Royce hot rod ironically named The Sluggard. Such hot rods were slab-sided with little if any horizontal line deviation. “The impression of reduction,” said Innes, “makes something stronger in character by paring it back.

“It’s a nice sort of expression of the vigour and the vibrancy that exists in the Rolls-Royce brand. We’re still in this period of, I would say, strong modernisation for the brand and we are able to take more and more expressive steps within design. And the hot rod thing was very much this ratio of generous body size to very, very shallow roof proportion.
“You see that in hot rods, especially the hot rods on the USA’s West Coast, in the early vintage ones which have that ‘slammed’ roof, that letterbox proportion to the glass house, which we also wanted to capture. It’s not something you would expect of a Rolls-Royce designer, nor would you expect to see pictures of a hot rod in the Rolls-Royce Design Studio. But it’s a great reflection of the confidence that exists in the brand today.”

That confidence extends to other design elements.

“Previously, the owner of a Rolls-Royce was always in the back. They never imagined otherwise. But now, the owner of a Rolls-Royce can drive a Rolls-Royce,” said Innes. “A real departure for Rolls-Royce in the modern era was creating a two-seater roadster body type, which is not an insignificant thing.”

The other was the “Pantheon” grille.

“Typically it’s sacrosanct; I remember my first days in the Rolls-Royce design studio, back in 2008,” he said. “It was ‘Do what you will, but don’t touch the grille’. Since then there have been steps of iterative modernisation of the grille itself, but with Droptail we really took that to another level – taking on especially the break in the vertical veins where, for the first time ever, they have this kink at the top. These are big, big changes to what is a very precious and carefully-curated piece of iconography for the brand. How big a decision was it? It was a big one.

A big decision was made to change the iconic Rolls-Royce grille
A big decision was made to change the iconic Rolls-Royce grille

“But once we had all seen the initial proposals, there was unanimous agreement that yes, absolutely we should definitely do this for such a significant model.”

Detail in both finished item and making Arcadia a utopian car abound: the world was scoured for the largest-ever single pressing of veneer on a Rolls-Royce, so too the interior leather. The wood section consumed 8,000 man hours, with several pioneering wood treatment processes. The car, says Innes, is very usable – and will clock up the miles. Materials were tested in a range of climatic conditions and the owner’s family was invited to a virtual reality presentation demonstrating how it would look in the varying light conditions of different global locations, night and day, carbon-fibre roof on or off.

The client insisted the design remain faithful to the original 2019 hand-drawn sketch. “Once the design was established it was agreed with the client ‘now let’s show maximum restraint and allow the key aspects of what the car represents to breathe and establish themselves’,” said Innes.

Taking a step back, that restraint is evident. There will only ever be four Droptail commissions. Arcadia, the second of these, is breathtakingly elegant in its simplicity. This is not a car specified by somebody with more money than they know what to do with; this is a car that speaks its new owner’s mind – £20 million-plus of authenticity.