Pedestrians are reflected in the chrome work under The Spirit of Ecstasy on the front of a Rolls- Royce car, in a show room in London, Tuesday, July 8, 2014. Sales of luxury Rolls-Royce cars, which cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, have soared worldwide. The Britain-based manufacturer said Tuesday that global sales in the first half of the year were up 33 percent compared with the same period in 2013. (AP Photo/Kirsty Wigglesworth)
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LONDON — They are rolling symbols of wealth and excess, starting at $263,000 a pop, with most buyers choosing custom options that easily can double the price. And they are more popular than ever.
Rolls-Royce reported a startling rise in demand for their distinctive cars Tuesday.
The British-made cars, updated to reflect the technical know-how and marketing might of parent company BMW AG have become must-haves for the new global elite. That group is growing even as much of the world struggles in an era of low growth, low expectations, and high unemployment.
The company said 1,968 cars were sold in the first half of this year compared with 1,475 in the same period last year.
The 33 percent rise in sales for the first six months of 2014 is explained not just by the cars’ plush leather seats and gleaming paintwork — the standbys for the brand that once focused on the British aristocracy — but also by the rising number of billionaires worldwide.
A Forbes survey says there are 1,645 billionaires in the world, 219 more than a year ago.
“If you look at the number of ultrahigh net worth individuals around the world, that number is clearly growing,” company spokesman Andrew Ball said. “The luxury market is growing at the high end and we are delighted to be part of that.”
Mr. Ball said 70 percent of Rolls buyers are new to the brand, and roughly half choose to customize their cars by adding pricey personal touches. The cost of making a Rolls “bespoke” — the British term for custom-made suits — can dwarf many household budgets.
“It can be simple, like having your initials stitched into the headrest or the veneer,” he said. “Customers enjoy this. It’s an emotional process.”
It’s also a level of consumerism that soars as high as London’s Shard skyscraper: A refrigerator inside the automobile can be built to accommodate the shape and size of the owner’s favorite beverage — at a cost rivaling a year in a U.S. college.
At Rolls-Royce Motor Cars London, the showroom in a particularly posh section of Mayfair, visitors are drawn to a sparkling black Phantom, starting at $600,000, and the Wraith, a bargain at $400,000 unless you want some options.
Gone are the days when Rolls-Royce traditionalists sneered at Beatle John Lennon for adding a psychedelic paint job to his Phantom V. When a man walked into the Mayfair showroom carrying his wife’s favorite pink lipstick and asking for a Rolls in the same shade, the company was happy to provide one, salesman Stephen Foulds said.