How a mix of new-look cars and old favourites saw Rolls-Royce buck the trend of the British car industry

Rolls-Royce smashed its car sales record in 2019, and with Bentley also doing well, it seems that better times are ahead for the British motoring industry.

The news in 2019 was full of gloom for the British car industry. There were Aston Martin’s well-publicised struggles, the colossal losses posted by Jaguar Land Rover and the announcement by Honda and Ford of factory closures that could prove devastating for local communities.

Now, though, there are signs that things could be turning around — at least at the top end of the market — after Rolls-Royce posted record sales figures, with over 5,000 cars sold in a year for the first time in the marque’s illustrious history.

The firm sold 5,152 cars last year, 25% up on the existing record of 4,107, set in 2018. They reported ‘strong demand’ for classic models such as the Phantom, Wraith, Dawn and Ghost, but really the star performer was the new kid on the block. Rolls-Royce declined our request for a breakdown of sales figures by model (and country), but they do report that the recently-launched Cullinan SUV made a ‘major contribution’ to sales growth. It’s the fastest-selling model in the company’s history.

Some traditionalists were aghast at the idea of a Rolls-Royce SUV, but it seems that the gamble has paid off. Without knowing exactly who and where the buyers are, it’s hard to do more than speculate — but the car’s unabashed enormous size, bling-friendly interior, £264,000 price tag and some clever marketing (playing on the off-road capability of Lawrence of Arabia’s famous desert vehicles, for example) has clearly worked.

Equally clever is the ‘Black Badge’ option, which allows customisation of every element of the vehicle, which RR said ‘continues to enjoy strong demand, particularly amongst younger clients’ — including, of course, the rappers who have adopted Rolls-Royce, and helped turn an iconic 20th century brand into a millennial sensation.

Perhaps most cleverly of all, the Cullinan has broadened Rolls-Royce, and made it a company which appeals at once to its traditional buyers — who are still happy to drive around the more established models — as well as its new fans. North America (with a third of sales) remains the top market, followed by China and Europe (including the UK), but the company reported ‘significant growth in every one of its key global markets’.

Indeed, so successful has 2019 been for Rolls-Royce that company CEO Torsten Müller-Ötvös even hinted at the idea that they might accidentally have sold too many cars: ‘This performance is of an altogether different magnitude to any previous year’s sales success,’ he said. ‘While we celebrate these remarkable results we are conscious of our key promise to our customers, to keep our brand rare and exclusive.’

That’s the sort of problem any car maker would love to have, of course, and fundamentally it’s good news for the company, the workers (50 new jobs are being created to keep up with demand) and the British car industry as a whole.

Rolls-Royce interior

It’s not just Rolls-Royce that has been a success: Bentley also grew sales in 2019, selling over 11,000 cars. Can others follow suit? Aston Martin is hoping that its imminent SUV will enjoy similar success, while warm receptions for the new Land Rover Discovery, Jaguar’s electric cars and the latest incarnation of the Range Rover all suggest that the worst is behind us. And who knows? With Brexit closer to resolution, and new entrants to the market such as the Welsh-built Ineos Grenadier, perhaps there is hope that good times lie ahead.