Special Coverage

New York Int’l Auto Show

NEW YORK – The head of ultra-luxury Rolls-Royce in the U.S. once drove dump trucks for a living.

Actually, Paul Ferraiolo test drove those and other rigs while working at Mack Trucks Inc. as a rookie engineer during the 1980s, fresh out of Lafayette College in his home state of Pennsylvania.

He didn’t think back then he would end up at Rolls-Royce North America Inc., first as a product planner in 2004, then a marketer, then president.

“I got lucky,” Ferraiolo says of landing a top spot with the legendary British ultra-luxury auto maker. “But if you love the car business, and the truck business, opportunities happen.”

He’s looking for sales opportunities with the all-new Ghost, an elegant, yet smaller car with a more spirited driving experience than Rolls-Royce typically has offered.

It is 1.5 ft. (.43m) shorter than its big-brother Phantom, puts out 560 hp and goes from 0 to 60 mph (97 km/h) in 4.8 seconds, “faster than a Ferrari,” notes Ferraiolo.

“It is a thrilling car to drive,” he says of the Ghost, while sitting in one during an interview at the New York International Auto Show.

Pricing for the Ghost starts at $245,000, compared with $380,000 for the Phantom. Many traditional Rolls-Royce owners indicated they love the brand but also wanted a lighter, more agile model for every-day driving and easier parking, Ferraiolo says.

The very rich buy different cars for different uses. “When you have six, seven or eight cars, you buy them with a purity of purpose,” he says.

But beyond the traditional and loyal customer base, “something significant is happening,” Ferraiolo says. About 80% of Ghost buyers are new to the brand. “That’s exactly what we were hoping to achieve.”

In planning the Ghost, BMW AG-owned Rolls-Royce Motor Cars Ltd. didn’t set out to conquest specific upmarket competitors. “We didn’t target anybody,” Ferraiolo says.

But early buyers are coming mostly from Bentley, a fellow British high-brow brand. He foresees the Ghost likewise attracting Mercedes-Benz S-Class and BMW 7-Series owners.

Rolls-Royce delivered the first 150 new models to customers in December. “We expect the Ghost will double or triple our business,” Ferraiolo says. “We expect it to be the bulk of our business.”

Two lines – one for the Ghost, one for the Phantom – now operate at the company’s Goodwood, U.K., factory where workers craft the vehicles by hand.

The auto maker currently is sold out on all models until this summer. Through February, sales were up 48% compared with last year.

Like the rest of the industry, Rolls Royce had a rocky 2009, with deliveries almost dropping into the triple digits. Sales of 1,002 were down 20%. “It was a big hit for us,” says Ferraiolo.

Other ultra-luxury brands had it worse. Bentley, for instance, saw 2009 sales drop 39% compared with 2008.

“Our cars were earlier in their lifecycle, so that helped,” Ferraiolo says. “In this segment, nothing is better than new product.”

There are 33 North American Rolls-Royce dealerships: 30 in the U.S., two in Canada and one in Mexico. Many are dualed with Bentley.

The U.S. represents about one-third of Rolls-Royce’s global sales. But the 104- year-old icon also has its sights set on China’s rapidly growing automotive market.

sfinlay@wardsauto.com