LONDON -- They are rolling symbols of wealth and excess, starting at $263,000 a pop, with many buyers choosing custom options that can easily double the price. And they are more popular than ever before.
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, have become must-haves for the new global elite. That group is growing in number even as much of the world struggles to get by 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 to 1,475 in the same period last year.
The 33 percent rise in sales for the first six months of 2014 compared to the same period last year is explained not just by the cars' plush leather seats and gleaming paintwork -- those are old standbys for the brand, which used to focus 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 ultra-high net worth individuals around the world, that number is clearly growing," said company spokesman Andrew Ball. "The luxury market is growing at the high end and we are delighted to be part of that."
The phenomenon helps to explain the strong sales of mega-yachts, rare jewelry and complicated, handmade Swiss watches. There are more people with more money looking for ways to stand out from the crowd -- and in this context, a Rolls becomes a very noticeable statement.
Ball said 70 percent of Rolls buyers are new to the brand, and roughly half choose to customize their cars by adding expensive personal touches. The cost of making a Rolls "bespoke" -- the British term for custom-made suits -- rather than "off the rack" can dwarf many household budgets.
"It can be simple, like having your initials stitched into the headrest or the veneer," said Ball. "Customers enjoy this. It's an emotional process."
It's also a level of consumerism that soars as high as London's famous Shard skyscraper: A refrigerator inside the automobile can be custom built to accommodate the shape and size of the owner's favorite beverage -- at a cost rivalling a year in a U.S. college.
The company is opening its first showroom in Cambodia. But it remains an essentially British product, enjoyed by Queen Elizabeth II and evoking the opulence of the Downton Abbey era.
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. The back of the dealership resembles a home furnishings store, with samples of different woods and hides.
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, said salesman Stephen Foulds.
He said the customer base was growing younger, with one Chinese man in his 20s recently ordering his second Rolls in an unusual all-white color scheme. Another traded in his Lamborghini when he was starting a family because he needed a backseat.
Octane Magazine deputy editor Mark Dixon said Rolls Royce has also managed to shed its image of producing fuddy-duddy machines. He loved the quirky touches that make a Rolls unique, like the starlight roof headlining that comes as an option with the Phantom coupe.
"There are hundreds of little LEDs set into the roof lining, it seems like the night sky when you're driving at night," he said. "There was disquiet about this great British brand being bought by the Germans, but most people agree now it was a good move."
He said BMW has introduced state-of-the-art features to Rolls -- like the satellite-assisted gearbox technology that can see a hairpin curve before the driver does and adjust the gearbox accordingly -- and given new models real zip.
"You could describe the Ghost as a hot rod, it really is a fast car," he said. "It has a twin turbo V-12 which goes like a scalded cat. It actually handles much better than you would expect."