Automotive aficionado, luxury thought leader, passionate fly fisher – Rolls-Royce Motor Cars CEO, Torsten Müller-Ötvös exemplifies the bond between man and machine
You might think, having reached the pinnacle of the automotive industry, you’d sit back and enjoy the ride. But Torsten Müller-Ötvös is not that guy. In Dubai for the launch of the Rolls-Royce Black Badge Cullinan, the CEO of Rolls-Royce Motor Cars is cool, calm, and utterly collected. If there’s something of the aging rock star about him, a Mick Jagger swagger, it might be because he used to play bass guitar and is still a Pink Floyd fan. He, and his brand, are cruising at altitude – and he knows it.
Müller-Ötvös is not your average CEO shackled to the boardroom – the 60-year-old traverses the globe meeting his customers, giving them the same kind of personal attention every single Rolls-Royce gets, hand-built from the drawing board down to the final glossy polish. It’s a journey that started when he was a kid, looking up at BMW’s main plant in his hometown of Munich. “I’m a born car nut,” he says. “Since I was a little boy.”
After earning his MBA, Müller-Ötvös had his pick of positions at multinationals – but none could compete with BMW. He went through the ranks, working in branding, marketing, and product management, before being handed the keys to Mini in 1999. Seeing as his first car was a Mini, you could call the project of revamping the quintessential British brand a personal one. Müller Ötvös added BMW ingenuity to the Mini quirkiness, and a millennial legend was born. Then, in 2010, Rolls- Royce came knocking.
“I can tell you, this is nothing you can plan,” he shares of the moment. “My boss came to me and said, ‘Could you imagine taking the helm of Rolls-Royce Motor Cars?’ Of course I immediately said yes, because that’s not something you need to sleep on.” Taking over a heritage luxury brand didn’t rest lightly on his shoulders. “You enter into this business with the highest respect, knowing what kind of history is around. Yet I’m also bold enough to go for changes. I’m not somebody who preserves things just for the pure sense of preserving them.”
During his tenure, the Rolls-Royce brand has pivoted towards a younger market, in the process growing sales fourfold. The average age of a Rolls-Royce owner used to be 50-something. Now it’s in the 30s. Where they used to put the “old” in “old money,” even the source of wealth is shifting. “Ten years ago, probably around 30% of our clients had inherited their money. Now, it’s a fraction, maybe only 5%. The rest is selfmade.” Appealing to this young, dynamic demographic with a heritage car is easier said than done. The Wraith changed all that. “This car opened up garage doors we’ve never been in,” Müller-Ötvös says. “It’s a super powerful car, with effortless ‘waftability.’ And still so cool. And then came Dawn, our convertible.” His boldest move yet would be Black Badge in 2016 – the sleeker, darker side of Rolls-Royce appealing to an adventurous, non-conformist driver. Then came Cullinan, the car no one thought Rolls-Royce would tackle. The SUV.
“We had people saying, ‘Hey, Rolls-Royce, are you crazy? An SUV? That doesn’t fit the brand, this will never work.’ But it worked very well. You need to take these kinds of adventures to make sure a brand doesn’t die but that it’s also empowered to change. I also think you need to rock a brand from to time to time. Otherwise, nobody will notice what happens.”
And the Rolls-Royce Black Badge Cullinan knows how to rock. It’s the brand’s boldest and darkest expression of Black Badge yet – and one that is certain to be popular in the region. The Middle East are vociferous Rolls-Royce connoisseurs, drawn not just to its unmatched performance and luxury but the near inexhaustible bespoke options on offer. From the restrained (initials embroidered into head rests) to the almost pointlessly extravagant (seven sets of wheels, one for each day) and built-in anything (thermos in the door, jewelry box in the glove box), nothing is too much.
Rolls-Royce Motor Cars Dubai won the global bespoke dealership award at the 2019 Global Dealer Awards – in part because, Müller-Ötvös says, “The cars here are unbelievable.” Heritage plays an important part in many of personalization choices, with a particular favorite of the CEO harking back to the region’s history of pearl-diving with a mother-of-pearl interior. “We’ve also seen marquetry relating to different families here,” he shares. “I like that fantasy of ideas and storytelling. Nobody wants to buy luxury off the shelf. It needs personalization.” Would he ever interfere with choices that may seem a bit outré? “I am not the taste police,” he says definitively. “We are building dreams. We had an orange Phantom with yellow leather inside – which you probably wouldn’t find in London – but you come here and the colors appear so different in the sun that it looks so perfect here.” Müller-Ötvös has managed to make Rolls-Royce that elusive unicorn: a brand with impeccable credentials and undeniable street cred. From rappers to royalty, you’re no one until you roll up in a Rolls. “Rolls- Royce will always be a head-turner,” he concludes. “And for that reason, overly shy people are probably not our target market.”
The muse turned icon:
Born from a secret love affair, the Spirit of Ecstasy has become an emblem of personal liberty The first Rolls-Royce cars didn’t have radiator mascots – the precursor to the Spirit of Ecstasy was commissioned in 1909 by Baron John Montagu to sculptor Charles Sykes. Called The Whisper, the figurine – modeled on English actor Eleanor Thornton, her forefinger against her lips – symbolized a secret love affair. Concerned that some drivers might get inappropriate mascots, Rolls- Royce Motor Cars commissioned an official one to adorn all cars, with Sykes again turning to Thornton. The resulting figurine took the form of a woman leaning forward, her arms outstretched behind her and billowing cloth mimicking wings. Today, the Spirit of Ecstasy adorns all Rolls-Royce cars, and can be raised and lowered at the touch of a button. It also retracts instantly if struck from any direction, making theft near impossible.
Originally published in the Spring/Summer 2020 issue of Vogue Man Arabia
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