November 2021 8 Min Read

Interview: Alex Innes – Head of Coach-Build Design for Rolls-Royce

By Josh Sims

Alex Innes had a rather decent proposal while he was still at college. A student of Coventry University’s internationally acclaimed automotive design course, it was from a company by the name of Rolls-Royce. And, unsurprisingly, Innes answered. That was 13 years ago.

“I went for a couple of interviews to talk about ideas I had for the brand. And I was very keen to understand what they were up to – but that’s the leap of faith you have to take as a designer because, of course, you’re not allowed to see anything that’s planned,” he says. “But it seemed a hugely exciting time to be joining Rolls-Royce, just when it was transitioning into more emotive design – the brave new world of cars embodied by the likes of the Wraith and the Dawn. Let’s say I had very little hesitation when they offered me a job.”

Alex Innes, the head of coach-build design for Rolls Royce.

Indeed, having been promoted from designer to lead designer, Innes has now been head of coach-build design for the last four years, putting him at the pinnacle of the brand’s boldest experimentation. It’s a position that suits him – his earliest passion was for architecture, and this is an opportunity to create one-off cars for clients from the ground up.

It’s now starting to bear fruit, too. Back in 2017, the company unveiled its Sweptail, a unique coupe created to showcase Rolls-Royce’s full potential. Such was the subsequent spike in demand for coach-building from arguably Britain’s most famed automotive marque that the four-year design and development process behind the Boat Tail began soon after.

And what a result. Unveiled this May, at £20m the Boat Tail is the most expensive car the company has ever produced – and likely the most expensive car full stop. It’s certainly also among its most distinctive. It takes its name from a series of coach-built Rolls-Royces of the 1920s and 1930s, but refers more directly to this two-door, four-seat grand tourer’s rear end, which mimics the hull of a J-Class yacht.

Innes sat down with us in his office at Rolls-Royce headquarters.

Every body panel, light, even the sound system, crockery set and parasol (yes, a parasol extends from the rear deck) is bespoke. Unsurprisingly, only three have been made. Yet they also mark a major moment in Rolls-Royce’s history – its return to making fully coach-built cars under a dedicated division.

It’s quite something to get your first job with Rolls Royce...

Well, yes, the appeal of the Rolls-Royce proposition for a creative hardly needs explaining, quite aside from the stature of the brand. After all, Rolls-Royce is one of those names that has some resonance for almost everybody, [from] avid fans of the brand through to, say, distant relatives of mine who have nothing to do with cars. It transcends being a mere motor car, which is why you get that turn of phrase in the luxury sphere describing things as “the Rolls-Royce of” something or other. It’s a brand like Rolex – you’ve heard of it even if you’re not into watches. Rolls-Royce has become this byword for a high standard. Being here has exceeded all my expectations. And I should frame that by stressing that my expectations were pretty high.

Innes sketching a design on his tablet.

How were those expectations met?

I remember at the time being consumed by the idea that BMW had taken stewardship of the brand and had come up with this very daring vision of the future, not shackling it with what had gone before; respectfully acknowledging the lineage of the brand and the design of the historic cars.

When I arrived in Goodwood [Rolls-Royce’s manufacturing headquarters], it took my breath away, not just because I’m a big fan of [the architect] Nicholas Grimshaw and the movement he and Norman Foster represented, but that someone had been bold enough to create this completely new factory.

Rolls-Royce is one of those names that has some resonance for almost everybody… which is why you get that turn of phrase in the luxury sphere describing things as “the Rolls-Royce of” something or other. It’s a brand like Rolex – you’ve heard of it even if you’re not into watches. Rolls-Royce has become this byword for a high standard.

Alex Innes

The success [of BMW’s initially controversial involvement] speaks for itself. You don’t see any traces [of BMW] in what we do. They’ve left us to create our own character. Had it failed, people may be telling a different story [about BMW’s involvement], but it hasn’t.

What has stood out most about your experience with Rolls-Royce?

The most enriching aspect of it all has been the opportunity to work with Rolls-Royce’s clients. Car designers typically have the job of trying to understand and anticipate what consumers will want in four or five years’ time and that’s moderated through various measures. We have to do that here as well, but [in coach-building] we get to do it hand in hand with the commissioning client – to draw another analogy with being an architect. That, for me, is what typifies true luxury goods, because that idea of co-creation is characteristic of luxury houses through history back to, say, Coco Chanel, or up to what the likes of Hermès does today. I think that’s what moves Rolls-Royce out of the automotive space and into the wider luxury world.

A chrome-coloured model of a Rolls Royce on Innes’ desk.

Why would anyone invest so much time and money to have a coach-built car when such excellent alternatives are available much sooner?

I think the thing is that these cars have an emotional resonance to the people who commission them. They mean something to them personally. The family that commissioned the Boat Tails is hugely successful and for them, in their words, the car was the ultimate expression of their achievements. In that way, Rolls-Royce becomes a canvas for the expression of that success. That a Rolls-Royce is also a means of conveyance is perhaps secondary. We’re focused on creating the best possible cars, and my job is to focus obsessively on the design, as other areas of the company – the wood-shop, for example – are likewise seeking to demonstrate leadership in their field. That gives you a world-class product.

How much do you think client involvement drives that world-class proposition?

It’s largely down to being able to be guided by our clients. We’re not predetermined by our own framework, or some glass ceiling, or a sense of where we have to sit in terms of the marketplace. We’ve been able to flourish as a marque because we’ve been encouraged in certain directions by our customers. And, in a way, we’ve been enticed by them back into coach-building.

Innes in his office.

What’s been a real revelation is that we haven’t ever shied away from a direct conversation with a client – from, in the early days, modest customisation of pre-existing Rolls-Royce models, through to what we’ve unveiled with the Boat Tail. I think that’s the most potent expression of co-design with a client that the automotive world has ever seen. And that [shift has] happened over a relatively short period of time.

Rolls-Royce is one of those brands that, historically, may have been conflated with less positive notions of luxury – showiness, ostentation and so on. In more recent years, it’s made much of its move towards what it calls “post-opulence”...

Yes, post-opulence is a pretty tricky turn of phrase, of course, but at the heart of it is the idea of uncovering a sense of meaning in design, finding a relevance that connects it to someone that it matters to. It’s about clients not necessarily purchasing something for what it outwardly represents, but because of what it represents to them. That plays in a more refined, more simplified aesthetic too, as you can see in Rolls-Royce cars today.

Innes sketching designs on paper.

I think in the wider luxury space there’s [long] been this sense that more is more, that you have to add more and more elements to a product to create a stronger character for it. That’s not something we agree with. There’s an intellectual aspect to how you create meaning [in an object] that doesn’t wear itself so overtly or outwardly. Of course, the Boat Tail, for example, has proportions that really command your attention – as you’d expect from a 5.8m-long motor car – but the jacket it wears has a certain restraint and etiquette to it that’s incredibly important now.

Can you give us an example of this in action?

Well, take [Rolls-Royce’s signature] Pantheon grille – conventionally, these are polished and applied almost like an applique to the front of the car. It’s the trophy element of a Rolls-Royce. But the Boat Tail client, through our encouragement by way of proposals, had the confidence to go beyond that idea and deconstruct the grille, making it more part of the body of the car itself, so the colour of the bonnet spills over onto those polished surfaces. It “deformalises” it. It gives it all a softer aesthetic. That demonstrates progress for us as a brand; an awareness of changes in the wider luxury sphere. I think with everything we’ve gone through over the last couple of years, everybody is trying to extract meaning [from the things they buy]. We’ve all changed in terms of what’s important to us and don’t feel the need to wear [what we own] in such an outward way.

Rolls Royce’s signature Pantheon grille.

Bespoke has become a widely reappraised approach to making in many products, yet remains a rarity in the automotive world. Why is that?

When you realise what coach-building entails, it’s easy to see quite why it’s so rare – it is, after all, about making a true commission model. Four years ago, we didn’t know that a car like the Boat Tail would exist. [We were approached by] a collective of owners with a shared appreciation for nautical design who wanted to create a car of historical importance.

I think in the wider luxury space there’s [long] been this sense that more is more, that you have to add more and more elements to a product to create a stronger character for it. That’s not something we agree with. There’s an intellectual aspect to how you create meaning [in an object] that doesn’t wear itself so overtly or outwardly.

Alex Innes

I spent a lot of time travelling to wherever they were in the world to show them sketches and they would spend a lot of time in the design studio back here reviewing full one-to-one clay models to discuss adjustments – and then into the engineering phase, and so on. It was an extraordinary journey [and] the result is a truly hand-built motorcar. “Hand-built” is so often overused in the modern world, but by “hand-built” I really mean from the ground up, which allowed us to do the kind of things you wouldn’t normally be able to do with more industrialised techniques. It’s really a prohibitive, really monumental amount of energy and effort to put into [a car], and they’re incredibly complex projects to realise. But it injects the result with meaning in a way you can’t find in something that already exists – that’s as the wider automotive world more typically works, even, not to be kind, with a lot of brands that describe themselves as luxury or as coach-builders. That’s why what we do is incredibly rare. In fact, we’re the only ones doing it to the extent that we are here.

The image of a side profile of a Rolls Royce.

Given the pressures that the idea of the car faces, is the potential for personalisation nonetheless set to grow?

I think so. We anticipate that the canvas of what a car represents will only get larger in the future – you’ll be able to capture the personality of the commissioning client in ever more profound ways. That’s a big focus for me. And there are fantastic technological enablers for that too, of course – our cars are all built on a proprietary standalone aluminium architecture, for example, which has an inherent flexibility, allowing us to play with proportion and scale on a very low-volume basis, so we can realise highly individualised motorcars. That’s a future that’s highly exciting for me.

From coach-building to client care, Innes' involvement with Rolls Royce extends beyond design.

How is Rolls-Royce responding to other broad societal changes that are likely set to have an impact on the car industry?

It’s funny, but we always tend to put a negative spin on change, don’t we? But [that’s what creatives] get excited about, because that’s the challenge – to be in an environment that means we don’t necessarily have all the answers in the first instance. I think we can see a kind of polarity, a divergence in the car industry. The masses question the idea of car ownership to a certain extent, and events over the last couple of years have only accelerated that, with more people seeing cars move in the direction of service provision. [However], at the other end, we’ll be the antithesis in continuing to make cars that seek to embody the client’s personality in a highly emotive way. [At the luxury end, cars] will have to represent a highly emotional proposition. I only see that [distinction] increasing.

And what about ideas of sustainability?

There’s the idea of electric vehicles, of course [with their recent announcement of the Spectre, Rolls-Royce’s forthcoming first fully electric car, and plans for all of its models to be electric by 2030]. It’s an interesting discussion because what you see across the wider automotive space is the need for brands, even more mundane ones, to convince their consumers that in an electric world they can still maintain their characteristics or establish new ones. But with Rolls-Royce, the attributes of electrification perfectly fit the brand, because we’ve long been about a huge amounts power at low speed, which it inherent to an electric motor; conveyancing in a near silent fashion, which, of course, electric motors do; and generally Rolls-Royces are found in more urban settings, which is suited to the dependency on charging points. So when electrification comes, you won’t notice any seismic shift with us.

Sustainability is something even the very top end of the motoring world are concerned with today.

Actually, there’s a lovely full circle here – [co-founder] Charles Rolls said back in 1900 that he believed the noiseless, clean, no-vibration electric motor was the future, that the combustion engine was some interim step. It was like a prophecy. It’s true that Rolls-Royce has waited a little bit to go electric because, to date, we never felt the technology was there to offer a proper Rolls-Royce experience. It meant compromise, and that’s something our clients won’t allow. But the technology is there now.

And presumably you’re adapting to a changing customer base too?

Broadening the demographic of Rolls-Royce has become important, so we’re seeing more women getting behind the wheel of our cars, for example. And of course we have to be mindful of younger customers who may have thought a Rolls-Royce was something they might transition to later in life. In certain parts of the world they’re now looking to make a Rolls-Royce their first car, which is incredible. The very wealthy are getting younger and for me that’s been a great thing to coincide with, creatively.

I see some really cool stuff going round the design studio now, with a sense of youth and of vigour that you could never have imagined seeing just 10 years ago. It’s really great.

Rolls-Royce has only grown since Innes joined the company and looks set to continue on this trajectory for the foreseeable future.

We would like to thank Alex Innes for taking the time to speak with us and the team at Rolls-Royce for helping make this interview and photoshoot possible.