Auto Industry Expert Robert Austin on Rolls-Royce Reverence, Car Club Communities and 3D-Printing Parts
Robert Austin, the executive director of the Rolls-Royce Owners’ Club, is a car lover and treasurer of stories based on his many decades working in the automobile industry. Before he began working for the club, he managed communications for Rolls-Royce in the early aughts, handling public relations for the brand at a very particular moment, when BMW began making Rolls-Royce automobiles under its stewardship. Prior to that, Austin worked at Volvo for more than 30 years. An ardent lover of motor vehicles, his enthusiasm for automobiles extends beyond work and he even has a race car in his living room. He also pens a bimonthly column in Hemmings Sports & Exotic Car Magazine.
As the club’s director, Austin hears the collectible car chronicles of the thousands of members of the Rolls-Royce Owners’ Club, the perfect gig for a passionate storyteller. Although it’s called the Owners’ Club, membership is not just for owners, and the community is made up of Rolls-Royce and Bentley car owners and enthusiasts from all around the world, ranging from successful entrepreneurs with their own fleets to machinists keen to talk shop about water pumps and resonant frequencies. Since its founding in 1951, the club’s mission has been to help members preserve, restore, repair, use, drive and enjoy their cars, a mission very similar to ours here at Collectrium. Keeping in mind our shared goals in enhancing collectors’ experiences, Akanksha Ballaney, Collectrium Enterprise Relationship Manager, sat down with with Austin to talk about the mythic history and enthusiastic community around Rolls-Royce and Bentley cars.
The Best Car in the World
“Henry Royce grew up extremely poor in England. When he was 12 years old, he had to sell newspapers to put food on the table for his family, but he went to school and became an electrical engineer back when electricity was a novelty. His first product was a doorbell. He was obsessed with building the best doorbell he could possibly build. He made the best doorbell but no one was willing to pay more money for the best doorbell. So he said, I need to find something where people are willing to pay for the best, and he set out building automobiles. At the same time in England, there was a man named Charles Rolls. Charles Rolls was the exact opposite of Henry Royce. He grew up with a silver spoon and had all kinds of money. He indulged himself in every hobby. He was a hot air balloonist. He was an automobile racer. But his cars were always breaking. The fastest cars of the day were French, and they weren’t made very well. Eventually, a mutual friend of the two, who is known as the hyphen in Rolls-Royce, introduced the men. Rolls went for one ride in Royce’s car and said, ‘I will buy every car you build and sell them from my showroom in London.’ That was 1904. By 1907, the British magazine Motor took a Rolls-Royce on a trip across Europe and deemed it ‘the best car in the world.’”
The Magic Carpet Ride
“There are two ways to look at someone who drives a Rolls-Royce. You can dismissively say that it’s someone who wants to demonstrate to everyone else how much money he has, but most people buy Rolls-Royce because they are the most beautifully crafted vehicles. If you sit in, drive, look at, open the hood, open the trunk, you can just tell. One of the hallmarks of the Rolls-Royce is the magic carpet ride. When you are riding in one, you should not feel any bumps. You might see a tar strip or a pothole, but you shouldn’t feel it. When BMW set out to make the next generation of Rolls-Royce cars they selected a few quotes from Henry Royce as inspiration: ‘Take the best that exists and make it better; If it doesn’t exist design it; and Whatever you do, no matter how humble, is noble if you do it right.’ There were huge questions among Rolls-Royce enthusiasts and experts: Would the new Rolls-Royce be an authentic Rolls-Royce? Or, would it just be a huge BMW with a Rolls-Royce grill? And after they experienced the car, they were forced begrudgingly to admit, it was a real Rolls-Royce – there was no doubt about that.”
The Story of Bentley
“Like Rolls-Royce, Bentley was also a car company built around a personality. W.O. Bentley started the company in 1919. Bentley’s proposition wasn’t making ‘the best car in the world,’ he was dedicated to making ‘the gentleman’s sports car.’ He wanted to build a car that was fast, handled well and was adventurous. It had to be special. It wasn’t just about designing something small and crude. Bentleys didn’t really compete with Rolls-Royces. Rolls-Royces were stately and elegant and Bentleys were sporty and fast. Many of the same people owned both cars, used them for different reasons. Bentley unfortunately went bankrupt during the depression and so Rolls-Royce bought Bentley and continued making the cars and operating the company as Bentley. So for many years, from 1931 until 1998, they were one company. When our club started in 1951, they were still under one roof. We didn’t realize at some point the two brands might have separate ownership. Now we can’t change the name of our club because of trademark issues. Even though it’s called the Rolls-Royce Owner’s Club, we truly welcome Bentley owners and enthusiasts.”
“If you are interested in buying a vintage Rolls-Royce, you should join the club before you buy one not after. If you are interested in any car, a Ferrari or an early Ford, you should join the club that specializes in that product before you buy the car. One of the benefits of membership is the huge accumulative knowledge that exists in the club. We have a forum open to our members. If you see a car come up for sale you can describe it, refer to its chassis number, and people in the forum will know if it’s a good one. They’ll tell you if it’s been rebodied. They’ll know which years are more finicky than others, which models are easier or harder to drive. The best time to learn these things is before you purchase a car, not after.”
The Future of Vintage
“One of the members who lives in New Zealand gave me such an interesting story about what he was able to accomplish in our forum. He bought a car that had been taken apart in Australia 50 years ago. When all the pieces were shipped to New Zealand, he realized it was missing its headlight stanchions. He wrote on the forum, ‘does anybody have a spare set of headlight stanchions?’ A member in Canada wrote back that he did not have a spare set, but as his was apart, he could photograph them so his new friend in New Zealand could have some fabricated. Better yet, the fellow in Canada took his stanchions to a technical school where they used a 3D scanner to generate a file that could be used to make an exact reproduction out of resin at the other end. Our New Zealand member thought this was wonderful, until he received a quote of over $500 to print down the 3D items. Put off by the quote he went on the internet and found an organization based in Holland dedicated to having a network of 3D printers who could serve everyone in the world without traveling more than one mile. Our member located one of their providers just two and a half blocks away with a 3D printer in his spare bedroom. He agreed to produce the resin parts for just $50. So when you ask, ‘What’s the benefit of the club?’ Who knows! It’s essentially unlimited and changing every day.”
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