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Feature: Uncommon Courtesy

Gregory Anderson

Get onto license bureau and trace that car,” Roger Moore—as British secret agent James Bond in the 1974 film The Man with the Golden Gun—commands Mary Goodnight (played by Britt Ekland), a comely young associate from MI6, who has inadvertently blocked Bond’s taxi with her car. “AU 603, a green Rolls.”

 

“A green Rolls?” Goodnight asks.

“A green Rolls-Royce,” says Bond, repeating the description of the car he had been pursuing. “There can’t be that many in Hong Kong.”

 

Goodnight responds with a laugh, then she nonchalantly chauffeurs the apparently naive spy to the grand front entrance of the most renowned hotel in Hong Kong, if not all of Asia. “Courtesy cars,” she explains. “All green Rolls-Royces belong to the Peninsula hotel.”

 

That cinematic moment—which could be viewed as an early example of product placement by the 007 film franchise—is exactly the sort of thing Sir Michael Kadoorie, chairman of the Peninsula’s parent company, Hongkong and Shanghai Hotels Ltd., had in mind more than three decades ago when he first commissioned a fleet of seven Rolls-Royce Silver Shadows in Brewster Green (a color that Kadoorie calls “Peninsula Green”). Or at least it is what his father, the late Lord Lawrence Kadoorie, had in mind.

The Peninsula’s relationship with Rolls-Royce began, Kadoorie explains, in 1970, when the hotel decided to improve the quality of its courtesy cars, with which the hotel chauffeurs guests around the city and to and from Hong Kong International Airport. The distance between the airport and the Peninsula’s Kowloon district address, on the shore of Victoria Harbor, is 22 miles, and with traffic, the trip can take 45 minutes. (The term “courtesy car” actually is a misnomer, because the hotel does charge fees to passengers.)

“We used Ford Fairlanes before that—right-hand drive, very usable cars with large luggage racks—but they weren’t the most elegant,” says Kadoorie. He was prepared to upgrade to the best of Ford’s transport vehicles, the big Lincoln sedans, until his father, formerly an executive in the family business that owned the hotel, asked him why he would select Lincolns instead of Rolls-Royces for the new fleet. “I told him I suspected that Rollses were far too costly,” Sir Michael says. “To which my father responded, ‘Have you enquired?’ ”

Kadoorie learned that it never hurts to ask, or to consult with a tax attorney. Because Hong Kong was a British territory at the time, those who purchased Rolls-Royces received sizable sales tax breaks as incentives to support England’s auto industry. That, coupled with the costly procedure of converting the American-made Lincolns from left-hand- to right-hand-drive vehicles, shrank the price difference between a Lincoln and a Rolls-Royce to just 20 percent. “And at 20 percent,” Kadoorie says, “the board felt it was worth going for Rolls, simply for the prestige.”

Today, to answer agent Bond’s question, there are 14 green Rolls-Royces in Hong Kong, all belonging to the Peninsula’s new fleet of custom-made, extended-wheelbase Phantoms, which the carmaker delivered in December. No hotel in the world has ever served its guests with a larger collection of Rolls-Royces.

If any automotive brand embodies prestige as well as the Pen (as the hotel is affectionately known) does, it is Rolls-Royce. “Today, our fleet of dark green Rolls-Royces is synonymous with the Peninsula hotel,” Kadoorie says. “The image of one is inextricably linked with the other.” It is true that, when viewed from the front, the car and the hotel do have similarly blocky appearances. But Kadoorie is referring to their images in a less literal context. “The Rolls-Royces,” he says, “have become a tradition that could be likened to afternoon tea in the lobby.”

High tea, served in the lobby to the accompaniment of live jazz or classical music, is one of the many features that have drawn visitors to the Peninsula since its official opening in 1928. (Construction began in 1923; the 30-story tower was built in 1994.) When he conceived the idea for the Peninsula (named for its location on the Kowloon Peninsula), Sir Michael’s grandfather, Elly Kadoorie, intended it to become “the finest hotel east of Suez.”

 

 

As the final stop on the Trans-Siberian railway that connected Asia to Europe, Kowloon, in the early 1920s, was a popular point of arrival from and departure to North America, an important gateway between East and West. Situated as it was, the Peninsula began providing lodging for VIPs, and it quickly became adept at catering to them. “We were the first in Asia to offer central air-conditioning, and we’re probably the only hotel in the world with twin helicopter pads on the roof,” says Sir Michael, a helicopter pilot himself. In fact, any guest in a sufficient hurry can upgrade from a green Rolls-Royce and travel to the airport by air in just eight minutes.

The cars, which the Peninsula introduced last December, feature details such as door-mounted climate controls and custom tread plates. (Click images to enlarge)

During a visit to the Peninsula, the on-site world-class restaurants, spa, and shopping arcade could keep you from ever having to hazard the crowded streets of Kowloon. The establishment’s premier accommodation is the $6,000-a-night Peninsula Suite, a 4,100-square-foot space on the 26th floor of the tower that offers lofty views of the harbor and lights of Hong Kong Island. Its amenities include a small gym, five bathrooms, and a full kitchen with a butler’s pantry.

Other five-star hotels throughout the world can boast of similar features, but few if any make as good a first impression. “Our goal is to make our guests comfortable, to make them feel at home,” Kadoorie says, “and it is our belief that the hotel experience begins the minute the guests enter our motorcars.”

Since the early 1970s, with the exception of a short period in the early ’80s when Lincolns composed the Peninsula fleet, the hotel has employed Rolls-Royces to transport guests to and from the airport, Hong Kong’s many shopping districts, and anywhere else a guest cares to venture. (A round-trip ride to the airport costs approximately $190, and the hotel rents the chauffeured Phantoms to its guests at a rate of $140 per hour.)

Over the past 37 years, the Peninsula has commissioned eight separate fleets of Rolls-Royces, totaling 69 cars, not including a 1934 Phantom II, which also is available for hire, and which was named Most Desirable Car at last year’s Hong Kong Classic Car Show. Silver Shadows, Silver Spirits, Silver Spurs—Peninsula guests have ridden in all of these, and, their model names notwithstanding, all of the automobiles have been green.

The Peninsula’s 14 new Phantoms, each of which will log about 700 miles a week over its seven-year service, represent the largest single purchase of Rolls-Royces in the marque’s 103-year history. More significantly, the cars feature 39 unique modifications—in addition to the paint jobs—which required altering 269 of the standard model’s parts, according to Clive Woolmer, who manages Rolls-Royce’s bespoke program. “For us,” says Woolmer, “that’s comparable to a model year change.”

 

 

The bespoke interiors include white bins for holding cool towels. The cars’ 14 identical electronic key fobs came in a burr walnut box. (Click images to enlarge)

The modifications represented a tall order that was completed in a relatively short time. A year ago, Kadoorie and Martin Oxley, a former general manager of the Rolls-Royce factory in Goodwood, England, who has managed the Peninsula’s courtesy cars since 1996, determined that the Phantom could stand some improvement before the hotel ordered the ones that would replace its fleet of Silver Spurs. “Sir Michael and I spent over two hours at night, in the pitch dark in the backseat of a Phantom, making a whole list of everything we weren’t happy with,” recalls Oxley.

 

 

After Kadoorie and Oxley delivered their requirements to Rolls-Royce, the carmaker’s designers and engineers—25 in all—went to work, completing the cars last August and September, barely four months after receiving the order. “It went from conversation to requirements to engineering to build in about 12 weeks,” says Ian Robertson, the CEO and chairman of Rolls-Royce Motor Cars. “We began designing the cars in April and building them in June.”

Then Oxley’s team of chauffeurs traveled to Goodwood, to the Sir Henry Royce Training School, where they became acquainted with a car that is in every way larger than the Silver Spur, which already was a challenge to steer through Hong Kong’s narrow streets and through the even narrower passages in the Peninsula’s underground parking garage.

The box beneath the rear seat that chills wet towels is one of the Peninsula-specified features that might be a bit exotic for Westerners. And the four fixed grab handles that have replaced flexible leather straps may be seen as a step in the wrong direction for anyone with large hands. However, several of Oxley and Kadoorie’s niftier options soon will be available to all Phantom buyers, including additional trunk space.

The added cargo room was the most difficult alteration to achieve, because it required some rewiring and the relocation of both the battery and the air suspension’s compressor. Another tricky customization involved replicating the hill-hold function from the 7 Series sedan from BMW, Rolls-Royce’s parent company. On a Peninsula Phantom’s steering wheel, where one normally would find a navigation control, there is a button labeled “Auto P.” Once activated, this system automatically applies the brakes whenever the car is stationary. “Just touch the accelerator, and away she goes,” Oxley says. The driver can take his foot off the gas while climbing an incline, and the car will not roll backward. It is a handy feature when negotiating Hong Kong’s hills or parking garage exits. 

 

The hotel also had Rolls-Royce relocate the Phantom’s rear heater and air-conditioning controls from the center console to an infinitely more convenient position in the rear arm rests. And, perhaps because Oxley and Kadoorie compiled their list of the Phantom’s shortcomings during a nighttime meeting, the Peninsula cars have backlighting for the door handles and various switches so that they are easier to find in the dark. Peninsula guests not interested in taking in the sounds and sights of Hong Kong will appreciate the 420-watt, 15-speaker Lexicon audio system and the 12-inch television monitors that are mounted behind the front seats. On the ride from the airport, you can view a documentary provided by the hotel that details the life and times of the Peninsula. By watching it, you can learn the meaning of the joke, “Are you married or do you live in Kowloon?” (Kowloon once was populated by brothels.)

Rolls-Royce CEO Robertson traveled to Hong Kong from Goodwood when the Peninsula’s new Phantom fleet arrived at the end of last year and presented Kadoorie with a burr walnut box containing 14 identical electronic key fobs. The first handing-over-of-the-wooden-box ceremony took place in a midday rain in front of a gathering of mostly local media. The second is held at a party later that night, with Kadoorie presiding over a lobby crowded with hundreds of hotel guests and visiting dignitaries, many of whom Robertson regards as potential customers.

 

“See that guy?” a partygoer and regular guest of the Peninsula whispers, nodding to a nearby gray-haired Chinese man in a tux. “He owns the McDonald’s franchise in China, or at least he did, before he sold it for about a billion dollars.”

With a population of more than a billion and a rapidly growing economy, China represents a potentially robust market for Rolls-Royce, and Robertson’s speech to the assembly nearly belabors the point. “We are heading,” he says, “at Rolls-Royce Motor Cars, for another record in sales. [Last year, Rolls-Royce achieved its highest sales total in decades, selling approximately 800 Phantoms worldwide.] I am delighted to say that the fastest-growing region in the world is Asia, and in China—as the most significant player—sales are up at least 60 percent as we approach year’s end.”

A common refrain among the party guests centers on the elephant in the room: the undisclosed transaction price for the 14 green Phantoms. Presumably, the largest purchase of superluxury cars in the history of the hotel business must have hinged upon some ruthless negotiation, but lips on both sides are sealed. Kadoorie says only, “It was done to the mutual benefit of both companies.” Robertson denies any “buy 13, get one free” sort of arrangement, but he does concede that the terms included Rolls-Royce’s buying back the Pen’s previous fleet of road-weary Silver Spurs.

Robertson also does not miss the chance to cast the sales question in the best light for his company, noting Hong Kong’s 100 percent vehicle tax. “So if the car retails for $400,000, then it costs the hotel $800,000 each,” he says. That would put the total price somewhere in the range of $11 million, give or take a few hundred thousand American dollars. “It makes you appreciate living in America,” Robertson adds, “where a $400,000 Phantom is a comparative bargain.” 

The Peninsula Hong Kong, +852.2920.2888, www.peninsula.com
Rolls-Royce Motor Cars, www.rolls-roycemotorcars.com

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Photo by Dana Allen
Photo by Cheryl Zibisky