Sabine Breuer with the Rolls 101EX concept that she and Uwe Pfliegner are charged with looking after. Click image to enlarge
By Laurance Yap
Sabine Breuer and Uwe Pfliegner have what must be one of the coolest, but most frustrating, jobs in the car industry.
It’s a Wednesday night at Rolls-Royce Motorcars of Toronto, but the front of the dealership is shrouded in awnings. Behind the parking valets, the display cases of high-end jewellry and timepieces and the caterers, a select crowd of about 200 people have gathered at the dealership’s invitation to see the Rolls-Royce 101EX, an experimental concept coupe. Based on Phantom running gear, it’s almost a foot shorter and features custom bodywork, from a chopped-down roof, two rear-hinged coach doors and a hood (uh, bonnet) milled out of a solid block of aluminum. A standard Phantom hits the road for just under $500,000; this car is worth several times that.
Tonight, it’s Uwe and Sabine’s job to show potential customers the 101EX – while making sure nobody touches it.
“We’ve spent more than a year travelling around the world with this car,” says Uwe, who’s so well-dressed you’d think he was one of the customers were it not for his name tag. “We’ve been to all of the major motor shows, we’ve been to dealerships and art galleries. Everywhere you go, people want to touch the car – the way the paint is finished, you naturally want to touch it. But it’s a concept car – very sensitive and sophisticated. It has been repainted and they [Rolls-Royce] had to make a second bonnet because of all of the hand marks on the last one. Being made of a solid block of aluminum, that is not a cheap piece.”
Uwe Pfliegner talks to a potential customer. Click image to enlarge
Sabine and Uwe are two of four members of a team supporting BMW Group’s worldwide concept-car department. Based in Munich, they follow their charges around, making sure they’re where they have to be at the right time, making sure the cars always look their best. The day before, to prep for a photo shoot in the dealership, they flew in from Munich to meet a large, unmarked transport truck on Avenue Road and proceeded to unload it in the middle of downtown traffic. Seeing a Rolls-Royce is rare enough in Toronto; seeing a gleaming two-door, one-off Rolls-Royce making a U-turn onto the sidewalk is, you can imagine, a sensation.
Given the size and complexity of the 101EX, parking it in the back corner of the dealership was not the work of a moment. Simply unwrapping the car from its protective layers of clothing takes half an hour, and then Sabine carefully – very carefully – backs the car off the trailer and into the dealership while Uwe walks out into traffic to place and remove orange traffic cones to give her enough space to turn. The two of them have nerves of steel. Uwe very calmly calls out to Sabine (who’s behind the wheel) just how small the gap is as she drives through the glass front doors of the dealership; it’s barely an inch on either side. Sabine manoeuvres the 101EX around the tight confines of the dealership – there’s a huge structural pole in the middle of the showroom – with a confident touch, ignoring the beeping of the parking sensors as she inches forward and back in a million-point turn to get the car positioned just right.
Potential customers crowd around the 101EX concept. Click image to enlarge
Moving the car around is fraught with danger – you don’t want to be the one that scuffs up a multi-million-dollar prototype – but Uwe and Sabine have done it many times before. Before spending the Christmas holiday in a garage near New York, the 101EX had been on tour for several months at various dealerships in the United States; they’ve gotten used to parking it in tight spots. More difficult is trying to keep interested buyers at a safe distance.
“Rolls-Royce owners are pretty confident people,” says sales consultant Steven Pavan. “They know what they like, they know what they want – and they’re possessed of the resources to get it.”
Yet the German duo tackle the task with impeccable skill. Even though he’s across the room talking to one customer – having spent so much time with the car, he’s as much of an expert as anyone else in the Rolls-Royce organization – Uwe seems to have a sixth sense about people’s hands approaching the car and he swoops silently in to guide clients towards more conversation and away from the precious paint and polished stainless steel. Sabine guides other guests around the car wearing a pair of white micro-fibre gloves, demonstrating how the doors close themselves, how the Lalique crystal Spirit of Ecstasy can be retracted at the touch of a button, how the billet-aluminum ashtrays deploy from the armrests and where the umbrellas have gone (they’re door-mounted in the Phantom; in the 101EX they’re strapped onto the bottom of the trunk lid).
Sabine Breuer with the 101EX. Click image to enlarge
Being the custodians for a concept car means long hours and a lot of waiting. Once the last of the guests clear out of the dealership at 10 p.m., Uwe and Sabine will call up the transport company and will, with the utmost care, load it back onto its covered trailer, wrap it in swaddling clothes and prepare it for its next trip. The 101EX’s next presentation will be in Raleigh, North Carolina, a couple days’ drive away for the transport company and, for Sabine and Uwe, a small chance at least to get a bit of rest.
Sabine says she wouldn’t have it any other way. How many other people can say they’ve actually driven this fabulously rare and expensive car – even if it is with a protective cloth over the driver’s seat?