U.S. may overtake China's rich in Rolls Royce race

HONG KONG Wed Jan 11, 2012 6:32am EST

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HONG KONG (Reuters) - Luxury carmaker Rolls-Royce Motor Cars Ltd, owned by German automotive giant BMW AG (BMWG.DE), said its U.S. sales could overtake China this year, revving up the British company for record global revenue in 2012, its chief executive said.

The 107-year old brand, known for its Phantom and Ghost models, remains focused on China after selling more than 1,000 cars there last year, helping the mainland cruise past the U.S. for the first time in the brand's history.

Yet Torsten Müller-tvs, a BMW veteran, expressed confidence in a resurgence of growth in North America, saying he would not be surprised if sales in the U.S. accelerated ahead of China in 2012.

"I think the American market will definitely pick up. It depends on the economy and the U.S. market. There are encouraging signals we are seeing," he told Reuters from the flagship Rolls-Royce store in Hong Kong.

Rolls-Royce, based in Goodwood, southern England, earlier this week reported record sales of 3,538 cars for 2011, up 31 percent from the previous year.

While mass market autos are facing slowing demand, luxury car makers are forecasting speeding sales growth.

Like Rolls-Royce, premium brands such as Volkswagen AG (VOWG_p.DE) -owned Bentley, Porsche (PSHG_p.DE) and Aston Martin have posted stellar sales on rising affluence in regions such as Asia-Pacific, in which a wave of emerging nouveau riche are eager to flaunt their wealth.

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Müller-tvs, who started at BMW as a trainee in 1988, said Rolls-Royce's main competition was not other high-end automakers but luxury purchases such as helicopters and yachts.

"Our competitors are not other brands. It is jewelry for the wife, a new family home in the Swiss alps, a new motor yacht," the blue-tied executive said, standing in front of a black Phantom Rolls Royce.

Bentley has made up ground in the luxury auto sphere with sales of new models such as the Mulsanne and second-generation Continental GT, yet Müller-tvs said Rolls-Royce had no plans to introduce new models within the next 24 months.

He added that Rolls-Royce was not planning to develop a specific China model. "It is exactly the British heritage, British genes that make them so successful, especially here in China." When asked if Rolls could sell more than 1,500 cars in China this year, Müller-tvs said "wait and see."

Originally from Munich, Müller-tvs said China was unlikely to experience growth in the same explosive manner as previous years, but he remained confident of strong growth in 2012. Rolls-Royce, which currently has 14 showrooms in greater China, is in talks with dealers in second-tier Chinese cities.

Drink cabinets, cigar humidors and embroidered names or logos are some of the specific features Chinese customers request when they order bespoke cars, said Müller-tvs, who drives a convertible drophead coupe.

GLOBAL SALES

Hong Kong has the highest density of Rolls Royce cars in the world, with Beverly Hills and Singapore vying for second place. There is currently a six-month average waiting list for a top-end Rolls Royce car, Müller-tvs said.

With European growth flagging, and sales in the region expected to be challenging, Rolls Royce is speeding up expansion in Russia and other emerging markets including South America.

"We are looking for additional opportunities in the Russian market besides our opportunity in Moscow. Cities that present themselves include St Petersburg and Yekaterinburg. We will look into that this year and extend our dealer network in Russia," Müller-tvs said.

He added that it was still early days for the South American market, where Rolls-Royce plans to open dealerships in March in Brazil and Chile.

The challenge in South America is convincing rich people it is worth their while to buy luxury cars.

"Private helicopters, this is a big issue in South America," he said laughing.

(Editing by Chris Lewis)

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