Crewe, England — It's like no other automobile factory in the world. Ivy Henschall, who's been with Rolls-Royce for 26 years, off and on, was slipping screws into a micrometer to check their conformity to the specs.
Farther along, Mike Glynn, 34 years on the job and a veneer cutter, is piecing the Italian-grown walnut for the dash.
"It's just like a jigsaw puzzle," he declares, as he willingly explains the intricacies of the job.
Then there is Frank Read, a radiatormaker, who shapes, miters, and joins together the slats and other parts of the famed Rolls-Royce grille -- a time-consuming, fussy job that he obviously seems to enjoy.
Mr. Read explains: "It takes from 5 to 6 hours to make just one radiator and another 4 or 5 hours to polish it by hand." After all, that's part of what people are paying for when they buy a Rolls-Royce motorcar, he says.
On the back of the grille Mr. Read incribes the letter H.
Why an H? Mr. Read explains that Harry Hassall, who recently passed on, was a legendary figure at the plant and someone he doesn't plan to forget.
"I use Harry's initial to perpetuate his name," he goes on.
"Harry taught a lot of us how to do the job and he always set a very high standard for everyone here."
Why does a Rolls-Royce cost $100,000 or more? Building the radiator grille is one reason. Every piece is soldered by hand and each 2 1/2-pound iron is heated in a gas- fired furnace, not an electric furnace.
"The worst enemy is heat," asserts Mr. Read. Thus, he adds, each iron has to be heated to a precise temperature. In using the irons a craftsman can tell exactly how hot the irons are and when to reheat them.
Mr. Reads points to the slight curve in the vertical pieces of the grille. "Without the curve," he declares, "the slats would look concave."
Clearly, the Rolls-Royce assembly plant, about 175 miles north of London, is full of surprises and unlike any other auto- assembly plant in the world.
For one thing, the cars are pushed along on carts because a moving assembly line wouldn't make any sense at all. The company only builds about 3,500 a year. With such a small output, and because of the nature of the car, the assembly facilities have to be adapted to its needs.
About 200 cars are in various stages of body assembly at one time.
Another surprise is the small, austere office of George R. Fenn, chief executive of the firm. Usually, the head of an automaking company would rate an impressive office with a large, finely polished desk, sofa, and comfortable easy chairs scattered around the room. Not so Mr. Fenn. The point is, almost everything about the Rolls-Royce operation is understated, including the car.
The Rolls-Royce auto complex is also a manufacturing plant where workers cut and sew their own upholstery from cow- hides, eight to a car.
Other workers hand-build the V-8 engines, a 13- to 14-hour job, according to Wilfred Ollier, 30 years with Rolls, who is putting together a 1981-model engine for sale in California.
"One engine in 20 is tested for 20 hours at full throttle and then torn down and examined piece by piece," he says. Besides Rolls-Royce, only a maker of low-production exotic cars can afford such luxury.
The factory, built in the late 1930s, went through the Battle of Britain in World War II almost unscathed because it was so well camouflaged. It produced the famed Merlin aircraft engine. Since then it has been expanded by the addition of numerous other buildings, including a school where aspiring young workers are trained for the job.
Craftsmen get about L120 ($280) a week. Other workers are paid less.
Engine blocks are cast in a nearby foundry while the car bodies are stamped and put together by Pressed Steel, a subsidiary of BL, Ltd., builder of Jaguar, Rover, and Triumph automobiles.
The more expensive Royce cars -- Corniche and Camargue -- are hand-built in London at the Mulliner-Park-Ward factories, owned by Rolls-Royce, and then sent to Crewe for the mechanicals.
After a car is built it is thoroughly road- tested, without bumpers and grille, for 150 or 200 miles -- "whatever is required to work any bugs out of the car," a worker explains. Finally, the car is repainted completely and the chrome work put back on.
Interestingly, the retiring Silver Shadow also is being built alongside the brand-new Spirit although the older car will soon be phased out.
The overlap is intentional, explains a worker, because it allows the workers to learn how to assemble the new car while still working on the older model.
When the quitting bell rings at 5 in the afternoon, the stampede from the factory gate begins. Apparently, it isn't just the exuberant joy of getting out of work, but an effort to avoid the almost-certain traffic jam which quickly builds up. About 6,000 work here, including a production crew of 4,000. There is also a stream of bicycles and motorcycles.
While it is a rare individual at the plant who drives a Rolls -- certainly not the ordinary production or white-collar worker -- the employees do indeed "buy British."
Surprisingly, there doesn't seem to be a "Japanese problem" at the Rolls plant although there is a sprinkling of other imports, mostly European. In watching the cars stream out of one parking lot, at least 80 percent of the cars are British, includin a few three-wheelers which, I am told, are taxed as motorcycles if they do not have a backup gear.
Rolls-Royce Motors, Ltd., joined Vickers, Ltd., a few months ago and now is known simply as the Motor Car Group of the big British aerospace and conglomerate.
Some feel that a Rolls-Royce automobile is an anomaly in today's world of debatable fuel supplies and out-of-this- world price. Even so, the prestigious company is rolling into the '80s with a new car, eight years in the making, on the line and more plans for the future.
It's a British as The Times, crumpets, and 5 o'clock tea.
Says DAvid Plastow, formerly the chief executive of Rolls-Royce Motors and now head of Vickers, Ltd.:
"We expect that everyone will do all in their power to make certain that the best car in the world remains a Rolls-Royce."
And who is to argue with the boss?