A record number of Rolls-Royces was sold worldwide last year, the latest indicator that the super-rich remain insulated from global economic strife.

China leapfrogged the US to become the biggest buyer of Rolls-Royces for the first time in the group's 107-year history as sales to the country soared by 67 per cent to more than 1,000. Americans were the next biggest buyer of the emblem of luxury, with sales in the US rising 17 per cent to a record of about 990 vehicles.

The UK remained in third place, reporting a 30 per cent jump in sales, to about 350 cars, an increase that contrasts sharply with the 4.4 per cent decline in total car registrations made across Britain last year.

"Brits love their Rolls-Royces. It is extraordinary, it's an amazing figure, but it's a fact," said a spokesman for the group.


Rolls-Royce sold a total of 3,538 cars worldwide last year, a 31 per cent jump from 2010 and eclipsing the previous record of 3,347 vehicles, set in 1978.

The strong performance provides a small but much-needed boost to British manufacturing, since all the vehicles are made at its headquarters in Goodwood, near Chichester in West Sussex.

The plant employs about 1,000 staff and the company expects to add to its numbers later this year as it prepares to hit a new sales record in 2012. The company has been a subsidiary of BMW since 2003.

China accounted for about 30 per cent of global sales in 2011, followed by the US at 28 per cent and the UK at around a tenth.

The company said it has benefited from the growth of emerging markets such as Russia, China, India, Brazil, Chile and South Korea. But it has also received a substantial boost to sales from the launch of a new model - the Ghost - two years ago.

Prices for the Ghost start at about £250,000 ($NZ493,000) - as opposed to the traditional Phantom range, where the bidding starts at about £350,000 ($NZ691,000).

The Phantom is bought by a man in 99.5 per cent of cases, usually driven by a chauffeur, and its customers are typically heads of state, monarchs, sheikhs, pop, film and sports stars and rich bankers.

By contrast, about 15 per cent of Ghost sales are to women, and the main buyers tend to be very successful business people - the kind of consumer benefiting from the huge growth being seen in some emerging markets.