The best car in the world.
Rolls-Royce used that phrase for its automobiles long ago, and in terms of solid engineering and precision manufacturing it was likely true. And those cars were certainly highly impressive, with the top models—called Phantoms from 1925 on—truly imposing. Alas, few Rolls-Royce cars were looked good in their times, and truly beautiful ones were rare indeed. Imposing, yes. Symbolic of quality, yes. But toward the end of the company’s British ownership, Rolls-Royce and sisters-under-the-skin Bentley models were rather like Gloria Swanson’s aged character in “Sunset Boulevard”—still imperious but well past it, faded at the edges and threadbare.
There is no question BMW ownership and engineering supervision have bestowed a new grandeur on the hallowed badge. Or, more likely, it enabled Rolls-Royce to return to what it once was. Its prestige, not really much diminished by falling profits or declining quality, is now being marketed to new customers in countries not previously inclined or able to acquire many luxury cars. Their tastes are, let us say, more expansive than those of traditional British Rolls buyers, so there are colors and trim choices now that would once have been almost unthinkable for the brand.
We had a first look at the new Phantom VIII in London in the spring, along with personal commentary by Giles Taylor, Rolls-Royce’s chief designer responsible for this new, slightly smaller, and totally revised Phantom. Previously at Jaguar, Taylor has a solid and well-proven grasp of what luxury cars should be, as the splendidly elegant Rolls-Royce Dawn cabriolet demonstrated a couple years ago. He had just arrived from Munich, where he has a second set of overseers to keep informed and happy about what he and his team are accomplishing. Together we looked at both a standard wheelbase Phantom and the now-shorter-than-before extended model, which had to be brought under 19 feet, 8.2 inches long to suit a Chinese registration requirement. A vehicle any longer than that demands a specific truck driver’s license.
The new body’s surfacing is elegantly simple, with em-bossed curved-profile indents on the flanks eliminated, something that apparently frightened BMW executives who finally accepted the clean shapes we see here. One slight visual problem with the new car is that it looks odd when the air suspension deflates with the engine off and the body sinks over the wheels. The wheels and tires are huge, so the wheel openings are as well. Before we started our walk-around, Taylor insisted the engine be turned on long enough to bring the car up to proper ride height. It makes a difference, so it’s a little surprising there is not an anti-sink provision in the suspension just so the cars always look right.
A crisp line starting at the back of the front wheel-cut at about wheel-center height runs out in the skin of the rear door while another slightly rising crease begins at the bottom of the front door and continues rising along the bottom of the rear-fender overhang behind the wheelhouse. The overall effect is to make the body side a great deal simpler than the previous model, to good effect. Every external surface is new, and the changes are major. The single centerline bright strip on the hood, which recalled the once-important apparent center hinge but had no function other than decoration and tradition, is gone now, and the hood is not creased or in any other way made to show the body centerline.
In particular, the continuing evolution of the iconic Greek Parthenon temple radiator shell is intriguing. Where the famous façade was simply applied to the front surface of both the Ghost and the Dawn, for this new Phantom as on the previous one there is a panel on top that runs into the hood. Where for decades the shell was made up of flat sections silver-soldered together and the only curves were very tiny radii on top where three planes were bent to provide a flat base for the Spirt of Ecstasy, this new shell is a symphony of curves. The front is inclined rearward at the top, and the grille bars themselves are recessed. The front face is amply curved in plan view, even as it retains a hard horizontal reference when viewed from dead ahead.
We looked at two cars, the gray and dark-blue normal-length Phantom, likely to be owner-driven in many countries, and an impressive purple extended-wheelbase sedan that was more agreeable to our eyes because the exterior refinement is more easily appreciated by an observer not distracted by the color break. And because it is properly imposing—a really big car as a social symbol should be. It is clear many of these new cars will be ordered in radical colors and interior schemes unthinkable prior to the German takeover and the market’s extensive expansion, and we see that as a positive thing keeping stuffiness away.
As Taylor opened the door of the standard-wheelbase car to show its interior, I had the subliminal feeling, without understanding why, that the already distinguished cabin of the Phantom VII that delivered me to the photo studio in London—where these two early production examples were available for our inspection—is thoroughly surpassed in the new model. One simple statement from Taylor about the interior struck home: “Every bit of bright trim you see in this car is actual metal. There is no plastic brightwork.” Of course. The purity of purpose must be perceptible at some subconscious level, and that alone is enough to justify the effort and expense entailed. Which, it must be said, had to be considerable because there is a lot of brightness.
There is also an artful retention of elements from the far past, including specifically the ventilation controls—wonderful push-pull “organ stops” I remember from ancient Rolls-Royces—and the perfectly round air outlets. There is also a control panel for both lighting and the start/stop buttons that looks deliciously old-fashioned even though it houses thoroughly contemporary digital commands. The interior is the most innovative part of the car, with its “gallery” instrument panel one of the most intriguing seen in decades.
The Phantom is impressive. It is imposing and inspires respect and admiration but not reverence for its elegance of form. It is not really beautiful, being in fact rather oddly proportioned, with almost no front overhang—very much in the BMW tradition, as it happens—and a distribution of masses from the A-pillar back that is very close to that of big American cars built to the classical front-engine, rear-wheel-drive pattern. It’s not that far away from the long-gone Lincoln Town Car, in truth. There is a curious reduction of dimensions as the eye moves from front to rear, so that seen from ahead it seems to be even longer than it is, the effect of perspective exaggerated.
1. A solid reason to eschew two-tone paint schemes. The line separating the two colors runs across a beautifully modeled rib, spoiling its visual flow.
2. The Simple and very convincing headlamp surround is a clean rectangle, no notches or odd shapes, set in a cleanly framed recess.
3. The bumper strike face tucks inside the rectangular space below and outboard of the grille bars.
4. If the side marker looks like it doesn’t fit the form, that’s because it doesn’t. It’s a carryover part from lesser models. There was no budget for a limited-volume part.
5. These 13-spoke, 23-inch wheels are far better suited to the majestic look desired for Phantoms than the vaguely circus-wagon design used on the previous model.
6. The more pronounced longitudinal crease low on the body side starts behind the wheel opening and disappears in the rear door skin.
7. Height of the whole front end is excessively tall. Removing about half the height below the bumper bar would lighten the mass advantageously.
8. A blunt front. The fender profile is quite vertical, and there is very little overhang on the outer surface.
9. Shades of 1960s Pontiacs. The wipers live inside a slot at the back of the hood, keeping things clean visually. Good idea then, good idea now.
10. The front fender profile is a narrow blade washing in to the doors. A pinstripe runs along it, fading as the surface does, part way along the rear-door skin.
11. The crease line begins, barely perceptible, in the front door, rises a bit in the rear door, and continues on the rear fender and around the back.
12. The roof panel is slightly indented at the sides, then it transforms elegantly to a transverse line that separates the panel above the backlight from the glass, giving considerable headroom within.
13. The very sporty C-pillar recalls Bill Mitchell’s attempt to combine Ferrari lines and Rolls-Royce “knife edge” styling. Rolls-Royce itself does it far better here.
14. The radiator shell-hood intersection is almost a pure single curve …
15. On a sharp-edged intersection of two flat planes, the radiator shell transitions from vertical to horizontal via a soft—about a half-inch—radius.
16. Traditional vertical grille bars are set well back from the radiator shell’s nominal surface.
17. The top of the rectangular grille-bar opening is a single pure curve—in plan view only.
18. Note the softly radiused indent for the handsome badge.
19. … slightly modulated to suit the retractable Spirit of Ecstasy mascot.
20. The Perimeter of the instrument-panel face glass is set well back of the folded leather sculpture wall on which the clock is set. An infinite variety of design is possible, but this is one of the standard choices.
21. This small panel looks positively antique, which is exactly how it should look, a perfect blending of tradition and modernity.
22. A single sheet of glass traverses the entire instrument panel, allowing three-dimensional sculpting behind it with no fear of dust or fingerprint accumulation.
23. Traditional—and much loved—round vents and “organ stop” control knobs are welcomed.
24. These programmable keys and all other bits of brightwork in the entire cabin are made of real metal. No plated plastic here.