Standing in a dark photo studio in downtown Los Angeles, we suddenly hear a voice. Her tone soft, seductive, and slightly eerie, a woman whispers the words on her script, purple prose written by Rolls-Royce to boast about its rose-colored past and the idyllic future it imagines. She ends with, “Today, we become tomorrow.” Overhead lights brighten, and a two-tone Rolls-Royce Phantom comes into view.
A thoughtful redesign of the marque’s flag-ship model, it’s not immediately apparent that this eighth-generation Phantom is a platform-up project. It doesn’t look dramatically different from today’s Phantom, stale after 14 years on the market. Probably because Rolls-Royce engineers and designers were faced with this conundrum: modernize Rolls-Royce’s longest-running nameplate while retaining the model’s classic elegance.
Rolls-Royce calls the Phantom “the conveyance of choice for the world’s most influential and powerful men and women … a sentinel silently witnessing moments as significant as The Beatles collecting their honors at Buckingham Palace, Field Marshal Montgomery driving Churchill and Eisenhower, and numerous global superstars collecting their Oscars.” After creating the first-generation Phantom in 1925, the British manufacturer continued recapturing what it considers the model’s hallmark characteristics—comfort, effortlessness, opulence—for seven generations.
Rolls-Royce knows today’s buyer is different than before, and even something as precious as the Phantom has to evolve to stay relevant. The design team took the opportunity to leave the “humdrum of Goodwood” and find a new vibe in London’s trendy West End, hoping to discover a different perspective for the Phantom. The new sedan would need to be younger, have more charisma, and shed some of its stodgy “Brit stiff upper lip” attitude. It would need to be more avant-garde and more advanced, fit for the back streets of Beijing, the strip in Dubai, or London’s fashionable Westbourne Grove.
The new Phantom’s most modern, eye-catching feature is its “gallery,” a hermetically sealed glass box that runs the length of the flat-faced dashboard and functions as a sort of display case. The car’s gauge cluster is now digital, and the interior finally has four USB ports and an overdue wireless hot spot. There’s more headroom in the still-epic back seats, and there’s an extra 2.5 inches of various sound-deadening foam packed into the headliner. Auto-shutting doors close with a gentle nudge or the push of a button. Under the hood is a reworked version of the trademark 6.75-liter V-12, which now has two turbochargers and puts out 571 horsepower and 664 lb-ft of torque that builds from 1,800 rpm.
“We’re not downsizing. Phantom is a statement,” says product manager Christian Wettach. “You buy a Phantom because of the prestige, because of the status. So from that perspective it was clear to use a V-12. Same story for sticking with the traditional 6.75-liter displacement. An increase in performance came naturally because we’re jumping from the naturally aspirated engine. … So we didn’t need to push ourselves too much to achieve a significant improvement [in power].”
It’s lovely tinsel, but the unseen parts are what truly set this Phantom apart from its predecessors. The engineering team dedicated most of its resources to improving chassis dynamics and developing an all-new aluminum space frame, which will be the future platform for all Rolls-Royces, including the forthcoming Cullinan SUV. The Phantom’s air springs are larger and have faster-reacting valves. There’s now rear-wheel steering, and Rolls-Royce created an active roll-stabilization system that uses a big electric motor in place of typical anti-roll bars so the car can manipulate its rigidity and ride characteristics on the fly. “We’re controlling 100 percent of how the car rolls. We could technically go around a bend without any roll, which would feel funny,” Wettach says.
More impressive still is the all-new, all-aluminum platform, which is far more sophisticated than the outgoing Phantom’s “fairly simple” space-frame chassis. The seventh gen’s platform paired two longitudinal bars with a couple standard crossbars and called it a day. Linked between the two longitudinal bars of the eighth-gen Phantom’s platform, though, are a whole lot of little crisscrossing bars. They zig and zag to better handle directional forces, help to reduce weight while improving stiffness, and they all connect to large, cast-aluminum hubs called knots. “Some of the knots are really large and quite complicated, and none of our existing suppliers was capable of manufacturing those parts,” Wettach says. “We had to go out and search, and we found one supplier, a small foundry in Italy that usually does engine blocks for supercars.”
All of this creative and compelling work is done predominantly in places no one will see. We ask Wettach if he thinks Rolls-Royce’s unwavering devotion to its heritage held back this Phantom in any way. He thinks, then looks up and says, “It’s a fine balance between what you need to have to satisfy the current state-of-the-art requirements from the customers and how far you want to push yourself. You always try to hide the technology in the Phantom. It’s somehow invisible.”
Pockets of design ingenuity and engineering prowess still shine through on this car, but overall it is a deliberate show of restraint from Rolls-Royce. It leaves us wondering what would happen if the automaker let go of bygones and focused instead on truly setting today’s standard for automotive couture. Otherwise Rolls-Royce’s deep roots and rich heritage might soon become a hindrance to its creative development, if they haven’t already.
For now, though, this all-new Phantom seems to have the trimmings to be successful with both new and established Rolls-Royce buyers, and its architecture will provide a fantastic base upon which the brand can build and, hopefully, push forward.
An Art Gallery All Your Own
Rolls-Royce wants you to curate and create with its all-new gallery dashboard
“We had this idea that we would actually encapsulate and create space within which we can do all sorts of crazy things with materials, finishes, and commissioned art,” says design director Giles Taylor.
The “gallery” will come standard on all Phantom models with the base gallery wrapped in a silver woven-silk cloth that uses metallic thread. “It’s this little stage in the car. At night, with the backlight, it looks just beautiful,” Taylor says. In the short term, owners will be able to swap out the silk wrap for wood, leather, or metal. A bit further down the line Rolls-Royce will work with owners and artists to commission and create unique installations.
“You can have whatever the hell you want, create whatever you think you want to have in your car,” Taylor says. “It would be quite cool to do something that’s dynamic, that actually has movement when the car is moving. We could feasibly fill the gallery with water. Or we could fill it with formaldehyde and do a Damien Hirst shark [a 1991 artwork known as “The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living”] and be sort of cold punk. But it’s about a year and a half, maybe two years out before we can really bring that to a customer.”
Why the wait? Simply put, it’s really difficult to build the gallery box. If any humidity or microbes sneak into the box during the production process, the back of the glass will eventually fog. In order to address the issue, Rolls-Royce is developing a dust-free clean room in its Goodwood production facility where it will assemble the gallery and install it into the Phantom’s IP.
Taylor for years championed the idea of putting this sort of gallery into a Rolls-Royce, and he couldn’t be happier to see it reach production. “It’s not to subvert the purity and the elegance of the car,” he says. “This is an art installation.”