Remember Rolls-Royce two decades ago? Don’t worry, it’s okay to admit you don’t. Back then its only model was the Silver Seraph, and rather than generating anything as polarising as antipathy or admiration, the world was simply indifferent. Badge engineering with sister company Bentley had also spawned the Arnage, but no one cared – even owner Vickers, as it decided to sell the posh pair.
BMW, suppliers of the 5.4-litre V12 in the Silver Seraph and the 4.4-litre twin-turbo V8 in the Arnage, was seen as the obvious buyer. But then the Volkswagen Automotive Group, in full expansion mode, pounced: 1998 was the year that it gobbled up Lamborghini, the defunct Bugatti brand, plus Rolls-Royce and Bentley. Or so it thought…
The Rolls name and logo actually belonged to Rolls the aero maker, and BMW sneakily bought both for around £40m, after being outbid by VW for the main prize. Volkswagen, meanwhile, had everything from the Crewe factory to the Spirit of Ecstasy, but was missing those two crucial components. Stalemate? Not when BMW’s contract allowed it to cancel its engine supply with just 12 months’ notice, which would have brought the production lines to a halt long before VW could engineer replacement powertrains.
A deal was done, splitting off the Rolls half of the business, and BMW kept supplying engines and VW kept building the Silver Seraph and Arnage while a brand new company was founded – Rolls-Royce Motors Cars Limited – and sought a new home on Lord March’s Goodwood Estate in the south of England.
Four and a half years later, having built a new company and a new factory from scratch, the first BMW-era Rolls appeared – in the enormous form of the Phantom. Those worried by the mess BMW had made of MG Rover, not least its outdated interpretation of the company’s values in the 75 saloon, needn’t have been concerned – it was instantly the best luxury car in the world.
13 years on, as the last one leaves the Goodwood factory, that remains the case.
You don’t see it, you behold it, the sheer size of it both impressive and imposing. The front overhang might be short, but the bonnet is vast, so long that the six and three-quarter litre V12 (the rich don’t do decimal places) actually looks a little lost in the engine bay. The wheels too, are huge, because Rolls decrees they should be half the height of the car. And when the engineers raised the floor inside the Phantom to make it flat – meaning no step down into a footwell, or a transmission tunnel rising up in the middle – the Phantom ended up sitting its occupants eye-to-eye with Range Rover drivers.
Speaking of drivers, some owners may never touch the doors handles (that’s the job of the hired help) but pull on one and it’s like grasping a solid silver ingot. Open all the doors, with the rear ‘coach’ doors hinging from the C-pillar, and it makes for a masterpiece in theatre as the whole interior is exposed in widescreen. Then you don’t know where to look, or to start, but it’s best to spend the next five minutes outside, marvelling at the wheel caps that forever remain upright, extracting and reinserting the umbrellas built into the back doors, or just feeling the depth of the lambswool carpets before daring to put dirty feet upon them.
Where to start then, up front or in the back? Go for the ‘being driven’ option and you step up inside, to either two chairs, or the default option of a slightly curved ‘lounge seat’, designed to be a little more social than the his and hers choice. Then turn, sit, and press the button that closes the rear doors automatically. You’ll never tire of closing the rear doors with a button.
The C-pillars are deep to hide you from the paparazzi, the optional starlight headlining (able to be configured with whatever constellations you choose, even the stars on the night your first child was born) glows gently, and the leather is soft, smooth, thick and rich. It’s a little too old to feature iPads, but there are tables and TVs, fridges and flute holders, but as with the experience up front, the Phantom makes your life simpler. It’s best not to look for a high-speed internet connection and the latest infotainment system, but instead relax.
The Phantom has the same effect on those upfront. Start the engine and there’s a distant whir (but never more) from the naturally aspirated V12. Where are the turbos? No need. There’s 531lb ft at 3500pm, and 75 percent of that total from just 1000 revolutions per minute. Nought to sixty takes less than six seconds, but this isn’t a car in which to sprint away from the traffic lights.
Instead you waft. And glide. Once you’ve got the hang of it, mind. At first the Phantom feels vast. Ship like. The nose is far away, and as you turn the wheel, the steering appears too quick for the body to keep up with, so progress is jerky. Then you realise you’re driving it all wrong. The little bulges on the steering wheel aren’t at ten and two, rather twenty to four, so best to have your hands in your lap and guide it gently.
That’s the first hint that this is a different driving experience. The Phantom comes from an era before head-up displays, night vision and lane departure were all the rage, but nonetheless, technology doesn’t equate with luxury in the eyes of Rolls. Double glazing and heated side windows are standard, but hundreds of buttons that change every aspect of the car aren’t. The Phantom is what it is, and you don’t want for anything, despite the fact that it actually lacks rather a lot when viewed in relation to the likes of a tech-fest Mercedes S-class.
But actually, it’s the minimalism that makes it feel so special. There is sat-nav but it spins away behind a screen (to reveal an analogue clock) when you don’t need it. Don’t expect to change gear yourself either – there’s an ‘L’ on the steering wheel to get the gearbox to maintain a low gear on descents, but no paddles, no sport mode. No adaptive dampers either, just a ride that works all the time. There’s also nothing as crass as seeing the rpm of the engine (i.e. how hard the help is working) so there’s a Power Reserve gauge instead.
Noise is absent too. It’s wonderfully isolating to travel in when the world outside is manic. It makes each journey a joy, even when you’re stuck in traffic. I don’t think a car is truly good unless it can be enjoyed at low speeds. A 911 R can be enjoyed at 30mph as much as it can on the limit, while a Focus RS is a pain unless the throttle is pinned. The Phantom is never better below the speed limit. Of course it’s wondrous on the motorway, but it doesn’t encourage you to speed, rather to enjoy the journey, the experience of travelling, of travelling within it. So few, if any cars, do that these days. Forget the gadgets and gizmos, forget the adrenaline of the drive, the Phantom is instead indulgent. In the list of the top five cars I’ve ever driven, it’s there, along with an LFA, a 997.2 GT3 RS, the 458, and a fifth car I’m yet to find.
There’s another Phantom on the way in 2018, and Rolls-Royce’s first ‘all-terrain, high-sided vehicle’ (an SUV, to you and me) too, and while both will doubtless prove faster, more refined and more luxurious than this Phantom, I doubt they’ll define (and redefine) Rolls in quite the same.
Twenty years ago Rolls was truly in the doldrums. Thirteen years ago the Phantom was launched. Today, Rolls-Royce is the Phantom, and the Phantom is Rolls-Royce. It defines the brand. Not a bad first effort from an all-new company…
Photography and video by Charlie Neilon
Read our story on the end of Rolls-Royce Phantom production: bit.ly/7thPhantom