““[Bill Gates] has been historically one of my best supporters…One of my favorite e-mails he ever sent me…I proposed this crazy project. And he sent back this two-line response: ‘This has got to be the craziest thing you’ve ever suggested. Please proceed.’” ”
You can buy the flagship Lexus LS460-a fine blend of engineering, craftsmanship and performance-for about $80,000. How can a Rolls-Royce Phantom possibly be good enough to justify costing more than four times as much? That's one question I pondered as a Rolls representative handed me the key to a $353,000 Phantom.
As I eased its prow into the bustle of northern New Jersey's roadways, one of the first things I noticed was the reactions the car produced. The jaw-drop gawkers-and their neck craning, horn honking and thumb hoisting-outnumbered the studiously unimpressed. Those in the latter group were typically driving big Benzes or Beemers that had been suddenly eclipsed by the Anglo-Teutonic titan.
Let's face it, one drives a "Roller" not just to operate a magnificent machine but to be noticed, to make a statement, and this car will never disappoint on that score. The Phantom rejects the wedge and aero-blob shapes that dominate contemporary automotive styling. Instead, it bludgeons the air aside with a blunt, high prow before slipping through the breach on flowing lines that are every inch classic Rolls-Royce; and it tapers to a trunk slender enough to reveal, for those in trail, a serious rubber footprint of 9.5-inch-wide Goodyear EMT 285/45R21s (an inch-and-a-half wider than the front feet).
The electronically controlled air suspension is a thing to behold from alongside as well as inside: the Phantom floats motionless while the 21-inch wheels, shod with run-flat tires and rotating around stationary R-R hubcaps, rise and fall in synch with undulations in the roadway. The car's body, secured to an aluminum space frame formed by 450 linear inches of MIG welding, looks utterly isolated from the earth's pockmarked crust, an impression that is only reinforced once you're behind the steering wheel.
Three words describe travel in the Phantom: serene, isolated and effortless. For its size and weight, the car is surprisingly agile, as well as rock solid on the long, open road.
Compared with its BMW six-liter V12 origins, the Rolls' 6.75-liter V12 has been modified with longer stroke for better low-end torque through adoption of different crankshaft, rods, pistons, cams and inlet and exhaust manifolds.
Built in Munich, the Rolls-Royce engine turns out prodigious and relentless torque, through a six-speed ZF automatic transmission, from even the lowest regions of the rpm range. Some muted turbine-like noises are the only betrayal of anything resembling mechanical exertion. Breathing through 48 valves driven by four overhead camshafts, the engine produces 453 horsepower at 5350 rpm and a persuasive 531 foot-pounds of torque at 3500 rpm.
Three-quarters of that max torque is in effect at just 1000 rpm, enough grunt to thrust the Phantom's three tons from zero to 60 in 5.7 seconds and to a governed top speed of 149 mph, according to the manufacturer. I averaged 14 mpg, on par with the Suburban I used to drive.
In the dash, instead of a tachometer to display engine rpm, there is a "power reserve" gauge, a rather odd presentation that shows the amount of power remaining given current demands on the engine. I noted on a couple of occasions that cruising level at 75 mph left about 95 percent of the engine's output untapped, a data nugget that Rolls-Royce seems to think is useful if one is, perhaps, thinking about passing a double tractor trailer up a hill. I couldn't see myself using the gauge to help with such maneuvers, but it was nice to be able to push on the accelerator, feel the surge and glance down to see how much la douzaine had left to give.
Initially, the Phantom seemed as imposing behind the wheel as it appears from the outside, but it didn't take many miles for the sense of bulk to recede. Humans have a way of adjusting to their surroundings, and the Lexus LS430 in my garage felt like a compact after five days with the Rolls.
So how does this car command its lofty price? First and foremost, by its exclusivity. While the broad-market luxury brands turn out tens of thousands of their top models each year, Rolls-Royce sold about 800 Phantoms in 2006, about 350 of them in the U.S. and three quarters of those 350 in Southern California, south Florida and New York (ranked by market size).
Second, price is immaterial to a Phantom buyer who has been smitten by the car. Some owners keep two or three at far-flung residences.
Third, the car is hand-built (on a frame manufactured in Germany and shipped to Goodwood, England) and, in the opinion of this beholder, represents a beautifully executed balance of the traditional and the modern. Of the 450 employees at Goodwood, 300 are wood and leather craftsmen, some of whom came from the yacht and business-jet talent pool.
The wood trim is a sandwich of at least 14 layers, two of them aluminum for stability. All the surface wood veneers are book matched, meaning that the wood trim on each side of the interior is mirrored down the car's centerline. The wood on the right-side doors differs from that on the left-side doors only in the thickness of the blade that shaved the veneers. While assembly of a typical luxury car requires 30 hours, Goodwood spends 260 hours on each Phantom, more for "bespoke" orders (Olde English for "custom").
What else sets this car apart? The hinges for the rear-seat picnic tables that unfold from the front seatbacks will captivate anyone who appreciates clever engineering for their intricacy, simplicity and depth of chrome plating. A switch in the glove box controls whether the car's hood mascot stays visible when you park or retracts for theft protection. Touching a button in the overhead console elevates the front of the car for negotiating the transition to a steeply angled driveway. Side-facing cameras in the nose help when easing the long bonnet out of a city parking garage. There is also a backup camera, playing through a screen in the dash center that flips to reveal an analog clock.
The rear seat's curved corners encourage the two passengers to turn toward each other, just as they might in the living room at home. The Phantom's "suicide" carriage doors (immobilized above two mph) can be closed with the push of a button.
So as not to blow defrosting air on the noggins of those in the front, almost-invisible wires buried in the glass demist the side windows with electrical heat. Soft, vat-dyed leather, its stitching flawless, covers the seats for long-haul, long-life comfort. Lasers and leather craftsmen take 17 days to cut and install 450 pieces from 18 hides into each Phantom interior. Lambskin rugs pamper the feet.
All the skins come from a special herd of Bavarian cattle-always the best A-grade quality and always bull leather because cow leather has areas of stretching and doesn't yield so well. Each car contains three leathers: natural grain, for the seats and trims; pre-shrunk, to prevent brittleness for sunlit areas; and embossed, for the central console and door trims. The greatest skill, say R-R craftsmen, is in matching the grain and color of the hides.
Equally meticulous choices on quality and matching go into the wood veneers: North American walnut and bird's eye maple, mahogany from Africa, Scottish elm and European oak. A groove in the top of the Phantom's operable windows seats a bead in the weatherseal frame for soundproofing, contributing to exceptional acoustics. Front and rear occupants can converse in hushed tones while facing forward despite the distance separating them. New for this year and supplementing the car I drove is a Phantom with 10 inches more wheelbase. A Harman/Kardon Logic7 sound system with a 420-watt, nine-channel amplifier driving 15 Lexicon speakers can fill the tranquillity with sparkling trebles and cathedral-organ bass, thanks to 16-liter bass reflex speaker enclosures under the front seats between the interior and exterior floors. Phantom of the Opera sounds better aboard this Phantom than it does on Broadway.
The Rich Heritage Behind Today's BMW-backed Phantom
For a little over a century, a "Roller" has been a trophy of status and success. The classic Rolls opens its statement with The Spirit of Ecstasy bonnet mascot, her silk-draped arms swept aft like wings, atop a gleaming Parthenon of a radiator shell. Then there's the long, flowing hood concealing an engine whose power output was usually described as nothing more boastful than "adequate." (A Roller never breaks down, either; it is "temporarily unable to proceed.") Downstream from the long bonnet is a cabin whose extended C-pillars afford some privacy for the potentate in his cocoon of Connolly hides, Wilton wool carpet and polished wood veneers. As a conveyance, the Rolls was the business jet before there was such a thing.
The Rolls-Royce motor car's heritage is about as rich as they come, and aviation has been central almost from the beginning. Charles Rolls, son of a wealthy aristocrat landowner, and Henry Royce, an engineer from humble origins, teamed in 1904 to build cars, and since Rolls was a balloon aeronaut and Britain's second licensed pilot (and, in 1910, its first airplane fatality), it wasn't long before the company was building aero engines.
British pilots Captain John Alcock and Lieutenant Arthur Whitten Brown made the first nonstop crossing of the Atlantic in June 1919 on the power of two 360-hp Rolls-Royce Eagle V12s that propelled their converted Vickers Vimy bomber from Newfoundland to a historic arrival nose-first in an Irish bog. The Supermarine Schneider Trophy seaplanes of the 1930s set world speed records with the Rolls-Royce R-series supercharged V12, the only power plant ever to set world land, sea and air speed records.
From that engine came the Merlin in the Spitfires and Hurricanes that saved Britain from Nazi invasion in 1940. In the process, the Merlin helped steer the course of world events away from what Winston Churchill described as "a new Dark Age made more sinister by the lights of perverted science." Now that's a heritage.
Rolls-Royce also pioneered jet propulsion, a technology that took the company into bankruptcy in 1970 when the big carbon-fiber fan of the RB.211 engine under development to power the Lockheed TriStar failed its crucial bird-strike tests by shattering rather than chopping the carcasses for digestion downstream and rotating unscathed.
That marked the end of Rolls-Royce cars and aero engines as siblings. Government bankruptcy administrators ordered that the car company be spun off, and Vickers bought it in 1980, along with the right to use the R-R logo.
Buried in the fine print of that agreement with Vickers was the seed of what was hailed at the time as one of the business world's shrewder poker games. When Vickers decided it could not afford to stay competitive in the luxury car game, it hung a for-sale sign on Rolls-Royce Cars (which since 1931 had included the Bentley marque). In 1998, VW chairman Ferdinand Piech bid £430 million, trumping BMW's £340 million offer. VW's due diligence, however, appeared to have been short on diligence, and what was seen as the prize had slipped out of Piech's grasp.
The contract between Vickers and Rolls-Royce almost two decades earlier allowed the car manufacturer to use the R-R logo only as long as it was owned by a British company. VW, being German, apparently was feeling no ecstasy. BMW and Rolls-Royce, however, already had a relationship with their joint development and manufacture of the BR710 jet engine to power the Gulfstream V and Bombardier Global Express, and a £65 million deal between R-R and BMW secured BMW the rights to adorn a car with Rolls-Royce hallmarks and trimmings but nothing more-no legacy parts, dealers or factory. VW was seen at the time to have blundered greatly when it paid Vickers more than six times that amount for the Bentley badge and an outdated factory in Crewe, England, but has since been doing well with the marque.
BMW got the coveted R-R badge and built Rolls-Royce Motor Cars a new factory in Goodwood, on the rolling Sussex Downs in southern England. The German parent tasked a team of 20 people gathered from BMW worldwide with designing the quintessential Roller for the new millennium. The company gave them free rein to go discover the essence of a Rolls-Royce. The team went to clubs to drive old cars and meet their owners, to identify the properties of both. It also studied the House of Windsor's fleet.