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GRACEFUL MONOLITH
2017-03-07 08:00:00
by Christopher Butt
(comments: 3)

Graceful Monolith

Glamorous motoring is a concept of the past. That the Rolls-Royce Phantom Drophead Coupé manages to translate it into modern terms therefore borders on a miracle. 

 

 

What does luxury feel like? Is it hard, soft, cold or warm? For certain, it doesn’t feel as plain and ever so slightly greasy as a touchscreen does. The tender, delicate and smooth feel of top-quality leather is much more like it. As is the glossy-yet-warm surface of polished burl wood. 

To describe a smartphone as a true luxury good is therefore a digressive misunderstanding, despite its not insubstantial monetary value and immense practicality. The Rolls-Royce Phantom Drophead Coupé, on the other hand, is a genuine luxury good in the actual meaning of the term. 

This also explains why, a few decades into the future, the Rolls-Royce is likely to be found in a museum, whereas the materials found in the smartphone will have been recycled for the 17th time, in order to be employed in Silicon Valley’s newest innovation. 

High tech, to make a long story short, is not proper luxury. It is a sophisticated commodity. The Rolls-Royce Phantom Drophead Coupé therefore is not high tech. Hurrah!

 

 

Of course, the second product coming from Rolls-Royce since the company’s reinvention (courtesy of BMW) is nevertheless equipped with sat-nav, mobile phone connectivity et al, as is to be expected these days. But it discreetly houses its adapted iDrive system, in almost coy fashion, behind wood veneers of impeccable craftsmanship. Prudent Rolls-Royce owners ought to applaud Rolls-Royce’s/BMW’s engineers and designers for this approach, certainly on the day the current generation of infotainment appears as old-hat as a mobile phone with extensible antenna does today. 

The Rolls-Royce Phantom Drophead Coupé obviously is a lavish, decadent creature. But, like any smart poseur, it understands the virtue of moderation - more isn’t always better. And thanks to this particular trait, the Phantom possesses a quality that has become exceedingly rare among automobiles: dignity. 

In terms of its dimensions, the Rolls-Royce is, naturally, of sprawling and immense proportions. This is in turn compensated by the restrained form language and aforementioned lack of technological vainglory. This results in a motorcar of rare timelessness - as accentuated by the fact that this convertible, just like its saloon brother, hasn’t aged a single day, in stylistic terms, since the Phantom range was unveiled more than a decade ago.

 

There is more than one reason why the Phantom Drophead Coupé constitutes a bonafide luxury product. It is based on a bespoke platform not completely dissimilar to the body-on-frame construction of classic Rolls-Royce models (albeit employing aluminium, rather than steel frames). This is a factor when it comes to the Phantom’s extreme proportions, which not only lend this Rolls-Royce a grace that belies its vast size, but also an aura of authentic luxury. Based upon such a solid stylistic foundation, the endless bonnet, the traditional wheelbase-to-overhangs ratio and, above all, the lascivious coach doors act as formal pièces de résistance.

Those doors, as well as the Partheon grille (embedded in the bonnet for the very first time here), are the most obvious stylistic updates that former head of design at Rolls-Royce, Ian Cameron, and his team applied to the Drophead Coupé. With these two features, they achieved the supposedly impossible aim of paying homage to pre-war coachbuilding, while avoiding the pitfalls of twee retro design. Even the somewhat oversized wing mirrors (which can be blamed on legislation anyway) cannot change that in the slightest. If one was intent on accusing the Phantom Drophead Coupé of one failing, it would have to be the fact that it doesn’t really blend in with modern traffic. This isn’t so much due to its size (after all, full-size SUVs typically match it in terms of at least one dimension), but because of how it exudes glamour in a mostly vulgar age.

 

Another indication that this Rolls-Royce doesn’t deign to engage in any kind of competition with the current crop of ‘premium’ marques awaits inside its cabin. There, one is immediately confronted with the absence of the stylistic fad currently most en vogue among purveyors of luxury motoring: conspicuous stitching. With leather - or something vaguely resembling it - having become ubiquitous among cars with even the faintest of premium pretensions, the industry turned to visible stitching as the next signifier of superior quality. This has led to the propagation of escalating amounts of stitching across the interiors of upper class automobiles. Visually overpowering acres of lozenge- or eczema-shaped stitched leather surfaces are the most extreme outcome of this development - and, in fact, nothing but an awkward admission by some luxury marques that they cannot come up with a better idea to face the automotive suppliers’ ability to deliver stitched leather surfaces on an industrial scale, even for humble family cars. 

In marked contrast, there are only two visible seams to be found inside the Phantom Drophead Coupé’s cabin: one framing the dashboard (as per Rolls-Royce tradition), the other - in most discrete style - along the edge of the door cards. All other seams are invisible to the eye, thus subtly underlining the Rolls-Royce’s confidence in its own craftsmanship. 

This car doesn’t need blunt credentials for its bespoke quality. Instead, it relies on the radiance of copious amounts of natural materials - soft leather and delicately-patterned wood -, which have been treated to immaculate artisanship. Not to mention certain details, such as the most solid, polished stainless steel seat rail cladding and, above all, one of the prettiest ashtrays of automotive history, which don’t fail to quietly impress. 

 

Despite all this, some might still be inclined to denigrate this motorcar as some kind of faux-British pretender, what with that BMW-based V12 engine under its bonnet and iDrive screen hiding underneath its analogue (and surprisingly cheap-looking) clock. Which would in turn call for a brief history lesson, for Rolls-Royce Motor Cars - even when independent - always drew on components from other manufacturers, some of which certainly couldn’t match the reputation of the Bayerische Motorenwerke. And as if to top off this particular argument, the Bavarians even went to the lengths of increasing the capacity of their V12 unit to the traditional 6.75 litres of classic Rolls-Royces, in order to allow for the prerequisite waftability. 

The impression of more than skin-deep luxury and quality isn’t even tarnished by the collection of Bavarian control levers and buttons underneath the centre console’s lid, where iDrive controller, seat adjustment et al reveal their humble origins whenever their services are needed. Indeed, one only needs to clutch at the Phantom’s large, thin-rimmed steering wheel, look across the vast bonnet expanding in front of the windshield, with the Spirit of Ecstasy at its tip, or touch the partially open-pored, partially polished wood to assert that one is driving about in a very special motorcar indeed.

 

 

It is hard to judge whether the unquestionably immense financial and creative efforts that went into the Phantom ever paid off for the Bavarian parent company in monetary terms. In terms of image and reputation, the Phantom range certainly legitimised the claim that the revived Rolls-Royce wasn’t about serving the costumer Weißbier in some posh British porcelain beaker. 

But now the era of these exceptional automobiles, which revived virtues thought forgotten - albeit in such a surprisingly contemporary way -, has ended. 14 years after they’d redefined the decadent automobile, production of the Rolls-Royce Phantom range has ended. Here’s hoping that this car will be on people’s minds the next time the luxury automobile is in need of reinvention. 

 

Thanks to Rolls-Royce Motor Cars Limited for supplying the demonstrator car, as well as Gutshof Menterschwaige for providing the setting.

© auto-didakt.com, all rights reserved

Christopher Butt

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Comment by Daniel O'Callaghan |

What's going on at the leading edge of the door arm rest, where the polished wood meets the leather on the door card? Is that a poor fit, the armrest coming adrift, or is something missing? The wood itself looks rather scratched or pitted. I'm surprised that RR would allow a car in less than perfect condition out for testing or to be photographed.

That's merely an aside, and RR's reinvention under BMW has been an absolute triumph. However, the latest Phantom displays signs of the "difficult second album" syndrome, where a superlative original proves difficult to improve upon. The handling of the DLO brightwork on the Phantom VIII is rather heavy-handed, and awkwardly resolved around the rear-quarter light, compared with its predecessor. The lower positioning of the "coach" door handles looks rather less graceful. Small details, maybe, but such details matter, especially on a luxury car that transcends fashion and should enjoy a long service life.

Reply by Christopher Butt

The door arm rest was spotless - the gap and those scratches are merely reflections. 

The new Phantom is a car that looks worse the longer one is exposed to it. That Giles Taylor, the chief designer who oversaw its development (but not the first-generation car's) told me with all the conviction of a devoted priest that he'd created a more 'elegant' & 'casual' car than the predecessor model is very telling indeed in that context. 

Comment by Daniel O'Callaghan |

Ah yes, of course. I overlooked just how highly polished and reflective the wood is. Thank you for clarifying, Christopher.

I've never seen either the Phantom VII or VIII in the metal, so am relying on photos for my impressions. I'm intrigued by your expert perception, and perplexed by Mr Taylor's comment on the VIII. The Phantom, in conception, design and use, is the very essence of dignified formality, so why would you try to make it more "casual"? "Casual elegance" if not oxymoronic, is a difficult trick to master: take a look around any office* that has adopted a "business casual" dress code and you'll see how easy it is to get wrong!

The only feature that significantly dated the Phantom VII was the wheelarch treatment, and the VIII is an improvement in this regard, being better suited to the sharp geometry of the overall design. Otherwise, it's a retrograde step, in my view.

The replacement for the Ghost will be interesting. If the Phantom has gone "business casual" will the Ghost be going "board shorts" and tees"? Yikes!

Comment by Daniel O'Callaghan |

* I forgot to add that I'm referring only to the British Isles here. In general, our continental friends seem to manage smart casual effortlessly!