When I was a young lad, growing up in Hong Kong, on Saturdays I used to go to Kowloon with my folks. On several occasions while making our way to the Star Ferry terminal, we would walk past the Peninsula Hotel on Salisbury Road. The Peninsula is famous for many reasons, but one of them is its fleet of Rolls-Royces, all painted a special shade of green. For many years I thought it would be about as close as I’d ever come to one in person, but here I am, driving one of the largest and most expensive motorcars (can’t call it an automobile, just wouldn’t be right), ever built.
|1. The Phantom is the best selling Rolls-Royce in history, breaking the magic 1000 cars per year mark for the first time in 2007.
2. The car’s aluminum space frame is constructed from over 200 individual boxed sections, giving it rigidity on par with a modern Formula 1 car.
3. Just 16 standard exterior colors are available, though Bespoke ordered cars are offered with up to 45,000 different color options.
4. A Lexicon audio system that incorporates two subwoofers mounted in the Phantom’s double floor, deliver 420 watts of sound and an audio sweet spot, no matter where you’re sitting in the car.
5. It requires roughly 15 to 18 individual hides of leather and 450 individual pieces to upholster the interior of a single Phantom.
The current Phantom stems from a prestigious line of cars, all of which were large, rare and exclusive. The first was built in 1925 and the last (prior to the release of this model), 1991. Queen Elizabeth II used two of them as official state cars for many years and the Prime Minster of Australia still gets driven about in one. John Lennon even had one custom painted in a psychedelic scheme, but as much as Phantoms appear to be examples of chauffer driven carriages owned by the elite, according to official market research, many Phantom buyers, well in the US at least, prefer to drive the cars themselves. Not only that, but more than 80 percent of them have also built their wealth from scratch, largely on successful businesses, not inheriting it as has been traditionally perceived. They also tend to own five cars or more, with the Phantom being one of them that is driven regularly.
GERMAN INPUTS, BUT STILL A REGAL BRITISH MACHINE
Many changes have taken place since BMW bought Rolls-Royce, including relocating operations to Surrey, building a brand new factory and also a new range of motorcars, of which the Phantom was the first. Although parts of the driveline and structure are sourced from its Bavarian parent, the Phantom, like its predecessors, remains very much a bespoke machine, each one built to specific customer requirements.
The Ian Cameron designed exterior, plays upon past Rolls-Royces, particularly the postwar Silver Cloud and previous Phantoms, by the flowing roofline, peaked front fenders and pronounced upper body and rocker panel creases. Like many modern cars, the Phantom looks blocky from some angles, particularly the front and rear, but in size profile it still manages to exude classic British elegance, aided by the greenhouse treatment and coach rear doors.
There is however, no mistaking the quality. Our test car, one of four such vehicles on U.S. soil at the time, was finished in traditional English White, one of 16 ‘official’ colors, though buyers can also chose their own specific shades. The color on our sample vehicle reminded us of afternoon tea in the colonies, but the finish is almost beyond comprehension. There are five layers of paint (seven on two tone cars) and between each coat; technicians sand the entire mammoth body by hand. Deep and rich are the words best used to describe it and even then, really don’t do it justice. Likewise, the panel fit and details, from the precision workmanship on the grille, the retractable ‘Flying Lady’ and particularly the window surrounds and door handles, is simply superb, harking back to an era where quality counted above all else. If we are being a little harsh, one element that doesn’t seem to gel are the outside rear view mirrors – they’re huge and not really in keeping with the rest of the car – however, their design is the result of some daft European Union directive, so perhaps we shouldn’t be too surprised.
The interior is a lesson in personal transportation luxury, much as Rolls-Royces always have been. Thick Wilton carpet on the floor, acres of real Mahogany Flare (one of six veneers hand selected by specialists) and James Bond style features such as an analog click on the center part of the dash that reveals a display screen at the touch of a button and a champagne cooler hidden under the rear seats.
Considering the back is such an enticing part of this car, we’ll begin there. The individual rear seats (a popular option – lounge type seating is standard) are more like thrones – each sits 0.7-inches higher than the fronts and is fully adjustable. There’s a pull out veneer picnic table and 12-inch liquid crystal display screen (hooked up to a six disc CD/DVD changer) to keep each occupant entertained, plus the previously mentioned drinks cooler (first class on Singapore Airlines isn’t this good). The soft tan leather (16 different options are available, including such colors as Consort, Oatmeal and Moccasin); is perfectly stitched and sumptuously soft. Generous head and rear legroom (38.5 and 37.3 inches respectively) provides more riding comfort than most living rooms we’ve sat in (the Extended Wheelbase Phantom, with 47.1 inches of extra legroom even more so). The rear doors open with a touch of a button and contained within each is a Teflon coated umbrella; to ensure one doesn’t get wet upon exit – trust the British to think of this.
Up front it’s a true case of old-fashioned craftsmanship meets new technology. The wheel despite being thoroughly modern and housing an airbag, has a very old world feel to it, no doubt helped by the rather thin rim. When you saddle up in the driver’s chair (yes chair, not seat), it’s hard not to adopt a posture of a stately landowner. The instrument cluster wouldn’t look out of place hanging on the wall of the British East India club and even the glovebox can be customized into a myriad of different configurations – even a cigar humidor, if so desired.
Push the button and the massive 6.75-liter V12 engages. It’s almost whisper quiet at idle. The column shifter that controls the ZF six-speed automatic has an interesting feel (imagine ‘50s Cadillac meets BMW iDrive for this one), but it’s easy to operate.
For such a big car, (229.7 inches long in standard form and 239.5 in Extended Wheelbase guise, plus measuring almost 6,000 lbs at the curb), the Phantom feels surprisingly light to drive. On the back roads around Woodcliff Lake and Montvale, NJ, home to some of the wealthiest neighborhoods in the U.S., as well as some of the twistiest roads, the big sedan equates itself rather well.
With 453 horsepower and 531 ft-lbs of torque, acceleration is totally effortless. In fact, even at freeway speeds of around 70 mph, according to R-R engineers, the car still has more than 70 percent of power in reserve, more than enough to ensure that no Phantom driver ever need to break into a sweat (it wouldn’t be appropriate after all).
The ZF transmission is smooth shifting – cog swapping is barely detectable most of the time and maximum torque comes in low enough (431 ft-lbs is available at just 1000 rpm) that there’s no need for any hunting through the gears. Yet for its size and weight, the car isn’t actually that bad on fuel. Official figures list the standard wheelbase Phantom as getting 18 miles per gallon in the combined cycle, 17.8 for the stretched version.
FLOATS LIKE A YACHT AND TAKES CORNERS SURPRISINGLY WELL
The Phantom’s rack and pinion steering is surprisingly well geared, easy enough to maneuver the huge car at low speeds, yet taught enough to get you out of any sticky situation at higher velocity. The aluminum space frame chassis is quite simply a work-of -art. The body panels are essentially fitted onto it, yet over bumps there is no creaking or vibration we could actually detect and despite a cloud-like ride, the car proves rather responsive through the corners.
Along with its fully independent suspension, the Phantom boasts a true 50/50 front/rear weight distribution, so even when you give it a little a bit of throttle before entering a turn, it follows the intended path, not squealing in protest like many large cars of old. You can perhaps describe its on road characteristics as a fusion of Teutonic sportiness and Anglo luxury. If a drink, it would be a special V8 juice blend served up in a platinum plated bottle and sold exclusively at Harrods.
Aiding the Phantom’s on road capability are the massive, specifically tailored Michelin PAX tires, which provide exceptional grip. Standard Dynamic Stability and Traction Control also help.
In terms of safety, Rolls-Royce equips each example with its Intelligent Safety Information System that uses multiple sensors located throughout the car to monitor outside conditions and activate the airbags or deploy seat belt pretensioners when needed. But of course, like most of the finer things in life, all the craftsmanship, capability and exclusivity of the Phantom comes at a price. In the U.S., the standard wheelbase car begins at $350,000 while the Extended wheelbase begins at $415,000, enough to buy a fleet of Mercedes S-Class.
As per tradition, numerous bespoke options are available, allowing buyers to custom build their cars – everything from choosing their own exterior paint finish, to unique interior embellishments and other touches. The Bespoke option is so popular that approximately 65 percent of Phantom orders are done this way, though if you have to ask how much it costs; it’s likely you can’t afford it.
It’s rare that we get to test a motorcar (sorry, almost said automobile), of this stature. Big and imposing, there is quite simply, nothing else like it, in terms of looks, quality and luxury. It’s a pleasure to drive and while it may cost more than a very nice house in many parts of the country, for those who can afford it, the Phantom today, much as it always has, remains in a league of its own among luxury motorcars. No wonder the Peninsula Hotel recently ordered 14 of them.