06.04.2004. Driving The New Rolls-Royce Phantom -Forbes
Dan Lienert, Forbes
If you buy a 2004 Rolls-Royce Phantom, you might be disappointed at how pedestrians in Manhattan react to it: either with big smiles, or not at all.
The second part is what's disturbing. When you've spent at least $320,000 (the Phantom's base price) on a car, you want everybody to notice you--and only a few people do when you're driving the Rolls through Times Square, where traffic is so slow that people have plenty of time to see this stately battleship coming through.
Maybe New Yorkers are too hard to impress. Or maybe (sigh) that $320,000 check will not buy you immunity against insecurity and a need for attention...But then, there are the New Yorkers who do notice the Phantom. They smile. They laugh. They tap their friends' shoulders to get their attention, and you can see them mouth the words "It's a Rolls-Royce."
The average American will never sit in a Phantom, which costs more than the average American house. Nor is that person likely to see a Phantom being driven down the street more than once or twice in a lifetime, if at all. But if you are the person Rolls-Royce describes as its target customer--i.e., you have three, four or five homes; a net worth of around $30 million; and around six other exotic, collectable or ultra-luxury cars--then you might see the Phantom's base price as, simply, membership dues in a very special automotive club. T.E. Lawrence owned a Rolls-Royce. So did Joe Louis. So did Alfred Nobel.
So did Henry Ford.
Rolls' history and brand equity are the automakers' trump cards over its closest competitors in the ultra-luxury segment: DaimlerChrysler's Maybach brand and Bentley. Although Maybach is, like Rolls, a storied brand name from automotive history, it had been defunct for decades before Mercedes resurrected it in 2002. In 2003, Rolls' total of 169 American sales was neck-and-neck with Maybach's total of 166 units. Both brands were beaten by Volkswagen's Bentley, which sold 412 cars last year in the United States, but Bentleys cost considerably less than Maybachs or Rolls-Royces, and Bentley owes much of what it is today to Rolls, its former owner.
This year, Rolls will celebrate its 100th anniversary in May. The company's founders, Charles Rolls and Henry Royce, wanted to build cars that would set speed and endurance records, but were also so quiet you would not hear them coming. Beginning with the 1907 Rolls-Royce Silver Ghost, the company has had a tradition of naming vehicles for silent things: Ghosts, Wraiths, Spirits, Shadows, Clouds and Phantoms. The obsession with silence still holds today: At slow speeds, the Phantom's exhaust gases are sent through a longer route than they would be at high speeds, a process which deadens sound while the Phantom is driving in a city or other environment at "parade speeds."
Early on, Rolls-Royce fashioned itself into a company that built stealthy, fast automobiles. Its engines became renowned for their power and were used in non-automotive applications. In the late 1920s, Rolls powerplants held the speed records for land, sea and air.
Rolls-Royce acquired an insolvent Bentley in 1931. At the time, Bentley made more of a gentleman's sports car--smaller, lighter and faster than a Rolls-Royce--and the two brands developed a strong influence on each other. Rolls and Bentley started building cars from common components in the 1940s--a process which ultimately led both brands to lose their identities as their cars became more and more similar. In the 1970s and '80s, Rolls-Royces and Bentleys were basically the same cars with different grilles.
In 1980, Rolls-Royce Motor Cars merged with Vickers, a defense manufacturer specializing in aerospace components. Rolls and Bentley eventually became too expensive for Vickers, which put the companies up for sale in the 1990s. In 1998, Volkswagen won the bidding war for Rolls and Bentley, but did not manage to secure the naming rights to Rolls-Royce due to legal technicalities. As a result, Rolls and Bentley separated, as Volkswagen took over Bentley and BMW acquired Rolls. The problem for BMW was that Volkswagen had acquired the shared Rolls-Bentley factory, as well as parts and designs for Rolls-Royce cars.
As such, BMW had to start from scratch with Rolls. While developing the Phantom, the first and so far only BMW-supervised Rolls-Royce, the Germans sent designers to stay around London's Hyde Park, where they had access to Rolls-Royces in the royal fleet and could meet Rolls owners in London clubs. BMW wanted to capitalize on a century of Rolls history, and told its designers their mission was to build an authentic Rolls-Royce that would be a natural successor to the brand's glorious cars of the past.
As a restructured Rolls waited to reemerge in public, the Phantom was developed in secrecy from mid-1998 to 2002. When the car made its introduction in January 2003 at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit, it was a riskier proposition than most people may have noticed at the time. Would the Phantom feel sufficiently British, considering it was parented by Germans and designed by a Yugoslavian, Marek Djordjevic? Would it be sufficiently opulent?
The answer, we found, is "yes." When you climb into a Phantom and have your feet massaged by its thick, sheepskin floor mats, an experience of total pampering begins. Among the world's most exclusive automakers, two brands tower above the others: Ferrari for performance, and Rolls-Royce for comfort. The Phantom has succeeded in its mission to make sure Rolls-Royce remains the household name for over-the-top automotive luxury. The car, in fact, borders on the sinful and decadent. Phantom buyers are almost all self-employed, heirs to large fortunes, royalty or entrepreneurs; were the CEO of a major, publicly-traded company to drive a Rolls-Royce, his shareholders would assume he was corrupt--or so Rolls tells us.
No matter who ends up buying the cars, it's good to see Rolls-Royce back in business. The company's new Goodwood factory in Britain, which is about an hour and twenty minutes south of London, is a part of a 12,000-acre property belonging to a peer named Lord March. The factory is behind two rolling hills. Its roof is covered with plants so that, to the eye of Lord March watching from home, the factory looks like a third rolling hill.
Rolls' capacity at Goodwood is 1,000 cars per year. The United States saw delivery of the first Phantoms last May, and Rolls expects to sell 400 copies of the car this year in America, its biggest market. Due to the enormous expenses involved in restarting a blueblood automaker, Rolls did not make a profit last year and doesn't expect to this year. However, company officials say that BMW did not resurrect Rolls because it needed a hobby. It expects Rolls to make money eventually--we're just not sure when.
Revenues are bound to go up this August, when Rolls will introduce the 2005 Phantom. The new car will have a higher sticker price despite a lack of major changes. Rolls says that it can't maintain its current pricing since the dollar has lost ground against the Euro and the pound.
While Rolls-Royce is considering adding to its model line a long-wheelbase Phantom and a new convertible, the Phantom right now is about all you could ask for from a car. In fact--at the risk of sounding melodramatic--you may feel a bit empty inside after driving it, knowing that you are unlikely to command another car that will spoil you as much. Here's your chance to find out why the vehicle is so awesome. Can you be as dispassionate about the Phantom as a typical New York pedestrian? We doubt it. www.forbes.com