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Lot of sizzle -- and size -- in family album of rockin' Rollers

September 17, 2003|Dan Neil | Times Staff Writer

The Petersen Automotive Museum's exhibition "Rolls-Royce: A Century of Elegance" displays the new BMW-built Phantom at the end of a long line of classic Rollers and dares you to compare: Is it or isn't it?

BMW faced the challenge -- aficionados would say the duty -- of creating an essential Rolls, a car that could not be mistaken for anything else, one absolutely faithful to the marque's heritage. How this exercise in ancestor worship will play out in the marketplace remains to be seen. At the museum, however, is a handy, abridged version of the family album.

For visitors unfamiliar with the coach-building system, Petersen displays the bare chassis -- frame, powertrain, steering, brakes and instruments -- of a 1923 Silver Ghost. Luxury cars of the time were bought as rolling chassis. Owners then contracted with coach builders to design and fabricate the interior and bodywork.

Many of these creations are grand and graceful, some merely curious.

Note the 1937 Phantom III designed by aeronautic genius Geoffrey de Havilland, who also designed Britain's Mosquito light bomber. De Havilland's touring limousine has a forward-canted split windshield for improved aerodynamics (it didn't work) and silver lightning bolt accents. Field Marshal Montgomery bought the car after World War II for private use.

But for pure sizzle, the car to see is the 1920 Rolls-Royce Silver Ghost Barker boat-tail, a sublime creation of polished chrome, blue lacquer, gold Deco-like speed lines and teak decking laid in the fashion of a classic 12-meter racing yacht. All that car for two people.

These cars range from huge to colossal, and it's easy to see why the new Phantom is so massive. The cars date from a 1907 Silver Ghost Tourer with fingernail-red lacquer to a 1972 Phantom VI limousine with Mulliner Park Ward coachwork. The latter, the museum says, is the largest, most expensive standard Rolls-Royce ever made and the last traditionally styled limousine the company built.

The family album stops there, and none of the unibody Rolls-Royces of the 1970s and later are included. I wonder whether there is a message for us here.

The new Phantom uses a radical space frame design in which the outer body panels are not structural but simply attached. Theoretically, a variety of coachwork configurations could be hung off the space frame. It's worth remembering that Rolls-Royce always had an open-top car in its catalog. To survey the Petersen exhibition is to consider what once was, and what might be again.

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"Rolls-Royce: A Century of Excellence," through Jan. 25. Petersen Automotive Museum, 6060 Wilshire Blvd. (at Fairfax), Los Angeles. (323) 964-6356; www.petersen.org.

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