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BMW's bigger, better Rolls

September 17, 2003|Dan Neil

Not since torch-wielding peasants chased Frankenstein's monster through the town square has such a noble spirit been so mercilessly taunted. One critic compared the new $320,000 Rolls-Royce Phantom to a coffin maker's "Executive Slumber Series"; another called it the world's most majestic air conditioner.

Allow me to pile on.

Man, this thing is ugly.

Yet from the driver's seat, the Phantom is a sensational automobile. There's magic and mystery here, fistfuls of romantic motoring. I could drive it to the crack of doom.

Like Shelley's maledicted hero, the styling of the 2004 Rolls-Royce Phantom is something of a cut-and-stitch job. Rolls-Royce's chief stylist for exterior design, Marek Djordjevic, scoured the company's picture books for design cues and proportions that he considered elemental to the marque -- a visual vivisection, if you will. The long hood, the short rear deck, a rising sill line, the convergent hood lines, all poised over a long wheelbase and fronted by a chrome rictus of a grille. These elements he sewed together to form the Phantom, the first new Roller produced under BMW's ownership.

For example, Djordjevic lifted the massive "blind quarter" of the new Phantom -- the broad sheet-metal pillar aft of the rear window -- from the Hooper-bodied Phantom limousines of yore (in the glory days of Rolls-Royce, buyers would send the bare chassis to coach builders such as Hooper to be fitted with a custom body).

Djordjevic also decided that the new car needed classic coach doors, hinged at the rear. The blind quarters and coach doors combine to create one of the new car's signature pleasures: Open a rear door, which feels as heavy as one of Ghiberti's Gates of Paradise, and step easily into the spacious rear compartment, barely ducking your head, then settle back in the leather banquette, secluded in aristocratic privacy behind the blind pillar. So, point to Rolls-Royce. Jolly good show on the coach doors.

Other quintessential double-R design elements in the Phantom are the blade edge of the front fenders; the headlight assembly set high in the "catwalk" between the Greek temple grille and the fenders; and the round fog lights situated just above bumper level (the simulacra of polished Lucas lamps).

But certainly the features that have most thrown viewers are the car's oppressive bulk and its crazy face. This new slab-sided Phantom is more than 19 feet long (longer than a Ford Excursion) and well above 5 feet tall, possessing something of the visual grace of a container ship. Djordjevic based his design, and its scale, on Rolls-Royces pre-1972. These were some awfully big cars, and in the current context, the Phantom reads almost comically big.

And then there's the car's front. It looks like the face of one of those robotic pet dogs they sell in Japan.

What could have possessed Djordjevic? I spent an evening with the young designer in Santa Barbara some months ago, and he seemed to have had all his marbles. What gives?

To begin, ask what exactly did BMW buy when it purchased the rights to the Rolls-Royce name from Vickers (the parent company of Rolls-Royce Motor Cars Ltd.)? Rolls-Royce was a shambles by the time BMW came along in 1998. The Museum-of-the-Industrial-Age Rolls factory in Crewe, England, was dirty and dim. The cars were awful. The only thing in the pipeline was soot.

Rolls-Royce's single salable asset was its history, its book of myths and legends lavishly illustrated with gorgeous cars dating to Edward VII. For the Phantom, BMW built a brand-new factory in Sussex, on the Earl of March's Goodwood property, and started from scratch. In fact, there is no "Rolls-Royce" in the sense of a continuous business enterprise started by Hank Royce and Chuck Rolls. To think of the new Rolls-Royce as anything other than the high-tech, super-luxury brand adjunct to the Bayerische Motoren Werke is to willfully suspend disbelief.

But some fictions are fun, even necessary. And for the fiction of Rolls-Royce to remain operable, BMW needed to make the car more British than King Arthur Pendragon, more aristocratic than Lord Mountbatten, more Rolls than Henry's dear old dad.

My guess is that the styling was driven over the top by the design team's anxiety over authenticity. What began as a paean to the past wound up looking like it had bolts in its neck.

What's it like to drive? I'm tempted to say it drives like a Rolls-Royce, but that too may be a sort of wishful back formation, a trick of memory. No Rolls-Royce of the former regime was half so luscious or so purely seductive.

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