If there’s a protocol regarding the social acceptability of removing one’s shoes in the presence of a lady, especially in a $640,000 Rolls-Royce, I’m pretty sure I broke it. But previous experience in Rolls-Royces has introduced me to the distinct and difficult-to-describe pleasure of running one’s toes through deep-pile lamb’s wool rugs, and I wasn’t going to miss it this time.
So, soon after “Dave,” our chauffeur, swung open the enormous, rear-hinged “coach doors” of the palatial, black-over-green, long-wheelbase version of the all-new 2018 Rolls-Royce Phantom and installed Rolls-Royce spokeswoman Elizabeth Williams and me in its two sumptuous rear seats, off came the shoes. And the socks, too.
For her part, Ms. Williams didn’t seem to mind—I may have a dirty mouth, but I do have clean feet—and soon, she kicked her dressy pumps aside to savor this ahhhhhh-some feeling with me. She even reminded me of the power footrests underneath those deep-pile rugs that raise the section of the floor beneath one’s feet to a more ergonomically correct angle, thus making the deep-pile lambs wool that much more available for sole-stirring indulgence. (Okay, no more puns—promise.)
We begin to move—I didn’t even know the big 6.75-liter V-12 was on—and enter public roads that we must share with insufferable plebeians in lesser automobiles. My, how quickly snobbery sets in whilst tucked deep in the “cove” created by the Phantom’s thick C-Pillars. Above us are hundreds of fiber-optic pin lights that turn the ceiling into a starry constellation.
This calls for a toast, I say, but the car’s champagne flutes (and the champagne, for that matter) normally stashed in the refrigerated rear center console had been removed, likely so they don’t go missing before the car finds an actual owner following its time as a press and marketing vehicle. Committing yet another social faux pas, we toast with bottles of water Dave had placed in the leather-lined door pockets—a forgivable offense, since we were thirsty. Running one’s toes through lamb’s wool rugs constitutes exercise for the leisure set.
Cheers to whomever ends up owning this car, we say, someone that won’t be hard to find, since Rolls-Royce’s ludicrously wealthy customer base is full of unique and highly eccentric individuals that don’t go anywhere without a Brinks truck full of cash in tow in the event they see something, even a $640,000 something, they simply must have.
Indeed, it’s not uncommon that a high-end press car such as this one gets retired early after a patron sees it in a magazine and makes a call. This particular Phantom, with its gorgeous gloss black over metallic emerald green paint scheme, with hand-applied green pinstripes where the two colors meet and gold pinstripes on the front fenders that terminate halfway into the rear door, would probably sell quickly on its looks alone, but the car has historic relevance, too, as an homage to the 1927 Phantom I town car once owned by Fred Astaire.
The gallant movie star, who danced his way across the silver screen, purchased his Phantom I used in 1931, added some deco-themed details and had it painted dark green with black fenders and a black upper body. Beautifully restored and part of the Margie and Robert E. Petersen collection at the Petersen Automotive Museum in Los Angeles, the majestic, 90-year-old masterpiece was shown to a handful of media, including myself, last Spring as Rolls-Royce prepared it to join six more significant Phantoms—one from each generation—in England for the Phantom VIII’s official unveiling last summer. Astaire’s car is, in a word, epic.
How could the new Phantom possibly compete with that? Well, as one of the few individuals who have seen, photographed and sat in both—I can aver that this new 2018 Phantom, which brandished approximately $100,000 worth of options for a bottom line of approximately $640,000, according to Williams, does pay proper homage to Astaire’s Phantom I, even if Rolls-Royce didn’t strap a vintage Louis Vuitton steamer trunk to the back.
The 2018 Phantom’s olive and cream interior split the difference between the light green silk upholstery and cream-colored headliner in back of Astaire’s ride and the dark green leather on the open front seating area. Both cars feature rear-seat footrests, rear-hinged doors, and even rear window shades, too. But while poor Astaire had to pull a string to lower his rear window sunshade, Elizabeth and I hardly lifted a finger to depress buttons on each door that draw the motorized blackout curtains in the back window and the rear door glass together, thus pitching the rear seating area into near blackness. Between Dave’s smooth driving style and the car’s creamy ride, unearthly silence, and starry headliner, it felt like we were floating in space.
Astaire’s car had special details, too, however, including his-and-her grooming kits to two walking sticks—one with a small telescope in the handle and the other with opera glasses—and etched glass cabin lights. Oh yeah, and flower vases behind each door. Flowers in cars—there’s a concept I’d like to see come back.
While I didn’t get to drive Astaire’s car, halfway through my Phantom VIII drive, it was my turn to play chauffeur so I could see for myself how the first all-new Phantom in 17 years drives. And if I could sum it all up in one word, it would be “waft.” Indeed, there are few dynamic respects where that word doesn’t apply, whether accelerating to highway speeds and beyond, floating serenely around town or on the highway, even wafting to a stop.
Really put your foot in it, and this roughly 20-foot-long limousine leans back and surges forward with muted ferocity. Rolls-Royce claims that this three-ton behemoth can sprint to 60 mph in less than five seconds, but doing so is accompanied by little more drama than one’s Gulfstream during takeoff. Incidentally, this is the only circumstance when the baritone burble of its big V-12 becomes conspicuously audible.
Once up to speed, no one feels a thing, really, whether driving or riding. The system primarily responsible for the Phantom’s epic waft game is a state-of-the-art, computer-controlled, suspension that utilizes the forward cameras, steering, and speed sensors to read the road ahead and proactively prepares each air spring to absorb any impacts or vibrations that might otherwise make it to the passengers’ backsides. The car usually remains pretty level around turns, but when pushed, the squishy springs allow it to list like a fishing boat in the North Atlantic and dive considerably under braking, though I never had the sense that the tires were about to lose traction or emitted the faintest squeal.
About those brakes, well, Elizabeth and Dave know firsthand that I had to retrain myself on the fly to initiate slowing way earlier than usual, since the brake pedal is tuned not to grab sharply and risk spillage of any pricey libations being consumed in back. More than once, this left me carrying a bit too much speed into some intersections, resulting in some, uh, “puckering” moments on behalf of all inside. The upside is that perfect, imperceptible “limo—stops” are a cinch once you get it down.
Ample feedback through the steering and brakes are desirable qualities in modern sedans, yet in the Phantom, any actual sensations via the controls were as fleeting as the ghost of Fred Astaire himself; we’re not saying they weren’t there, just hard to find. But given the Phantom’s well-known mission to provide the most serene and isolated transport environment possible for two lucky souls in the second row, if not in front, numbness seems appropriate. It simply means the driver must be more mindful of his surroundings lest he start eavesdropping on back seat shenanigans and steamroll a Corolla.
With the Phantom, most of the feedback comes from outside the car—from Joe Public, wherever the Phantom wafts. While every bone and all of the sheetmetal are new—and mostly aluminum—the distinct silhouette, front-end visage and regal countenance haven’t changed much compared to the Phantom VII—the gleaming “Pantheon grille” remains bolt upright; the broad, long hood is still as flat (and as long) as an eight-person dining room table, and the tail tapers elegantly in the tradition of every Phantom since the 1940s. The headlamps are larger, however, and the wheels have grown even larger but still features self-leveling hub caps that keep the “RR” badge facing up, even at speed.
As I tool around town, learning how the car reacts to things while shaking pesky looky-loos trying to get a glimpse of whoever’s in back, the Phantom’s exquisite TFT color gauges present me with relevant information, including a “Power Reserve” gauge instead of an oh-so-crass tachometer, per Rolls-Royce tradition. A disc-style controller derived from parent company BMW’s latest iDrive system deploys from both front and rear center armrests to handle infotainment functions. Speaking of entertainment, Elizabeth and Dave had at their disposal two state-of-the-art rear seat entertainment systems integrated into the little trays in each front seatback, while anyone onboard could jump onto the car’s built in Wi-Fi hotspot.
How might Astaire like his old Phantom reconstituted in Rolls-Royce’s modern idiom? Something tells us he’d approve, not just because it’s green and black and gorgeous all over, but because some 90 years after his car was built, the Phantom remains the penultimate luxury conveyance.
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