On 26 February 2003, Autocar drove the Phantom VIII for the first time. After a decades-long slump, had BMW brought Rolls back to regal quality?

Just a few days ago, the final Phantom VIII rolled off the production line at Rolls-Royce’s Goodwood factory, fourteen years after the first one did.

This was the car that brought the Rolls-Royce name back into motoring, this time with BMW at the helm.

On 26 February 2003, Autocar’s Steve Cropley travelled to Santa Barbara, California, and tentatively became one of the first people in the world to drive das Phantom. Here we revisit his initial impressions.

“Is the mighty Phantom a real Rolls-Royce? And does a new Rolls still have a role in today’s motoring scene?,” Cropley began, only to immediately answer: “Yes to both. Emphatically yes.”

Just four and a half years since BMW did its famous deal with Volkswagen to assume control of the posh marque, the Phantom had been designed and built in pursuit of the “style and pre-eminence the Silver Cloud enjoyed in 1956”.

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That is the reason, Cropley explained, why the Phantom was given its “sheer size, long wheelbase, highly distinctive body overhangs (short in front, long at the rear), long bonnet which runs almost horizontally to the mighty grille, huge C-pillar, high cabin with small glass areas, and downward sloping, tautly drawn tail”.

“Many early observers have found the Phantom’s modernity unsettling, and the new order at Rolls-Royce wants it that way,” Cropley explained. “Nobody would call this car discreet, and few describe it as beautiful, either. Critical comment centres on the high, bluff front, and the rectangular marker lights. Again, Rolls people seem content.”

Yet with this, the Phantom had top-class dynamics, thanks to plenty of “high-tech features, including an all-aluminium spaceframe chassis, a highly advanced V12 engine, height-adjustable, adaptive air suspension, and electronic driver aids”.

So, in we stepped. Quite literally, as “no bending down is needed, because the upper door frame is as high as your head.”

“The seats, richly leathered, are mildly enveloping in a traditional armchair sort of way and faced with coarse-grained leather. They’re firm, and have a veneer of softness just below the surface. Long distance seats.

“Everywhere inside the car, the air of hand built quality was successfully delivered. Simplicity, too. The whole tenor of Phantom driving controls is simplicity. You’re supposed to be able to operate this car intuitively, without ever having to search through a computer menu.”

This was evidenced by the six-speed ZF auto gearbox’s lever, which had just three positions – Park, Drive and Reverse; automatic air-con with no confusing buttons; a sat-nav screen hidden behind the clock that only rotated into view should you pull a lever; and a BMW iDrive controller hidden in the centre console. Even the stereo controls were hidden, all because “Rolls research is emphatic that owners like neither complexity nor clutter”.

So far, so good. But now it was time to take it onto the Tarmac. “Press the starter button and there’s a brief, seamless whir before the engine catches smoothly and very, very quietly,” Cropley enthused.

“The car glides forward. The speed-sensitive power steering feels very light, and the rim thin, reminiscent of past Rollers. During development, the Phantom did its share of Nürburgring testing, during which drivers argued vociferously for a thicker rim. The traditionalists won.”

“There’s no tachometer. Rolls-Royces don’t have them,” Cropley continued. “This and the near silence of the engine cause you to lose track, quite soon, of what’s happening up front. It’s enough to know that outputs of 453bhp (at 5350rpm) and 531lb ft of torque (at 3500rpm) are discreetly on tap. The engine is deliberately tuned to be extremely strong at low revs,” and “delivers its most silent, sophisticated performance between 30 and 90mph.”

Although the Phantom looked ridiculously hefty, it didn’t feel it. “When the ‘box cuts down to first gear and hurls you off the mark, it’s as if the whole thing were a tonne lighter. It’s something close to a supercar response.”

Despite the light steering, it was easy to control, too, with BMW 7 Series-derived suspension modified for the Phantom’s weight, giving it beautiful steering and fine handling: “You can hurl it into bends with accuracy, though never quite with abandon because of its sheer mass. It stays neutral for quite a while, then understeers, but there’s never a feeling of instability.”

There was a bit too much body roll, though, and you had to watch your speed, too, because although the brakes were strong and progressive, the car still weighed 2.5 tonnes.

But a Rolls-Royce is about comfort, and the Phantom’s ride was “brilliantly silent, supple and stable on any surface,” thanks largely to its self-levelling air springs. Cropley considered this ride far better than the rival Maybach’s.

However, all was not perfect. “The biggest problem for me was wind noise: not an intrusive roar, but a rush that was always present above 80mph,” he said. And, on some gradients, the electric motor that shut the rear doors couldn’t manage to do so. Other niggles included susceptibility to side-winds, the lack of driver’s seat cushion length adjustability, the lack of rear vanity mirrors, and that the 100-litre fuel tank seemed mismatched with the car’s average fuel economy of 11mpg…

However, in conclusion, Cropley gushed: “In short, the Phantom is a brilliant, inspiring car, even at the price [£250,000, equivalent to around £375,000 today]. It is fun to drive, extremely comfortable, imposing on the eye and capable in all conditions.

“Rolls-Royce’s chief engineer, Tim Leverton, claims the Phantom has unique and difficult-to-achieve combinations of qualities (size with agility, suppleness with steering accuracy, high performance with class-beating refinement, coachbuilt quality with practicality), and he is right about all that. Producing this car, and the factory that builds it, has been a true automotive feat.

“I have the distinct feeling that, from his vantage point in the hereafter, the marque’s founding engineer, Henry Royce, is feeling more pleased now than he has been for many a decade.”

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