Where does one begin with the best car in the world (discuss)? Probably at the moment Sir Henry Royce lifted the covers off his new Phantom in 1925, making the nameplate a mere 94 years old. There aren’t many models in production who can claim such longevity for their name. The current Phantom is the eighth version of this luxury saloon, which remains the flagship for the company and sets the benchmark for exalted motoring, decades on from its arrival.
The original Phantom replaced the Silver Ghost, and was built in both the UK and America. In the 1930s, it was overhauled twice, with Phantom III also ushering in the first V12 engine for the brand. The next Phantom, IV, was the rarest version, with just 18 built, one of which went to Princess Elizabeth II in 1950. It remained exclusively for royalty and heads of state. By the end of the decade, however, a V8 version appears in the fifth generation and popularised this mammoth saloon, in as much as a pinnacle of luxury costing an appropriate amount could ever be truly popular.
The Sixties changed the landscape again, with heads of dynasties replaced by heads of rock and roll in the customer queue. John Lennon bought a Phantom V, painting it matt black.
The Seventies and Eighties were unerring times for venerable marque bent on upholding tradition, but in the Nineties BMW Group bought Rolls-Royce and started manufacturing cars at Goodwood, and applied engineering and design genius to the rest of the Phantom line-up. And here we are, with a Phantom that might look familiar from the outside, in its proportions at least, but contains 21st-century furnishings and tech inside.
The Phantom remains a huge proposition, at 5.2m long, 1.5m high and weighing more than 2.5 tonnes. It is an unapologetic statement of wealth, status and success, with a large grille, rising Spirit of Ecstasy at the end of a ludicrously long bonnet and long sweeping overhang at the rear. The 22in wheels still have weighted “RR” badges on the centre boss, to ensure they stay upright when the wheels turn, and the silhouette exudes a threatening glamour.
There are flashes of 21st-century design: the frosted LED squared-off headlights, the more delineated lines, the curved short front overhangs that barely cover the wheels.
Inside, it’s the perfect place for both drivers and passengers. The steering wheel remains beautifully thin, with the automatic gear-lever positioned by the wheel. There is still an analogue clock, and a power reserve dial, soft lighting and deep lambswool carpets. There are still umbrellas in the doors and a huge boot for luggage.
One can of course specify all the trinkets in the world, which is why our box of delights added roughly another £100,000 onto the initial list price for this vehicle. We had elevating footrests in the rear, ventilation in the front seats and a massage function in the rear ones, privacy glass and curtains, veneered picnic tables with rising tablets for TV and audio, embossed headrests, a starlight headliner, with a thousand pinpricks of light inserted into the ceiling to mirror the night sky, a champagne fridge with flutes and a separate compartment housing a whisky decanter and two tumblers (note to self: don’t let a six-year-old play with the heavy frosted decanter stopper, or they will inevitably drop it on the tumbler and smash it).
We don’t understand how they do it, but still that famous waftability persists, in a car that weighs as much as a small bungalow. It glides, it purrs, it lifts you over surfaces and takes you into tomorrow without a whisper. It never feels like it’s making contact with the road, but is instead travelling a whisker above it. Perhaps even more staggering, for a car that’s so ridiculously long that it won’t fit into any parking bays, is the way in which it handles through corners. It turns in. And powers out in a straight line. No nose-on understeer, unless you’re being silly. No straying from the line. No fuss, no bother, no scene. The engineers are privy to a secret set of elves or something; we don’t know. It must be the equivalent to the recipe for Coca-Cola: a suspension formula you have to memorise before eating the paper it’s written on. The facts are astounding: 601 horsepower and 840Nm (621lb ft) propelling the Phantom to 60mph in just 4.8 seconds.
Yes, the Phantom is excessive: it showcases an excess of wealth, ego, pride and ambition. But it does so with such timeless British elan, and such clever craftsmanship, that you’d forgive this car anything. It is still the crowning embodiment of luxury, and of British motoring elegance. There is such a depth of heritage buried in those lambswool carpets, so many hours of painstaking tradition in the painted coach-line and embroidered headrests, that you have to stop and give this car its due. The Phantom has remained the inspiration for many luxury artisans from all industries, and the aspiration for countless patrons of luxury, as Rolls likes to term its clients.