I’ve got two SUVs, a small hatch, a supercar and a sedan in my current top 5.
The Rolls-Royce Ghost comes top.
Today I take to the mean streets of Melbourne, and pit this car against the very epitome of the twin marques’ post-war sedans – the Bentley Continental S3 Flying Spur Six Light.
Then it’s your turn.
Welcome to the greatest car show on earth.
Melbourne’s inner eastern suburbs with its wide tree-lined streets and high median income makes it a veritable playground for spotting exotic beasts in the wild.
I’m not rich, but around all this I enjoy my privilege.
I get to see these extraordinary machines as the owners wish they could see them – in action from the curbside.
My first car is an SUV, one with styling roots stretching back to the middle of the last century.
The 2015 (or thereabouts) Land Rover Defender.
Spy shots from Africa bring bad news – the replacement for the Defender and a loss of face.
Jeep have done a superb job upgrading their jeep face, while Toyota has turned theirs into a manga character.
The great thing about the Land Rover face is that it has been allowed to change, substantially if you consider such key signifiers as headlight and grille. You can’t buy such hard-won brand equity.
But the new shape appears more loyal the Range Rover visage.
Cheekbones are gone, shedding any semblance to the original. If you’re going to cut corners, why not go Lightweight?
The Mercedes-Benz G-series has only just entered its second generation in 2018. They kept the shape and changed pretty much everything else. I see a lot around here and every one is a G63. Why you need that much power in an SUV is beyond me. Especially when you’re probably not going to use it for towing.
Still, despite their enormous sticker this sells, and its popularity show no signs of flagging.
I see just as many late model Defenders around as the G63. But it’s a different type of owner – channeling the outdoors type rather than hiphop gangsta.
Which goes even deeper as to why there is no need to overhaul this exterior shape.
You could make this longer, wider and taller without affecting the key Land Rover attributes; those frontal cheekbones, that windscreen angle, the foursquare proportioning and constant radius corners. Very easy to work within those parameters.
How much NVH do you really need to dial out of one of these things?
The last one rolled off the line in 2015, but there was a run of restored late models released by the factory as the 2018 Defender Works V8 70th Anniversary Edition.
My number 4 because this is the last time we’ll see this classic face on the latest model.
Next is a small hatch.
I love these. I get to drive my mother’s base 2007 Corolla and it is a genuine hoot around our narrow backstreets. No classic I’ve ever owned drove as competently and assured as mum’s car.
The small car segment is definitely where so much fun is being had.
Except they’re all starting to look the same.
Because the Bionic. Some of these aerodynamic ideas are 100 years old, and yet this Mercedes-Benz concept van seems to have influenced the small car category more than any other since its showing in 2006.
Note how the rear greenhouse volume tapers more greatly that the lower body. Many five-door hatches right now are shrunken versions of this van with a slightly longer nose.
During this reversion to the styling mean, distinctiveness took a back seat.
But we now seem to be entering the waxing phase of adding redundant artifice for brand differentiation. And boy are there some ugly cars on the road using this tack-on formula.
The coupe segment gives us some more appealing shapes in this size category.
For a while, the 2002 Megane captured my attention. A fairly conservative three-door, with an unusual and distinctive bay window at the rear. It took me a while to warm to, and I now miss it on the present models.
But when you nail the shape, there is no need to fall back on artifice and tack-ons.
Just as with this delicious dollop – the 2011 Opel Astra.
It is completely conventional, devoid of any flagrant distinctiveness but perfectly, sweetly shaped.
Bottom left is the sportier street body. Bottom right is the base model, and it’s my preferred version.
The waxing phase. The incoming model has earned more pronounced creasing and other busyness elsewhere. Not ugly, but even further away from the simplicity of the base 2011 model.
I came across my first at a short-lived Opel dealership. I was so perplexed to see that marque selling cars in Australia, I hardly registered the bright red Astra coupe on the forecourt. But something about its uninflected beauty stayed with me.
When I came across this yellow one basking in the afternoon sun, I had my moment of clarity.
As beautifully shaped as anything this small in automotive history. Number 3 for me.
The Bentley looks like a London cab. The Maserati looks like one with frontal damage.
The Lamborghini comes across like a transformer that got jammed halfway through a transformation.
And the BMW and MB fastbacks always remind me of this unfortunate gentleman.
There is hope. The Tesla has done a superb job reiterating how to fastback.
Tesla’s sedans leave me cold, but I’m really impressed with how this SUV shape turned out. I didn’t realise until standing close to one how large these are. That profile reminds me of Giugiaro’s 1973 Alfetta GT.
But if I had to have a family wagon, brand-new off the showroom floor (with an unlimited budget, natch), it would be the Range Rover Velar. The work they have put into the treatment of this shape has paid off, to the extent that this variant supersedes the Vogue as the prettiest of the bunch.
Here’s the same shot unretouched. You can see just how far ahead this shape is in its precision surfacing.
Nevertheless, I’m picking another SUV as my number 5. The 2011 Nissan Juke.
Popular with a certain audience and influential on its category, this has to be the ugliest new thing I have seen in many years.
It was based on a bath toy, the 2009 Qazana concept car, and somehow made its way onto the road.
It reminds me of a fortress on a hill, which I think is part of its appeal.
Completely at odds with my own sense of proportion and beauty, but as the passenger vehicle category moves towards the driverless I am trying to get a hold on the mindset that principle appeals to.
Zoox is a unicorn aiming for a pureplay automated vehicle, not a modified road car. They’ve been looking at a shape with no differentiation between front and rear – this vehicle will be able to take either direction equally.
I’m not saying Zoox is going to win the race towards mass-production, but its symmetricality is something the Juke’s profile brings to mind.
At this angle, a whiff of Gandini’s Stratos. With yellow submarine by Sbarro.
The success of the Juke appears to have caught Nissan by surprise. Its purchasers loved its quirky differentness, and the other manufacturers noticed. Above is the Toyota CH-R, channelling the Juke but speaking in jammed transformer.
With the Toyota I’m starting to get what the Juke’s about.
Still, I am complete flummoxed as to how something so ugly could carry so much appeal.
It’s included in my top 5 because of my own visceral response – as strong as for anything I really like but in a negative way.
There are very few shapes that still make me stop and look as this one continues to do. Thankfully it ended production in 2017, with a more conventional shape coming to fill its gap.
Number 4 is a supercar. Because a kid has to dream, right?
Problem is, if I see a new model Ferrari I still think this 308 GTB is a better shape.
If I see a Lamborghini, I defer to the Countach.
A McLaren? The F1.
I blame ground effects.
The 2009 BMW Vision Efficient Dynamics still carries a sense of buoyancy about it.
It’s the last supercar since the McLaren F1 that captured my imagination and longing.
I’ve written a love letter to this car, and my ardour still holds.
But it seems to have become a bit of a dead-end for BMW.
The i8 lost its buoyancy thanks to its deadweight doors. And the i3 seems to be on a road to nowhere.
There’s a new 8-series arriving, but it’s not anything like the Vision EfficientDynamics.
It is, in fact, a replacement for the the 6-series two- and four-door Gran Coupes. Which is a bit of a shame because the four-door 6 is so nice it nearly made my list.
If the three-box sedan is dead, no one told the upper end of the market. Maserati has excelled in this space, and the new Alfa Romeo sits well in that low-slung look. Volvo has brought in a nice-looking brick with an attractive wagon to match. Mercedes make a nice low-line shape. The wagon is, however, a d-pillar disaster.
But the sedan that wins my top spot is this sunkissed hunk of lusciousness.
The 2009 Roll-Royce Ghost; utterly, utterly gorgeous and mesmerising and perhaps the most forward-looking shape on the road.
Long story short. VW bought the Rolls-Royce and Bentley car manufacturing concern for about $800 million.
BMW bought the Rolls-Royce name and logo for about $80 million, and after some negotiation retained ownership of the grille and Spirit of Ecstasy mascot as well.
VW got stuck with the ugliest Rolls shape since the Gulbenkian days, and BMW got one of the best design briefs in the history of design briefs.
A new clean sheet shape for the Rolls-Royce.
They wisely started up top, with the limousine-grade Phantom. They produced a language of uncompromising solidity, accepting of its bulk but not acquiescing to it. The only downside was those two round beams in the face; not placed high enough for headlights, nor low enough for fog lamps.
The Phantom’s face was resolved in 2015, more in keeping with their baby model – the Ghost.
Still an imposingly large car, the Ghost softened the archness of the Phantom without sacrificing solidity or precision. The proportions were divine, a long hood with forward-set front wheels, a nicely balanced but tight turret and a beautifully resolved rear. This car is the essence of decorum; it carries its two-tone well but I prefer the single-coloured versions.
2014 gave us a slight update with revised headlights; but as with the 67/68 Cadillacs, neither variation is left wanting.
The Ghost is without peer.
Mercedes-Benz learned this the hard way when they tried to move their S-class language upstairs to the Maybach, resulting in a car that looked like a Chinese knockoff made for party autocrats.
The current Bentley four-door is so underwhelming it doesn’t even merit a photo here. Arnage with distended hips and reading glasses.
The Rapide saloon looks like a too-thin supermodel, all tendons and awkward gait. The Lagonda, however, shows promise.
But where the Lagonda speaks in razor, the Ghost converses in ingot.
This car looks like it has been precision-machined from a solid billet of platinum. The headlights inform this impression with great effect. Whereas almost every other marque has chosen to smear their headlights all over the front end of a car, the Ghost’s are set back within the body. That inset suggests the thickness of the car’s skin; one of many small touches that emphasise the overall effect.
This shape is the very antithesis of retro.
The Ghost alludes to its past without slavish devotion. In fact, I find the car closest to the Ghost to be the 61+ Continental. And not just for the door handles, but for the impressive mass clothed in a sophisticatedly subtle skin. There is an expression coined for the Lincoln (IIRC by Engel himself); that its sides appear to be like sails filled by a gentle breeze. That also holds for the Ghost.
But where the Ghost differs from all these, including its Chrysler anticipatory tribute, is in its side window treatment. An extra quarterlight at the rear, giving the whole profile a more dynamic balance.
Just like that of the Bentley Continental Flying Spur Six Light.
The 1952 Bentley Continental is the most desirable post-war series from either marque.
The engine was developed from the unit used in the standard Rolls-Royce and Bentley saloons, higher compression and a traditionally un-cited but higher output made the car capable of 120 mph in those austere days.
Harking back to the glorious days of Le Mans in the late 1920s and early 1930s, the Continental dispensed with any such crudity as a howling supercharger to give the moneyed post-war driver a veritable iron fist in a velvet glove. It was at the time the most expensive production car in the world.
In 1957, the first four-door Continental series appeared.
The Bentley Continental Flying Spur was an H. J. Mulliner series, shaped in-house by George Moseley. The coachbuilder was still an independent concern then, though they were a favoured supplier of bespoke Rolls-Royce and Bentley bodies.
At top is John Blatchley’s Silver Cloud/S-type standard saloon from 1955, sketched in ten minutes after the board rejected his cherished two-year-long-in-development version.
Beneath, the four- and six-light versions of the Mulliner saloon. The four might have appealed to those seeking some relief in the rear seat from the harsh outdoors, but the six revelled in letting that light in. Keef most famously owned a six-light in his Redlands days – Blue Lena.
Three inches lower than the standard saloons and about the same length, there was not a panel shared between them. And Moseley managed to interpret Blatchely’s language superbly.
These Mulliner shapes were also available with the Rolls-Royce grille, but without the Flying Spur moniker.
There’s a moment in ‘The Queen’ where Helen Mirren as Her Majesty comes across a fourteen point imperial stag on one of her properties. Just the two of them in the bare Scottish highlands, she is held in awe and wonder by the creature’s sheer magnificence.
I was reminded of that scene when I came across this Flying Spur. Walking the backstreets of beachside St Kilda with nary a soul around, I saw a Silver Cloud from the distance down a narrow street. As it approached, its windscreen seemed a bit low and I was confronted with this almost mythical beast instead.
In the flesh, a beautiful and imposing shape. Those sides appear more bluff than the lighting allows on this occasion. If I have any quibble, it’s the trailing shutline of the rear door and the fussiness around the rear number plate.
But this car carries itself so supremely well. From its quad light S3 front being the very essence of automotive classicism to a superbly weighted rear suspended gracefully from its upper plane.
The original R-type Continental – at top – was a lightweight, aluminium-bodied fastback. Styled by Blatchley, it was produced for the factory by Mulliner.
Its initial replacement was the S1 fastback (middle), essentially the same shape with the slightest bit more heftiness in its detailing and appointments. Also built by Mulliner.
At bottom is Moseley’s notchback variation. This was based on his Flying Spur saloons, but it too was not granted that title. Introduced during the S1 period, it became the ‘standard’ Mulliner coupe body for the S2 Continental.
The 1991 Bentley Continental R was based on the Moseley notchback. And it serves as the last time anything attractive appeared with a Bentley badge on it.
Today’s coupe looks like a kit car tribute to the Atlantique.
For the Phantom Coupe, Rolls-Royce looked to the then factory-owned coachbuilder; Park Ward.
This notchback with thick c-pillar was their conservative fixed-head option for the Continental.
On the new car, it comes across as a potato.
The Ghost-based Dawn got a fastback instead.
It was inspired by a car considered for the factory Continental; a 1951 Roll-Royce bodied by Pininfarina for a certain Luigi Bressani. The cost of each unit out of PF became the sticking point for Rolls-Royce. Thankfully. This shape is brutish where the eventual R-type Continental was serene.
The modern iteration is no improvement.
They could try again.
Just like they need to with their new SUV – pure London cab.
The Ghost is due for an upgrade, with prototypes already in play. Not sure if the top image is an accurate representation, but yay; the return of the spotlight! Placed in a much better position. Looking real good.
The current one still looks so modern, despite being ten years old. Where to go from here?
The Bentley Continental Flying Spur Six Light is a paragon of its time; completely, utterly gorgeous and desirable.
The Rolls-Royce Ghost is something else; something beyond its time.
And having enjoyed the extraordinary privilege of experiencing these two cars in the real, I’ve come to the conclusion that the Ghost is the more perfect expression.
My compliments to its stylist, Andreas Thurner.
So that’s mine. Now for yours.
Top 5 Current Shapes
2009 Rolls-Royce Ghost
2009 BMW Vision EfficientDynamics
2011 Opel Astra Coupe
2015 Land Rover Defender
2011 Nissan Juke
Rookie of the Year
2017 Range Rover Velar