It’s limousine season here in Thailand – more so than usual. I’ve had cause to write the occasional post about the stretchers I found here, there and elsewhere, and I find the “summer” months (June, July and August, which are monsoon months here) are usually more limo-prone. And I think I know why.
The Rolls-Royce Phantom VII (Series II) Extended Wheelbase Saloon, to give it its proper (and rather dry) moniker, was something I had neither seen before nor really known about, so seeing it parked outside one of Bangkok’s swankiest private hospitals was a definite head-turner. Plus, this was my third Rolls sighting that day: I had just gawked at a late-model Wraith coupé and a black Phantom standard saloon. Why so many ladies flying around?
Some parts of the world are abominably hot during the summer – especially the Middle-East and North Africa. People there usually like to leave their country for a few weeks; not a few of them end up in Thailand, whose many attractions include excellent healthcare facilities. Not all these medical tourists are necessarily super-rich – most take tuk-tuks or taxis to move about town. But there are a few mega-rich individuals who opted to skip Singapore or London this year and sample some Thai hospitality instead.
So renting whatever limos can be had locally is usually what happens. These rich Levantines tend to move around with a whole retinue / court in tow, so the local luxury rental fleet is usually out and about the streets. The same phenomenon could be observed in Geneva, where I spent a lot of the ‘90s and noughties. Sometime in late July or early August, a Saudi jumbo or two would usually land at Cointrin airport and park for a couple weeks. Qatari or Kuwaiti jets might also be seen, parked near the private aircraft area. All of the sudden, there were chic Sheikhs in Swiss-registered Maybachs, Bentleys and Rolls-Royces, plus the odd supercar flown in for the occasion, clogging the streets. Hotels were rented by the floor, and you’d have been floored by the rent. Additional fleets of S-Class saloons had to be called in from other Swiss cities to shuttle the servants and entourage.
Is this what we have here? This gargantuan Phantom has Thai plates and the Thai importer’s monogram. There aren’t more than a literal handful of these in the country and this one looks remarkably similar to the 2013 Bangkok Motor Show car, the first EWB ever imported here. I don’t know who owns it (perhaps the importer keeps it for hire?), but this hospital is not usually frequented by establishment Thais. It’s very foreigner-oriented and is especially popular with Middle-Easterners at this time of the year. I could be entirely wrong about this particular car, of course. But this was my third Rolls that day – one unicorn too many. I never warmed to the 21st Century bigger / boxier Bavarian Rollers. This wheelbase stretch improves the car’s proportions and balance, but the element of grace is sorely lacking in Rolls-Royce’s present-day range, in my personal opinion. The two-door cars look sleeker, but that massive square-eyed mug they all share seems a mite brutal. Is it a Phantom? Yes, but not as we know it.
I mean, we’re talking about the car world’s most ancient and illustrious nameplate – the almighty Phantom. This is the second time a V-12 made it under a Phantom’s hood. Big engines are a firmly established trait of the breed: replacing the Silver Ghost, Phantoms I (1925-31) and II (1929-36) had a 7.6 litre straight-6 and were, at the time, probably the best cars ever made. The Phantom I was manufactured on both sides of the Atlantic and sold very well (over 3500); about half as many Phantom IIs were made. The Phantom III (1936-40) was the last model Henry Royce personally had a hand in. Its 7.3 litre V-12 was the stuff of legend, but its career was cut short by the war: only 727 built.
The ultra-rare Phantom IV (1952-56) had a 5.7 litre straight-8 – but with only 18 made, non-heads of State needed not apply. The completely new Phantom V (1959-68, 516 chassis) had a 6.2 litre V8 mated to a GM-sourced automatic gearbox, which the Phantom VI (a.k.a the last Rolls with a separate chassis, 374 built in 1968-92) inherited and augmented to 6.75 litre in 1979. Post-war Phantoms were usually (but not exclusively) long closed four-door cars. Is the Phantom VII in that league? In the ways that matter, yes. It has a 6.75 litre V-12 producing 454 hp. It’s huge and probably just as well put together by the most talented craftsmen using the best materials as past Phantom generations. It has presence, but it lacks a sense of occasion. I’m unsure of the Phantom VII’s exact production numbers, but judging by RR’s overall sales numbers, the P7 might be the most common of the bunch, well ahead of the Phantom I’s sales record of the Roaring Twenties. The Phantom VII is singular in other ways, too.
The Phantom VII’s entire production process is now done in-house. Zombiefied since the ‘60s, traditional English coachbuilding finally died with the end if Rolls and Daimler limo production in the early ‘90s. Of course, there were a few Silver Spur-based limos. “Hooper” or “Park Ward” specials or State cars made after that. The standard Touring Limousine wasn’t good enough for the Sultan of Brunei, for instance. But it is hardly comparable to the prestige and variety of body styles available on Phantoms I through V. None of those ’90s specials were true Phantoms. There was a desire for a seventh generation within Rolls-Royce, but the carmaker was in a troubled period, culminating in the 1998-2002 BMW buy-out and Bentley “divorce.” But lo and behold, a new Phantom beckoned in 2003.
In a major break with tradition, the Phantom VII saloon became the sole Rolls coming out of the new Goodwood works from 2003 until the introduction of the two-door coupé (2007), convertible (2008) and the smaller Ghost range (2009). This explains the seventh Phantom being the most numerous of the breed: none of the other six were ever the only car in the range. And if a Phantom is anything, it is first and foremost a massive super-luxurious bespoke limousine – like John Lennon’s psychdelicious Phantom V, bubble-top British Royal cars, or some Nabob’s outlandish pre-war plaything. The standard Phantom VII saloon just didn’t cut it, lengthwise.
Finally, after a twenty year hiatus, the long Phantom officially returned. The Series II Phantom VII (2012-17) introduced the EWB, the longest (and heaviest?) production model Rolls-Royce ever made in-house. Production stopped in December 2016, but have no fear, it’s already returning to a R-R showroom near you as the mildly restyled (but heavily re-engineered) Phantom VIII EWB Saloon. In terms of quantity and exclusivity, the EWB Phantom is the real successor to the Phantom VI.
Also, in terms of price. You pay dearly for those extra eight inches of legroom. Undaunted by a £373,824 minimum pricetag, the typical Phantom VII EWB customer orders extra £100,000’s worth of gadgets and bespoke features on average. Add Thailand’s 200% imported luxury good tax to that amount and you have a very expensive piece of rolling real estate indeed. Future classic? For that price, it had better be. At least it’s possible to still catch a glimpse of these beasts before the electric self-driving SUVs completely take over.
Future Classic Outtake: 2017 Rolls-Royce Dawn – A Grand Floridian, by Brendan Saur