Designing A Masterpiece

The Rolls-Royce Phantom Drophead Coupé isn’t just a car. It is, in chief designer Ian Cameron’s words, “The best-possible car.”

From Experiment to Reality

Speaking of the 100EX, a convertible vehicle that was introduced at auto shows in 2004, Ian Cameron is quite emphatic: “It is not a concept car, a show car. It is a show case of ideas. It is an experiment.” The experiment was meant to gauge the reaction of the public to a new direction for Rolls-Royce automobiles. Cameron goes on to explain that the experimental car sets up a series of questions: “Will we produce it? We don’t know. Could we? Yes we could.” And, as the chief designer of Rolls-Royce Motor Cars notes, that experiment has become reality with the Phantom Drophead Coupé, a two-door, four-seat convertible, the second model to come from Rolls-Royce since the BMW Group acquired the marque in July 1998, with the first being the Phantom sedan, launched in January 2003. While “experimental cars” may not be the norm in North America, where the “concept car” holds sway, Rolls-Royce has been conducting experiments since 1919, when the 1EX was introduced. (The “100” designation, incidentally, references the centenary of the brand, which was celebrated in May 2004). 

An indication of how close the experiment of the 100EX is to the Drophead Coupé can be discerned from the dimensions:

Cameron explains that the key reason the production model is smaller is because while the experimental model features a nine-liter, V16 engine, the Drophead Coupé has a 6.75-liter V12, which it shares with the sedan version.

 

Making Time Stand Still

So what is it like to be the designer for one of the most-prestigious marques—in any category, for that matter? Cameron answers that it is “A very humbling challenge.” He explains, “There is a great history to live up to.” And the objective that he works to fulfill as he creates designs for vehicles like the Drophead Coupé is “to make time stand still.” That is, he says, the objective is to create a motor vehicle with timeless qualities. To be sure there are some elements that one might say are quintessentially Rolls-Royce—the grille, for example—but Cameron says there is much more to it: “It’s not just one feature, but it’s the combination, or symphony, of many things brought together in a special way. We do our jobs differently. It takes time. You can’t rush the building of a Rolls-Royce.” It requires approximately 350 hours to build a Rolls-Royce, not including engine build time. While there is, arguably, a comparatively small amount of time between the unvei-ling of the 100EX and the introduction of the Drophead Coupé, it is clear that Cameron is considering history—not just the historical referents that he looked to when developing the vehicle (he cites, for example, J-class yachts of the 1930s as being inspirational—and consequent to the rear teak decking on the car)—but how it fits within the Rolls-Royce models that preceded it.

 

Exquisite Engineering Design

One of the features of the Drophead Coupé that Cameron seems particularly chuffed with is the coach doors used. The door hinge is rearward, not below the A-pillar. This allows easier access to the rear seats, Cameron explains. And then points out that there is an engineer-ing benefit, as well. The windshield sur-round and the A-pillars were designed to function as part of the roll-over protection system. So the A-pillar—an aluminum extrusion, which is part of the overall aluminum spaceframe, which is hand welded at a BMW facility in Dingolfing, Germany, and shipped to the Goodwood plant in England-runs all the way down to the floor of the vehicle. “That sort of feature”—the door—“which may be under-stood as a styling gimmick, really has true benefit,” he observes. Of the structure vehicle: “There is incredible stiffness. There is no scuttle shake to the car.”

 

Not Trendy

Nowadays, the trend seems to be for retractable hardtops. The Drophead Coupé has a fabric roof. There are five layers. It is lined with cashmere. Cameron points out that there is the advantage of the cloth top taking up less space than a retractable hardtop. And there are aesthetic qualities to be considered, as well: “Compare the beauty of a computer-designed folding metal hard top with the art of sewing a beautifully tailored cloth droptop. There is no comparison.” He goes on to acknowledge that while the folding hardtop may be a trend, “Rolls-Royce is not about being trendy.” He notes that Rolls-Royce owners typically have five or six cars from which to choose for motoring (“It all comes back to a sense of occasion”), so speaking of an automobile with a folding hardtop, he states, “If someone wants to buy a car they use for every day—rain, shine—maybe it makes sense, like a reversible jacket.” And the likelihood of an owner of a Drophead Coupé wearing a reversible jacket . . .

 

 
100EXDrophead Coupé
Length:5,669 mm5,609 mm
Width:1,990 mm1,987 mm
Height:1,561 mm1,581 mm
Wheelbase:3,470 mm3,320 mm