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One aspect of Rolls-Royce vehicle designs that is unlike that of most automobiles is that the cars tend to go visually unchanged, by and large, for as many as 20 years, so when developing something like the Wraith, the designers must be cognizant of the length of time that the vehicles will be current. The company updates things like electronics as time goes on, and does a comparative modicum of refreshing, but the status remains quo for a significant amount of time. Part of the rationalization: when a customer is buying a vehicle that is in the Rolls price category, the notion that it has been replaced by a model change is not good for customer relations.
One of the features that Rolls designer Alex Innes likes on the Wraith is this intersection of the roof and the rear shoulder. “Traditionally on coupes,” he says, there is a run-out fillet between the upper and lower volume. Here we wanted to have this clean intersect. We want it to look structurally integral: two volumes merged together.”
This is the fastest Rolls, with a governed top speed of 155 mph and a 0 to 60 mph time of 4.4 seconds. The twin-turbo V12 engine is combined with a ZF eight-speed automatic. While the number of gears may not seem particularly high nowadays, the Wraith features technology that is said to be first-ever: Satellite Aided Transmission. The transmission controller takes into account both the driving style and, using GPS data, what the terrain ahead is. That is then used to select the appropriate gear to match both how the car is being driven and whether there are turns or hills or whatever ahead.
The Parthenon grille on the front is recessed, signifying the air intake of an aircraft. The Spirit of Ecstasy is positioned forward by 4°, as though she is preparing to leap into the sky. (The relationship with flying actually has historic roots for Rolls-Royce: Charles Rolls was the second person in the U.K. to have a pilot’s license, and flew with the Wright Brothers when they visited France. He also became the first Brit to die in an aircraft accident, when his Wright Flier broke up on landing.)
Alex Innes on being a designer at such an august brand: “I find it to be a huge amount of responsibility.” He adds, “I’m constantly taken aback at the encouragement to be progressive.” One aspect of the responsibility is to make Rolls continually relevant.
Starry, starry headliner: This is the optional Starlight headliner that deploys 1,340 hand-placed optical fibers
Not only are the vehicles hand-built, but the designers actually spend time drawing by hand. Explains Rolls designer Alex Innes, “Even in this day and age with all of the virtual aids we have at our disposal, there is still a relevance for freehand sketching; it is something that is very much practiced at the design studio at Rolls-Royce.”
In 2012, Rolls-Royce Motor Cars had record sales, the most in its then 108-year history.
There were 3,575 vehicles sold globally.
Which, clearly, is a small number by almost any measure. But there are a few factors to take into account.
For one thing, consider the lineup: The Ghost family, which consists of the Ghost and the Ghost Extended Wheelbase; the Phantom family, which consists of the Phantom, the Phantom Extended Wheelbase, the Phantom Drophead Coupé, and the Phantom Coupé. Not exactly too extensive an offering.
In addition to which, the vehicles are hand-built at the company’s facility in Goodwood, West Sussex, U.K.
Consider the build (“production” sounds too common) of a Phantom:
• It requires two months
• There are 74 people on the assembly line, which has 22 stations
• The aluminum space frame is hand welded
• The body is both robotically and manually painted
• Sixty people work in the leather area. From 15 to 18 half hides are used per car. There are 450 individual leather pieces. It takes 17 days to produce a set for a car
• There are approximately 42 wood parts in a car. It requires 30 days to produce a set
No, not an ordinary auto-mobile by any measure.
And now they’ve added another car to the portfolio. The Wraith.
Speaking of the car, Richard Carter, director of Global Communications, says, “It has a hint of the noir. It is the slightly more aggressive, more evil Rolls Royce.” He adds, “It is full of the normal Rolls-Royce luxury.”
The “normal Rolls-Royce luxury” is extraordinary by most metrics.
Says Alex Innes, Bespoke designer, at the company, “Our competitors are private planes and yachts.”
The base Wraith (while “base” sounds too base, “entry-level” simply sound wrong) starts in the U.S. at $284,900. Tack on $2,000 for destination and $1,700 for the Gas Guzzler tax (the 6.6-liter V12 engine mated to a ZF eight-speed automatic is EPA rated at 13 mpg city, 21 mpg highway, 15 mpg combined; the vehicle weighs 5,380 lb.) and you’re good to go.
Of course, that’s assuming that you don’t want to avail yourself of the Bespoke services of Innes and his colleagues. Upon his graduation from Coventry University in 2008, Alex Innes joined Rolls-Royce. He was extensively involved in the design of the Wraith. He has also been involved with the design of a variety of items that automotive designers are not likely to ever become professionally involved with. Like a picnic hamper.
“Bespoke,” Innes explains, “goes back to Saville Row in London, when cloth was cut for a specific customer. It was spoken for. And we are involved in tailoring the very finest motor cars.”
The Rolls Bespoke program puts customers directly in touch with members of the design team. It is unfiltered. Many of the customers travel to Goodwood to discuss what they want to have executed for their car. Innes says he’s visited with customers at their homes and on their yachts.
“At Rolls-Royce,” he says, “we have three core design disciplines, two which are familiar to auto manufacturers: exterior and interior design. Seamlessly dovetailed into this and what makes us unique is Bespoke.”
Innes estimates that “95% of the Phantom family has an element of Bespoke in them.”
Thought of another way: There aren’t a whole lot of people who are driving a Rolls off a dealer’s lot.
Innes says that for one customer they designed a flask—a Thermos bottle, in effect—that is fitted under the arm rest and which is released via cam actuation. “I believe it is the only flask that has been crash tested.”
They designed walking sticks for a customer. “We’re car manufacturers,” Innes says, “but we had to understand how they were going to use them and how they could be integrated into the car.” The Bespoke designers executed the design; they worked with a partner to execute the carbon-fiber walking sticks.
They color match the vehicles. Innes says that one car had a uniform color inside and out—based on the shade of a woman’s lipstick.
While all of these are speci-fically tailored to customer requests—“We’re not in the business of creating lifestyle accessories; we’re in the business of enhancing the ownership experience of our cars,” Innes notes, so don’t go looking for a Rolls-Royce Accoutrements Catalog—there are “regular” options, though there can be a Bespoke aspect, as well.
One is the Starlight Headliner. Innes explains that it is a large piece of perforated leather. There are 1,340 perforations into which fiber optic cables are hand-placed. There are four light units feeding the fibers. Innes says that the intensity of the light emitted is based on the angle that the end of the fiber is cut and the length of the fiber. At night, the lighted headliner appears like a star-filled sky.
A Bespoke aspect to the head-liner is that some customers have asked for the sky to appear as it did the night on a specific date, so Rolls consults with astronomers to get the star map just right.
“With the Wraith, we were moving in a different direction,” Innes says. They wanted to develop a vehicle that was more of a driver’s car, not a car to be driven in. “We’ve been known for limousines and an elevated driving position. Here, we wanted the occupants to sit slightly lower.” That was achieved, in part, by having a high belt line and elevating the instrument panel.
“The overall inspiration was that this would be the most powerful car in the marque’s history.” Which led them to develop the fastback design. Innes says that it surprised many Rolls-watchers, who had assumed that they would develop a more conventionally architected coupe.
One thing to know about Innes. He’s 27. And he designs Rolls-Royces.
“I find it to be a huge amount of responsibility,” he admits.
“Rolls-Royce has to be relevant now. We have a great history and lineage,” he says. “I feel like a custodian of that. My job as a designer is to make sure that the next 100 years are as successful, and to do that, we have to be relevant for modern times.”
The Wraith is the latest nod to modernity.
The Wraith is built on the bones of the Ghost (like the Ghost—and unlike the Phantom—the Wraith has a steel monoque architecture), and it includes some Ghost components, like the hood and the headlamps (“Though the aperture treatment is very different”).
The Wraith is a smaller car than the Ghost, “to emphasize the agility.”
(It is probably worth noting at this point that BMW has been building Rolls-Royce vehicles since 2003, and it knows more than a little about transparent platform sharing.)
“For us,” Innes remarks, “it is always an exercise in restraint.”