The Swiss are renowned for chocolate, watches, and… boats? Mark Dixon takes a Rolls-Royce New Phantom to see how a small boatyard maintains its century-old tradition
It’s a bizarre scenario. We’re sitting on a hotel terrace, basking in the unseasonably late sunshine and enjoying a rare few minutes of downtime during the launch of the New Phantom (yes, yes, it’s a tough gig, etc). The view over Lake Lucerne is glorious and it would be hard to imagine anything more peaceful… were it not for the rat-tat-tat of automatic gunfire and the dull thud of a mortar that’s reverberating from across the water. We can even see the splashes being made by the mortar shells. Is Switzerland being invaded? Has it upset the Donald?
Thankfully not, we’re assured. It’s only the Army on manoeuvres. The Swiss still have mandatory military service, and they’re very keen on it: nearly three-quarters of the electorate voted to keep it during a 2013 referendum. Why they should choose to practise in an area thick with luxury hotels is anybody’s guess, but it’s probably hard to find a Swiss lake without luxury hotels. It’s that kind of country.
This penchant for the good life is why Rolls-Royce decided Switzerland was a suitable place to launch the New Phantom. Part of the event included the chance to visit a traditional boat-building yard on Lake Zurich, which seemed an appropriately Octane thing to do. After all, if you’re in the market for a New Phantom then you might also feel disposed to have a motor launch built for you by Pedrazzini.
By whom? It may not be as famous as the better-known Italian outfit, Riva, but Pedrazzini boats are just as stylish – and, unlike their rival on Lake Iseo, they still have painstakingly handbuilt wooden hulls, rather than glassfibre. When you see the amount of time and craftsmanship involved in making one, the price (around half-a-million pounds, give or take the odd hundred thousand) becomes easier to comprehend, if not to swallow.
While there are obvious parallels to be drawn here in the respective skills required to build car or boat, New Phantom is so far ahead technologically that it seems positively good value in comparison. Well, it’s all relative. As our first drive in last month’s issue suggested, New Phantom is much more than a facelift of the outgoing model. It’s a thoroughly modern motor car and Rolls-Royce is making no secret of the fact that its platform can – nay, will – be adapted to fully electric propulsion in the foreseeable future. They’re not going
to bother with a halfway-house hybrid.
For the time being, you’ll just have to make do with a twin-turbo 6.75-litre petrol V12, developing 563bhp and 664lb ft. Note the first part of that description. Old Phantom had a normally aspirated engine, which Rolls-Royce used to claim was what customers wanted. However, it always seemed odd to us that its flagship car had a less powerful engine than the ‘entry level’ Ghost, and now the playing field has been levelled. Adding twin turbochargers gives New Phantom more low-down urge, and reduced emissions as a result.
Old Phantom really is quite venerable by modern standards, having been introduced way back in the mists of 2003. ‘Rolls-Royce customers don’t like lots of new models,’ explains PR chief Richard Carter, and Rolls-Royce’s design language this century has indeed given the range a peculiar – as in ‘unusual’, rather than ‘odd’ – timelessness. So launching the latest version of the world’s oldest model name (it made its debut in 1925 to replace the Silver Ghost) is a Big Thing. Head of design Giles Taylor admits: ‘The prospect of redesigning such an icon makes my palms go sweaty.’
Giles is very much an Octane kind of guy, who gets bonus points not only for owning a Series I Land Rover but also for collecting and restoring vintage bicycles. He certainly knows his classics: ‘To predict the future, one must understand the past’ is his mantra. He says his favourite Phantom is the James Young-bodied Phantom V but admits to being influenced by a broad church: those A-pillar ‘rails’ flanking New Phantom’s windscreen are an homage to the Gangloff-bodied Bugatti Type 57 Atalanta Coupé, for example. While New Phantom may be superficially similar in looks and proportions to the Old, it has actually been completely restyled: that all-important grille sits slightly higher but is also slightly raked back, and New Phantom has a swageline from the front wing that disappears into the body below the side windows, rather than running front-to-back and along the top of the rear wing, giving it a less slab-sided appearance.
The aesthetic theme is very much evolution rather than revolution, which is a little unfair on the stuff that lies beneath. New Phantom is genuinely new, in terms of engineering. It has what Rolls-Royce describes as an all-new aluminium ‘spaceframe’ – 30% stiffer than the old car’s – plus, of course, that new twin-turbo engine; not to mention four-wheel steer. Yes, the rear wheels turn by up to 1.5° when driving, or 3° for parking, which not only sharpens handling and reduces the turning circle but, it seems, has enabled the tyres to be made softer.
And tyre choice is important when you’re designing a 2.6-tonne luxury limo. German firm Continental took its brief very seriously indeed, supplying Rolls-Royce with no fewer than 180 different new designs to try out. They finally settled on one that contains foam to eliminate the cavity noise of a conventional tyre, which helped reduce tyre noise by 9dB. If a Rolls-Royce car clock still ticked, like they did in the days of the famous 1957 ad by David Ogilvy, it would sound positively deafening inside New Phantom.
And, when all’s said and done, it’s being on the inside that makes a Phantom driver feel so special. It’s not a question of quality – you take that as read. It’s the way that it’s so genuinely different from any other luxury car. Bentleys are trad-Brit, all wood ’n’ round dials: a Rolls combines Olde Worlde attitude with a flair and imagination that suggests it’s looking to the future, too.
Pull open the electrically assisted driver’s door and settle yourself behind the wheel. Directly ahead of you is a conventional set of instruments, albeit of the TFT ‘virtual’ variety, set in chrome bezels. We’d gladly forego the gimmicky Power Reserve indicator in favour of a more useful revcounter but the dash is pleasingly uncluttered, and augmented by a head-up display projected on the windscreen.
Above you, only sky – at least, Rolls-Royce’s version of it. The now-famous Starlight Roof headlining contains thousands of tiny LEDs that sparkle at night. But in front, to the left of the instruments and stretching across the facia (the sat-nav screen drops down on command), is something genuinely new: what Rolls-Royce describes as ‘the gallery’. Instead of a slab of shiny tree, there’s a sheet of toughened glass, behind which an owner can display their own unique work of art – whether that’s a crayon drawing done by one of their kids, or, more likely, a bespoke and valuable 3D creation by an artist du jour.
Sounds bizarre? Giles Taylor says he was inspired by the 18th Century miniatures that were created so people could carry their works of art with them when they travelled. ‘I wanted to take a motoring constant that has existed for a century… and give it another purpose,’ he explains. It’s a brilliant piece of lateral thinking and takes the current vogue for personalisation way beyond the usual confines of paint and trim – something that should appeal hugely to New Phantom’s high-net-worth customers.
Fortunately, New Phantom is not all ‘show’ and no ‘go’. With a twin-turbo V12 under the bonnet, that was never going to be likely. While it wouldn’t be true to say that the car ever seems to shrink around you – a Mercedes Sprinter van’s wheelbase is actually 11cm shorter than that of the Extended Wheelbase New Phantom, which requires similar spatial awareness while negotiating tight corners – it doesn’t feel unwieldy, thanks to pleasantly weighted steering and accurate response, sharpened by that four-wheel steer.
It rides well on air suspension, although there’s only so much the engineers can do to isolate two-and-a-half tonnes of metal from every imperfection in the road surface, and tremors occasionally permeate the cabin. They’re of the sort that would barely cause a discernible ripple in the G&T of a rear-seat passenger, mind.
One of the joys of driving Rolls-Royce’s entry-level model, the Ghost, has always been that if you gun it, you can really shake up the preconceptions of would-be challengers in less prestigious marques. To use a very un-Rolls-Royce analogy, it goes like manure off a garden implement. Now, at last, that pleasure is extended to Phantom owners. Old Phantom was hardly a slouch but the new car will leave it in the metaphorical dust, emitting a sexy but never gauche V12 growl as it does so. Bury the throttle from a standing start and the tail will squat and the nose rise in classic motorboat style – because Rolls-Royce’s engineers understand that the weight transfer will give the rear wheels maximum traction, which is why they don’t dial it out with the air suspension. They think about such things.
Talking of motorboats… New Phantom has wafted us to Lake Zurich, where Augusto Pedrazzini settled in 1906 – the same year that Rolls-Royce was founded – and started building boats at his yard in 1914. His business has been doing so ever since, and is now run by grandson Claudio, with ten employees crafting just a few examples of the classic 1950s runabout each year. While a Pedrazzini is the archetypal La Dolce Vita wooden sports boat, it’s recognisable by its unique bustle-back, featuring a waterfall tail with compound curves.
Foreman Jurt Merens, a veteran boatbuilder of 42 years’ experience, shows Octane around the cloistered calm of the workshops. ‘We use mostly mahogany, some teak, a little pine,’ he explains. ‘Tropical hardwood costs around 3800 francs [about £2900] per cubic metre and we have to order it ten years in advance of its intended use so that it is properly seasoned.’
Jurt goes on to say that it takes three months to build a hull, which is double-skinned and vacuum sealed before receiving 21 layers of epoxy sealant and varnish. Almost as remarkable is the fact that brightwork and metal trim is made in-house on wooden bucks, and windscreens moulded from Plexiglas in the oven of the local bakery.
You might expect, this being Switzerland, that Pedrazzini boats would be powered by some kind of environmentally friendly electric propulsion system. If so, you’d be wrong. ‘Never electric!’ exclaims Jurt, wagging a finger and with a twinkle in his eye. It seems that Mercury 6.2-litre V8s are a popular option, although the boat in which we venture out onto the lake has an even more old-school pairing of 5.7-litre Chrysler V8s. There’s no speed limit on Lake Zurich, it seems, which means the sportiest Pedrazzini can skim across at its maximum speed of 50mph with impunity.
On a glorious autumn day, however, it’s more relaxing (particularly for the passengers) to cruise on a medium throttle. Jurt trustingly allows Octane to take the wheel – which, fittingly, is a polished alloy three-spoke Nardi – and suggests that it’s easiest to steer while standing up, feet braced against the bulkhead. In true road-tester (lake-tester?) style, I can report that it corners tidily, although steering response isn’t quite as precise or immediate as the New Phantom’s – if it were, occupants would be pitched into the water at every turn. It pulls well, though, and makes a great sound; a V8 is hard to beat for emotion, whatever the application.
Which would you choose, if you had half-a-million to blow: car or boat? New Phantom costs from £360,000, but that’s before you have it colour-matched to your favourite shoes, or start wondering whether Damien Hirst could pickle a pike in the dashboard ‘gallery’. Pinned to the wall, Octane would plump for the car. We can’t help remembering that old adage about boats: ‘The happiest two days of owning a boat are the day you buy it, and the day you sell it…’
Words: Mark Dixon // Photography: James Lipman and Gudrun Muschalla