Feature: A Grand Experiment for the 21st Century

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The auspicious year 2004 finds a spate of automobile manufacturers celebrating their centenaries, and more than a few relative youngsters ushering in their 50th and 75th anniversaries. The avalanche of marques turning 100 is no surprise if one recalls that the automobile industry had hardly chuffed and lurched into the new 20th century when Rolls-Royce made its international debut in December 1904 at the Paris Salon. The 2-, 3-, and 4-cylinder models from engineer Henry Royce and his aristocratic partner, Charles Rolls, immediately set new standards of design and engineering for the fledgling industry, and Rolls-Royce soon came to be regarded by the day’s automotive journalists as “The Best Car in the World.”

During its formative years between the teens and the 1930s, the automobile made great advances, with Rolls-Royce at the forefront of innovation. In addition to manufacturing series production models such as the Silver Ghost, the 20hp, and Phantoms I, II, and III, Rolls-Royce introduced a handful of rare experimental vehicles. The first of these, the 1EX in 1919, which was based on a Silver Ghost chassis, sparked 40 years of exotic one-offs culminating with the 45EX in 1958.

In recent decades, Rolls-Royce and stablemate Bentley—like so many other small-volume marques—struggled to survive at the fringes of an industry that rewarded high volume and manufacturing efficiencies over craftsmanship and tradition. Challenged with receivership and stratospheric price tags for outmoded technology, Rolls-Royce and Bentley stolidly soldiered on into the ’90s with conservative sedans and convertibles that retained enough cachet to turn heads from Sunset Boulevard to Saint-Tropez.

But the fortunes of Rolls-Royce Motor Cars turned—and its future was assured—with the acquisition of the marque by BMW Group in 1998. Under the aegis of the Munich automaker, a state-of-the-art factory arose at Goodwood (VW’s prize acquisition, Bentley, remains at the original Crewe facility), and by January 2003 the all-new Phantom tested every notion of what a Rolls-Royce had come to represent. Controversial in the extreme, the monolith has style, blistering performance, and a stately presence that redefines luxury—and Rolls-Royce as it enters its second century.

Anticipating the Phantom’s success, designers at Goodwood decided to revisit the experimental arena for the first time in 46 years with a car that would not only explore the future of the marque but would also amply commemorate 100 years of Rolls-Royce achievements. And so we have the 100EX, unveiled at the Geneva International Motor Show in March and debuted a month later under an Italian sun at the Concorso d’Eleganza Villa d’Este 2004.

This grand event takes place in Cernobbio on Lake Como, in the parkland surrounding the famous Hotel Villa d’Este, and this year marked the 75th anniversary of what is surely the world’s most historic and rarefied concours d’elegance for automobiles. The cross section of cars represented on the elegant shoreside lawns was remarkable—from 1920s-era classics to modern concept cars and prototypes. Among them, Rolls-Royce’s 100EX commanded center stage in the villa’s formal garden.

A design connoisseur’s delight, the 100EX is neither flamboyant nor overwrought with details that undermine the clear vision of a stately four-place convertible, true to Rolls-Royce tradition but looking well into the future. The 100EX, a test bed for advanced materials and engineering solutions, is also a fully functioning automobile that defies the convention of marginally operational or nonoperational concept cars.

The 100EX utilizes an aluminum space-frame chassis based on that of the new Phantom—though with a shorter wheelbase—and overall the car is lower and not as long as the sedan. Aluminum is prominent in the windscreen/cowl and the grandiose hood, each of which was machined from a single piece of metal. The windscreen/cowl structure began as a colossal 5,000-pound billet of aluminum and was transformed into a 180-pound structural element reminiscent of the lightest aircraft component. The signature Parthenon-inspired grille curves gently and integrates into the frontal aspect of the car, a sensitive evolution of what had become an archaic stylistic millstone.

Composite body panels are finished in an elusive metallic color called Dark Curzon, which appears bluish mauve, gray, or nearly black, depending on lighting conditions. The color anchors the already substantive form but downplays the style lines that embellish the side of the car and help define its shape.

An aluminum waist rail around the cabin frames the interior space of this large automobile, which has been configured as a true four-seater. Leather and mahogany veneer abound, while bleached teak decking for floors and tonneau cover connotes a nautical theme, further enhanced by the brushed-aluminum hood and windscreen. The coach doors hinge from the rear, allowing ease of entry and exit for front- and backseat passengers, and carrying on an elegant tradition adopted by many exceptional prewar coachbuilders.

A folding top, while conventional in concept, is made from material that uses woven wire strands for stiffness, weather protection, and sound absorption, while a wool/cashmere fabric lines its underside. Unlike some convertibles, this car is attractive with the light gray top in place, its profile uncompromised by the additional visual element. Behind the tonneau is a commodious trunk that opens estate wagon–style in two sections to reveal a teak deck that extends—tablelike—with picnics in mind.

True to the mission of past experimental cars, the 100EX presents performance to complement its coachwork, and a 64-valve, V-16 engine resides under the hood. With an engine that displaces 9 liters, super- or turbocharging has been eschewed in deference to the horsepower and torque produced by the massive powerplant, which is mated to a 6-speed automatic gearbox.

The 100EX shares the comfortable but capable air suspension system and rack-and-pinion steering geometry of the Phantom, certainly one of the most rewarding-to-drive, responsive, and best-handling of the large luxury sedans. As on the Phantom, the 100EX’s cavernous wheel wells accommodate 21-inch-diameter wheels of a design unique to this convertible.

Sadly, the 100EX will never see series production, but rather will remain a coveted one-off in its creators’ stable. (Demonstrating that hope does spring eternal, several marque enthusiasts have already made seven-figure offers for the 100EX.) But patience may well be rewarded, as this experimental car doubtless points the way to the next Rolls-Royce convertible. In theory, such a car could bear great similarity to its experimental forebear, and it is only a matter of time before Phantom owners longing for an open-top Rolls-Royce will have something to park alongside the company’s formal four-door. They may be the only ones who can acquire the new convertible, for when such a car is brought to market, limited production may dictate that the manufacturer first offer it to existing Phantom customers. Connoisseurs indeed.


The Men Behind the Car

Despite the oft-rumored suspicion that owner BMW wields a heavy hand over its crown jewel, the gentlemen at Rolls-Royce Motor Cars in fact exercise near total autonomy over the design and development of the automobiles from Goodwood. Independence is key to the preservation of the marque’s identity and value, a fact not lost on Chief Designer Ian Cameron. He is the man responsible for the new direction of Rolls-Royce, and if the Phantom is any indication, that direction is anything but predictable. Yet, for all the clamor raised by some critics over the look of the 21st-century Rolls-Royce, it is a successful and defensible design that respectfully acknowledges historic styling cues unique to the marque while exploring a new vocabulary that avoids the predictable and unimaginative retro-solutions relied upon by so many automobile designers. A tough act to follow, the Phantom just looks right.

The 100EX follows that act well. Its shape, like that of the Phantom, is the work of Marek Djordjevic´, chief stylist exterior design, who works out of Rolls-Royce’s (and parent BMW’s) design studio in Newbury Park, Calif. Though Djordjevic´ is modest and soft-spoken, his aesthetic resolve is apparent upon close examination of the EX. Charles Coldham, chief stylist interior design, is responsible for the splendid interior.

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