Rolls-Royce was not just the first company to make a luxury car; it was the first to understand how to market a luxury car.
After exhibiting at the Olympia Car Show in 1906, its debut model – the forgettably named ‘40/50’ – was ready for the press to test drive the following year.
Claude Johnson, the MD of Rolls-Royce at the time, christened the demo car the ‘Silver Ghost’ to emphasise its ghost-like quietness. He even had a plaque bearing its name mounted to the bulkhead. The name stuck.
So has the legacy. I’m behind the wheel of the brand new 2020 Goodwood Ghost, and the experience is serene. In fact, it’s surreal.
Pitched as the sportier Rolls-Royce saloon, I’m enjoying what is euphemistically termed a ‘spirited drive’ when I come upon a grate in the road. It’s too late to swerve; my arms tense ready for impact; but then there’s… nothing. A dull, distant thud perhaps, if you really strain your ears. But it’s as if the grate were never there; the Ghost simply floating over it.
And I’m really not exaggerating here. I’ve driven a lot of luxury cars before – including a good number of Rolls-Royces – but nothing has the ride quality of this new Ghost.
There are various factors at play here, but the one that links them all is technology. This is the most technologically advanced Rolls-Royce ever made – and that is saying something.
Tech me through it
It all starts from the ground up. This is the first fully Goodwood-built Ghost. No BMW chassis-sharing here, thank you very much.
Instead, the new Ghost has its own swanky – and proprietary – aluminium spaceframe architecture. This enables the brand’s designers and engineers to develop the car exactly how they see fit, free from any constraints.
Fancy mounting speakers inside the chassis to improve the acoustics? Hell, yeah – now that’s what we call surround sound. And on the other side of the spectrum, it helped them make the car too quiet.
During its development stages – roughly five years from start to finish – the engineers eradicated so much road noise that to travel in the Ghost became disorientating. Nature, after all, abhors a vacuum.
So they had to allow some noise back in – it would be a shame not to hear at least some of the grunt from its bespoke 6.75-litre twin-turbocharged V12 engine.
There are still four different layers of noise cancellation material built into the Ghost – 100kg in total – applied in the doors, roof, between the double-glazed windows, inside the tyres and within nearly all of the architecture itself. But it’s just the right amount to let you know you’re still awake.
If indeed, you are still awake – because the ride can be positively soporific. The Planar Suspension System is a feat of engineering genius.
Named after a geometric plane, which is completely level, the system is the result of ten collective years of testing and development.
The aim was simple in theory, difficult in practice: the feeling of flight on land.
The system manages this both physically and digitally; engineering and technology combining their considerable might.
Like the Phantom, the Ghost benefits from Rolls’ Flagbearer system, which uses cameras to read the road ahead and prepare the suspension system in advance for any forthcoming changes in the road surface.
It also has Rolls’ other genius invention: satellite-aided transmission, ensuring the car has the right gear ready for a corner or a roundabout that you might not even know exists yet.
And then there is the Ghost’s party trick: it has an upper wishbone damper unit installed above the front suspension assembly.
Essentially, the Rolls engineers have put dampers upon dampers – applying an old-school mechanical solution and making it work in tandem with both the electronically controlled shock absorbers and the self-levelling high-volume air strut assemblies.
The result is fairly magical.
I don’t believe anyone got out of the original Ghost and said, “lovely car that, but the ride could do with some improvement”. However, when it comes to improving upon perfection, they had to start somewhere.
It’s all part of Rolls’s mantra, which dates right back to the marque’s founder, Sir Henry Royce, who said they must “take the best that exists and make it better”.
So, why have two wheel-drive, when you can have four? Enough Rolls clients said they’d prefer the extra traction, so traction they have received.
Rolls decided to take that one step further and add four-wheel steering, too.
This has two benefits: at higher speeds, the rear moves as well as the front – so it no longer feels like the back is playing chase. And at lower speeds, it makes it more easy to manoeuvre – after all, if you’ve missed that last Ocado slot, you still may have to take the Ghost to fetch your groceries.
The rear wheels only move five degrees, but it’s enough to make a difference without you noticing. A theme that doesn’t end with the ride.
Less is more
Over the course of its ten-year life cycle, the Ghost has become the most successful product in Rolls-Royce’s 116-year history. It was first created in direct response to clients who wanted something more pared back than the Phantom – more ‘respect me’ than ‘bow down to me’.
And also for those who wanted a Rolls that could offer something beyond simply the chauffeur-driven experience.
Where the original did have the slight feel of a ‘baby Phantom’ – in looks and stature – the new Ghost is its own car in all ways. Indeed, there are only two parts that the new Ghost shares with its forebearer: the now trademark umbrellas hidden inside the doors – and the Spirit of Ecstasy.
Rolls has coined a new phrase: ‘post opulence’. When applied to a luxurious car like this, it does at first seem a little paradoxical. However, there is a method behind the marketing. Customer feedback on the previous Ghost was: “Give us less but more”. (Yeah, great. Thanks, guys.)
So, less opulence; more technology. Fewer buttons; more minimalism. Less crass; more class.
And so the designers got to work – mainly with their erasers. They started with the body: this has been rendered as one clean, expansive piece, flowing seamlessly – literally – from the A-pillar, over the roof and backwards to the rear of the car.
The resulting absence of what are known in the industry as ‘shut lines’ is quite an achievement: four craftsmen have to hand weld this part of the body together simultaneously to ensure the continuous seam.
The minimalism continues inside. Think of the Ghost as an art gallery – clean white walls, allowing certain showpieces to take centre stage.
The interior of the doors is a perfect example. Rather than wood veneer, diamond quilting, or turned aluminium, there is just leather… acres of the stuff. This is the gallery wall. And the works of art? An embossed Spirit of Ecstasy – and two intricate metal speaker covers.
These, by the way, are not the only speakers. They’re just the only ones you can see. The others are everywhere – all 18 of them. They’re even mounted invisibly within the headliner, essentially turning the cabin’s ceiling into one giant speaker, to help provide an audio experience akin to being airlifted into a front-row seat at the Royal Albert Hall.
Two microphones in the cabin also enable an adaptive function; they can detect the absence or overemphasis of frequencies, then triggering the amplifier to adjust to counteract these effects. Sounds – complicated.
Then there’s the fascia. If ever there was a symbol of the Ghost’s ability to nail a paradox it’s this.
It’s an obsessive attention to detail unmatched by any other car brand.
When not in operation, it’s just a slab of wood, right? High-gloss piano black lacquer – you know the drill.
Yet, turn it on and more than 850 stars light up from within. As your eye travels across it, there’s a twinkling effect – a clear nod to the Starlight Headliner that has been a feature of Rolls-Royces since 2007.
It’s the result of 90,000 dots which have laser-etched through a substrate layer. They say it takes 10,000 hours of practice to become an expert. Well, Rolls tells us it took 10,000 collective hours to get this right.
All that for something that measures about half a metre. It’s an obsessive attention to detail unmatched by any other car brand.
Richard Carter, Director of Global Communications at Rolls-Royce, is another man who knows a thing or two about marketing luxury cars.
When I met him at the launch of the Ghost, he explained the brand’s MO: “When you get into a Rolls-Royce, the last thing you want to do is make a decision. You want to sit down and go, ahhhhh. Everything should be just right.”
And with the new Ghost, Rolls-Royce has achieved exactly that.
See more at: rolls-roycemotorcars.com