Eleanor Thornton’s enduring story is one which will remain forever woven into the tapestry of motoring history. The travesty is that few know her name, yet the world in unison recognises her as a symbol of the pinnacle of not just motor cars but the essence of luxury itself.

Rolls-Royce's Ghost Extended Wheelbase outside the Goodwood headquarters

Eleanor was the lover and private secretary of John Walter Edward Douglas-Scott-Montagu, the second Lord Montagu of Beaulieu. Their passionate relationship lasted a decade but such were the rigours of social standing in the early 1900s that Eleanor wasn’t deemed worthy enough to marry into the family, thus she was to remain Montagu’s mistress.

As was the fashion of the time, owners affixed personal mascots to the radiator grilles of their newly acquired motor cars. In 1910 Montagu commissioned his friend, the sculptor Charles Sykes, to design a figurine for his Silver Ghost; Sykes saw graceful beauty in Eleanor and she agreed to model for the piece, entitled The Whisper.

That same year Claude Johnson, then Managing Director of Rolls-Royce Motor Cars, employed Sykes to produce a standardised mascot for the firm’s cars and again he turned to Eleanor to be his muse. The pose of a beautiful woman leaning forwards, arms outstretched behind, her femininity enveloped in fluttering robes, was presented to and accepted by the company in 1911.

Eleanor Thornton tragically lost her life in 1915 when the ship she was cruising on was torpedoed off the coast of Crete. The woman whose impoverished upbringing prevented her from living a life of privilege is ironically immortalised on the prow of every Rolls-Royce. Eleanor is The Spirit of Ecstasy.

And so it comes full circle that over a century after Eleanor graced Montagu’s Silver Ghost, arguably the car that brought the Rolls-Royce name to global prominence, she again sits proudly at the head of the marque’s latest Ghost – the Extended Wheelbase model.

Eleanor Thornton's iconic image sits proudly at the front of the Ghost

The Ghost’s placement in the Rolls-Royce range

Under BMW’s stewardship, the Rolls-Royce marque was re-launched a decade ago with the Phantom series; its mission to re-establish the brand at the pinnacle of the automotive hierarchy. These opulent saloons were skilfully crafted to represent the best of the best – a motor car in which to travel, chauffeured to your destination in serene comfort.

The Phantom family grew to encompass the Extended Wheelbase saloon as well as strikingly self-indulgent two-door versions in both fixed head and drophead coupé forms, the models all representing the upper echelons of the marketplace. Rolls-Royce nevertheless had a long history of being a dual model line manufacturer and by 2009 it launched the Ghost to occupy the vacuum where Silvered Shadows, Spirits and Seraphs had once whispered.

The Ghost occupies the same marketplace as the previous Silver Shadow, Spirit and Seraph models

The Ghost had a different raison d’être to the Phantom, besides being smaller and more affordable (relatively speaking), it was to be a car that satisfied the dual role of being both chauffeured and driven. In recently unveiled Extended Wheelbase form, the latest Ghost is 170mm longer than the standard saloon shell, all the additional space that has been liberated gifted to rear seat passengers, allowing them even more space in which to luxuriate.

The Ghost as a driver’s car

Stand and admire the Ghost Extended Wheelbase and you’d be forgiven for developing an overriding sensation of it appearing to be an 85% scale Phantom and subsequently looks like it would be an unlikely candidate as an engaging driving experience.

In the Ghost’s case, looks are intriguingly deceptive. Yes, the Phantomesque hallmarks are there: the tall prow, chiselled side elevations with rear-hinged coach doors and heavy rear pillars, culminating with a robust, tapering tail. Yet, the Ghost also offers visual clues to a latent desire to be driven, hinting at a more potent, engaging edge to the Rolls-Royce experience.

Evidence of the Ghost's potential as a driver's car is subtle

Yes, the traditional Greek temple grille housing remains but is now angled rearwards more steeply, the optional satin silver finish of the bodywork shrouding it and the bonnet, with the Spirit of Ecstasy atop as ever. The slivers of lighting units flanking the grille are exponents of LED and bi-xenon technology suggesting aggression through their narrow, deeply set application.

Fitted to the test Ghost were optional 20” seven-spoke alloys, satisfyingly thick in appearance and implying greater road holding through their width; the centre caps pleasurably still contain self-uprighting ‘RR’ logos.

Observe the Ghost alongside the larger Phantom and you’re even inclined to muster words like ‘lithe’ and ‘sporty’ in reference to the smaller of the two, but the Ghost remains a very large car and despite the inclusion of some BMW hardware in the chassis composition, it would be unwise to expect it to handle like a focused sports saloon.

The Ghost's controls are delicate and exquisite but power is prodigious

Ensconce yourself  behind the wheel and all the controls feel immediately familiar, aside from Rolls-Royce’s continued tradition of fitting a steering column mounted selector for the automatic gearbox. Although you sit almost MPV-high in real terms, relative to the Ghost itself it feels perfectly proportioned; the extra height of your eyeline permits you to observe the car’s near two metre width with greater ease. As well as that commanding view of all that’s ahead of you, just to the left of your straightahead gaze sits Eleanor, an omnipresent reminder that you’re not just driving a car but indulging in an experience.

Depress the chromed starter button, manoeuvre the gear selector wand down to ‘D’ and release the brake pedal. In elegant and perceptible silence, the Ghost edges forwards awaiting the command of how to respond to the input from your right foot. Inevitably, at this moment your mind snaps back to noticing the £230,000 (before options) list price mentioned in the literature and your instincts are to treat it with impeccable care and a gentle touch. The sensation lasts only momentarily before you realise the ease of which the Ghost is to control.

Despite its wholly apparent heft there’s an incongruous delicacy about the Ghost’s controls and the immediacy of its response to inputs from hands and feet. The steering wheel is both larger in diameter and slimmer in rim thickness than the majority of large saloons, encouraging you to caress the Rolls-Royce through bends rather than muscle it into the corners. And whilst the level of power assistance to the wheel itself is greater than most too, it doesn’t feel overly-light. There’s still a satisfying depth of feel and understanding of the direction of the front wheels that nourishes the palms willing you to explore its potential further.

The enormity of the wheels and width of the rubber in which they’re shod offers a level of grip and composure that again belies the Ghost’s size. Driven gently, you waft along in supreme serenity, utterly unruffled as the fully independent air-sprung suspension eradicates roll, pitch and dive at low speeds. Yet increase the Ghost’s velocity and the electronic wizardry firms up the settings, dialling in an ample helping of both nimbleness and agility. Push ever harder into the bends and the sportier Rolls gently delivers a controlled dose of slippage before straightening immediately to return to effortless, onward progress.

When the need to slow down eventually occurs, the brakes offer a precise and measurable sensation through the pedal, permitting braking distances to remain short without unsettling passengers within the cabin.

The Ghost’s driveline

Open the satin silver bonnet of the engine room and the view of the BMW-derived V12 unit looks like a Rolls-Royce engine of yesteryear. But looks are deceptive for this enormous powerplant is very much a 21st Century engineering project. As if its 6.6-litre capacity wasn’t enough to propel the Ghost Extended Wheelbase’s 2.4 tonne mass, it features twin-turbochargers and direct fuel injection. In addition to the linear delivery of power and a tsunami wave of torque, the technology allows for fuel efficiency savings, relative speaking. In isolation a combined average fuel consumption figure of 20.6mpg may sound woefully extravagant, in the Ghost’s application it’s surprisingly efficient. The situation will not significantly improve until Rolls-Royce feels the time is right to utilise hybrid petrol-electric packages from its parent company, but let’s be frank here – if you’re in a position to spend in the region of quarter of a million Pounds on a car, fuel efficiency is unlikely to be near the top of your priority list.

6.6-litres of V12, twin-turbocharged power

When situations dictate, the Ghost can be driven with the gentlest of purrs from the 12-cylinders but sink the throttle pedal into the deep lambswool over rug, the turbos spin furiously and summon Zeus’ thunderous bellow to accompany the imperious march of immediate progress. 60mph can be reached in a barely comprehendible 4.8 seconds, before powering on to an electronically governed top speed of 155mph, where conditions permit.

Driven with respectful enthusiasm, the Ghost didn’t simply traverse the wending roads of the Sussex Downs, it reigned over them.

The Ghost as a car to be chauffeured in

Wherever you choose to enjoy your ride as a Ghost passenger, you’ll experience a level of luxury and indulgence that is virtually beyond compare. The reality is that such is the level of refinement and craftsmanship it can only be truly rivaled by the larger Phantom family.

Ghost's front seat passengers have plenty to occupy their fingers

Occupy the front passenger seat and savour the space, quality and plethora of dials and buttons which the driver can also access. Such is the level of precision and satisfaction of action of the switchgear that it feels bespoke to this particular car. Everything operates delightfully, from the famous organ pull-stops for the ventilation, to newer touch sensitive controls that relay messages on the full-colour screen at the top of the dash. Naturally, something as potentially vulgar as a computer monitor in such a traditional setting can be hidden if you so wish – in the test car’s case a plinth of dark wenge veneer retracts over it when not required.

But for a true chauffeuring experience, it’s the rear of the Ghost’s cabin that demands your attention. Those rear-hinged coach doors allow you to elegantly glide backwards into the seat, ensuring that even getting into the car feels special and different from the norm. Naturally, leaning forwards to pull the door shut yourself wouldn’t possibly do, so conveniently nestled into the pillar behind of the rear quarter light is a button to close the door electrically.

Space to luxuriate in the rear of the Ghost Extended Wheelbase

Those additional 170mm of rear space enable your legs to fully stretch out in front of you, the front passenger seat being electrically ushered out of the way from the rear cabin. The seat backs house not only a traditional veneered picnic table but also a contemporary TFT screen for all manner of in-car entertainment functions. Lower the centre armrest and discover a rotary controller and other switchgear that both mirrors and in many functions, overrides those of the front one.

The unruffled isolation of the cabin is even more perceptible from the rear chairs, the distance from the prow of the Ghost being all the more apparent as the Rolls’ enormity is most obvious from this vantage point. Should you so wish, the rear bench configuration can be replaced by two individually reclining chairs for even greater opulence; doing so converts the Ghost into a strict four-seater though.

Tradition meets contemporary expectations in the Ghost's rear compartment

On the road, the air suspension provides cushioned damping over the vast majority of surfaces but very occasionally deeper ruts permeate the cabin via an uncharacteristic harder edge to the ride quality. Whilst such a phenomena is unlikely to generate tuts of disgruntlement from rear passengers, these things are relative as the Ghost rides magnificently compared to lesser cars. Such is the level of expectation thrust upon anything bearing the RR hallmark that anything less than perfection is immediately noticeable. It’s probable that on 19” wheels with higher profile tyres, this aspect of the Ghost’s ride quality is quantifiably reduced.

The Ghost as a showcase for modern luxury

There are very few areas of the Ghost’s cabin that feature naked plastics and wherever these are present, they are limited to switchgear buttons that operate precisely and with exquisite damping. A fine toothcomb is required to locate any aspects of the interior trimmings that don’t feel befitting for such an expensive motor car.

Beautifully classical black on white dials meet modern instrumentation; note the lack of a rev counter but a more demure power reserve meter instead

Fine veneers in a range of wood types and finishes are available for the primary dashboard plinth and door cappings are edged in leather which swathes seemingly every surface of the interior. Harder wearing surfaces feature a noticeable heavier grain than those where your hands come into greater contact with, which are silky smooth. Such is the attention to detail that two year old bull calf hides are used, as these provide the greatest combination of strength and being unblemished.

Although the wood and leather craftsmanship nods towards Rolls-Royce’s past, the firm’s access to state of the art German technology ensures that modernity has its place where it benefits the overall Ghost experience. Aside from the multifunction display screen with tasteful graphics and elegant scrolling menus, the technology elsewhere is circumspect. The classic black on white instruments ahead of the driver are sandwiched between a full-colour head-up display that projects onto the windscreen above and below by a further TFT screen set behind an apparently blacked out panel.

Classic chrome eyeball vents meet a multifunction screen, here controlling the position of the Spirit of Ecstasy

Hidden discreetly around the exterior are three cameras (one for reversing; two at the front for ‘seeing’ as you edge the long bonnet out of hidden junctions); active cruise control with lane departure warning system (subtle vibrations resonate through the steering wheel as you negotiate the Ghost’s girth between white lines) as well as night vision cameras for improved visibility in non-daylight hours.

The Ghost’s Verdict

Although the Ghost represents the entry point to Rolls-Royce ownership it still offers a level of quality, refinement and exclusivity that few other marques can even hope to emulate, as hard as they try. In Extended Wheelbase form its already impressive range of talents are amplified by the increase in rear seat spaciousness.

Negative points are few and far between and are more likely to be limited to subjective opinions over the Ghost’s styling rather than anything measurable. The imposing, superior lines of the Ghost convey a level of class and affluent magnificence without sinking to depths of crass vulgarity. This is status with style, augmented by the contrasting satin silver finish to the bonnet and windscreen surround.

Rolls-Royce Ghost Extended Wheelbase - not just a fine motor car but an experience beyond it too

£230,000 is a huge sum of money to exchange for a motor car but in purchasing a Rolls-Royce Ghost Extended Wheelbase you become the custodian not only of a beautifully crafted and luxurious work of art but of an alluringly intangible feel good factor. You don’t merely drive or ride in the Ghost, you immerse yourself in the rich experience it offers – the deeper you swim into the tranquillity, the greater the sense of rightness of Ghost ownership pervades.

The Ghost Extended Wheelbase is not only a wholly appropriate chapter in the Rolls-Royce motor car history, it’s a fitting mantel for the memory of Eleanor Thornton.

Thumbs Up: Sumptuous refinement, impeccable build, depth of craftsmanship, ability to make driver and passengers feel special, a magnificent motor car.

Thumbs Down: Purchase and running costs, takes up more than one parking space, thirst.

Quick Facts

Model Tested: Rolls-Royce Ghost Extended Wheelbase

Top Speed: 155mph

0-60: 4.8sec

Combined cycle fuel consumption: 20.6mpg

CO2 emissions: 319g/km

VED Band/Cost: M/£475pa

Engine size: V12/6592cc fuel injection, twin turbocharged petrol

Power: 563bhp

Torque: 575lb/ft

Length: 5569mm

Width: 1948mm

Height: 1550mm

Wheelbase: 3465mm

Boot space: 490l

Kerb weight: 2420kg

Price: £230,000 (April 2011)

All photographs © Keith WR Jones 2012