If you appreciate the finer aspects of life, you may well find yourself green with jealousy over Nigel Wonnacott’s job title and the kind of work it entails.
You see, Nigel’s the Product PR Manager at Rolls-Royce, which means he’s spent the past fortnight working by extolling the virtues of the newly-launched Phantom Series II to the world’s press. If that wasn’t tough enough, this has all taken place in the arduous surroundings of the exclusive le Cap Estel retreat, just down the coast from Monaco. You get the picture.
Glamour aside, Nigel’s breadth of knowledge marks him out as a car enthusiast; his background as both an automotive journalist and PR expert confirm it. For a brand as iconic as Rolls-Royce, this is wholly reassuring.
In a candid interview Nigel shares his thoughts on the Phantom Series II, EVs, Maybach and the possible resurrection of the Corniche nameplate.
Nigel Wonnacott: What do you think of the place?
[Nigel sweeps his hands around to highlight the opulence of le Cap Estel retreat on the Côte d’Azur as he asks, ordering refreshments in near fluent French]
Keith Jones: It’s magnificent isn’t it? And fitting as a launch venue for the latest Phantom.
NW: Definitely – this is a place where the likes of Marlene Dietrich, Marilyn Monroe and The Beatles have all come in the past to escape from it all and unwind. You can see why.
KJ: I hope they were all fortunate enough to be chauffeured here in the back of a palatial Rolls-Royce like I was…
[Refreshments arrive in the form of freshly-squeezed and icily-chilled orange juices]
KJ: The original Phantom proved to be a hit with the Rolls-Royce faithful, presumably that’s why the changes are relatively subtle in its transformation into Series II?
NW: Oh yes, precisely. Rolls-Royce customers know exactly what they want and Phantom owners insisted visual changes were kept to a minimum. This wasn’t simply so that their current cars didn’t look like the ‘old model’, it was because for many Phantom customers, the car is exactly what they wanted already and therefore a change too far wouldn’t be embraced. So, alterations to the way Phantom looks are understated. If you look at the rear, the waterwall aspects of the bootlid and rear wings sloping into the back bumper have been improved. The new shapes are higher, making the rear of the car look less visually heavy, something the new chrome banding on the boot opening helps with. You’ll also notice the chrome around the rear of the side window glass has been extended slightly. Very slight changes that emphasise the elegance of Phantom.
KJ: For design changes that are more evolution than revolution, replacing the circular spot lamps on the nose with rectangular ones is quite significant. Was it one designers wrangled with?
NW: No, not particular. You’re right in that it changes the face of the car, but customers appreciate that the new LED headlights incorporate advanced lighting technology and understand the benefit this will have for them at night. Phantom owners embrace change when they see how it improves upon what they had before. The headlights do that and inside, the improved infotainment display screen does that too. Again, it’s a subtle change, but the graphics are sharper, the screen’s larger and the satnav’s more intuitive than the outgoing one which had had its day.
KJ: As part of the BMW family, Rolls-Royce must presumably have access to a plethora of cutting edge technology?
NW: It does but it doesn’t necessarily mean that anything and everything will make it into one of our cars. As I say, Phantom customers in particular don’t need change for the sake of it and therefore we don’t incorporate technology simply because we can.
KJ: Such as..?
NW: Such as head-up display. It’s a feature you can specify on Ghost and it suits that car, being more ‘informal’ if you will, a car that tends to be driven more by its owner. It’s a car you can drive with purpose and therefore a head-up display is in keeping with that. Phantom is an entirely different proposition, many customers will be chauffeured sedately to their destinations and subsequently HUD makes little sense here – it’s a technology too far. But show them the enlarged screen on the dashboard and illustrate how the 360° camera system helps them manoeuvre their Phantom in confined spaces and the benefit is clear. There’s a great danger too that Rolls-Royce must avoid and that’s to ignore the charm, elegance and simplicity that hand-crafted features deliver to the experience. Whilst technology is marvellous, it can also be soulless.
KJ: The recent EX102 previewed the possibility of an electric Phantom. Is an EV wearing the RR logo something we might see in the current Phantom’s life cycle or is that a technology too far also?
NW: Despite the EX102 championing two Rolls-Royce hallmarks of a near silent drivetrain and immense low down torque, reaction to it was ambivalent at best. The downside with a purely electric car is the charging lead. Even for a car as luxurious as Phantom, plugging it in like an appliance detracts from the experience. And whilst many Phantoms undertake short journeys that would suit EV motoring, for too many buyers the limited range would prove to be a compromise too far. Hybrid powertrains, combining a petrol-driven V8 with battery power might be something to consider much, much further down the line but again, it’s not a technology our customers currently want. Phantom is a precious jewel and its V12 engine is an enormous part of its appeal. Suggest a smaller V8 and that compromise word surfaces again.
KJ: Will Maybach’s disappearance change Rolls-Royce’s trajectory in the coming years?
NW: Let me just say that Maybach interiors are something else, aren’t they? Not as charming or bespoke as a Rolls-Royce’s but definitely appealing. The exteriors [pause]…
KJ: Look like an enormous S-Class?
NW: Your words! Let me put it this way, Rolls-Royce had a strategy whilst Maybachs were available and that strategy remains constant now that a decision to close the marque has been announced. Rolls-Royce always did represent the pinnacle of luxurious motoring and didn’t need to be explained. If you bought a Maybach, would everyone you told know what you mean? The best doesn’t need explanation. Something funny happened the other day – I was looking to buy presents for my family and went into a stylish boutique. The shop’s owner showed me a selection of her products and upon reaching for the most expensive said ‘and this is the Rolls-Royce of my range’. Rolls-Royce is already synonymous with being the best and the strategy is always to maintain that.
KJ: This event demonstrates the breadth of the new Phantom family: saloon, extended, coupé and drophead. What plans are there to similarly extend the Ghost family? A new two-door Corniche range perhaps?
NW: Each of the four Phantom bodystyles serves a particular purpose and there are already two versions of Ghost – the saloon and the extended wheelbase saloon. Certainly Ghost lends itself towards being developed into further body variants but currently there are no official plans for such models.