The Phantom: A History of Rolls-Royce’s Most Luxurious Car

Source: Rolls-Royce

Source: Rolls-Royce

For most automakers, models come and go with little more than a glitzy reveal at an auto show, before it’s off to the dealerships. But Rolls-Royce isn’t like most other automakers, and it doesn’t update models so much as enter new eras — and if that sounds pretentious, you should read some of the company’s PR copy.

But it can get away with this because after all, it’s Rolls-Royce, and there really isn’t anything else quite like a Rolls. Case in point: the Phantom VII. Introduced in 2003, the Phantom has seen a remarkable 13-year production run, spawning a sedan, coupe, and convertible, all taking Rolls-Royce well into the 21st century while still maintaining the timeless look of the British marque. But the brand is phasing out the Phantom VII after 2016, with the all-new Phantom VIII set to take its place in 2018.

While Rolls is keeping a tight lid on details, we know that the VIII will have an all-aluminum construction, and with the (relatively) recent introduction of the Wraith coupe, and Dawn convertible, the Phantom Coupé and Phantom Drophead models are now history. Speaking of history, did you know that there have been 10 generations of the Honda Civic since its introduction in 1972? The Phantom has been around 91 years, and it’s only had seven so far. As you try to soak that factoid in, here’s a look at Rolls’ longest-serving nameplate.

1. 1925-1931 Phantom I

Source: Rolls-Royce

Source: Rolls-Royce

Introduced while the sun was still shining on the British Empire, the Phantom I replaced the legendary Silver Ghost as Rolls’ flagship. Over 3,500 Phantoms were built during its six-year production run, though the vast majority of them were sent out to a coachbuilder of the owner’s choice to be bodied, so no two are completely alike. Fun fact: Over 1,200 Phantom Is were built at Rolls-Royce’s short-lived American plant in Springfield, Massachusetts. 

2. 1929-1936 Phantom II

Source: Rolls-Royce

Source: Rolls-Royce

For its second generation, the Phantom II kept the 7.7-liter straight six from the older car, but was built on a brand-new frame. Unfortunately, it arrived just in time for the Great Depression, and as a result just over 1,600 were built. Still, Phantom IIs with their coachbuilt bodies are some of the most breathtaking cars of the era. For reference, check out the 1934 aluminum-bodied car built by Thrupp and Maberley, famously known as the Star of India.

3. 1936-1939 Phantom III

Source: Rolls-Royce

Source: Rolls-Royce

While the Depression hampered the Phantom II, sales of the Phantom III were curtailed by an even bigger problem: World War II. Despite the war, Rolls continued to discretely fill customer orders until 1941. Sharing its chassis with the previous car, the III became the first Rolls-Royce powered by a V12 engine, and would be the only one until 1998. Today, the Phantom III is probably best remembered as the ride of choice for the title character in the 1964 James Bond classic Goldfinger.

4. 1950-1959 Phantom IV

Source: Rolls-Royce

Source: Rolls-Royce

After World War II, Rolls made a decision to put the Phantom nameplate to rest, effectively closing the book on the prewar “big car” era once and for all. But it quickly changed its mind, and resurrected the name in 1950 for the most exclusive production car the company had ever built. Offered only to royalty and heads of state, just 18 Phantom IVs were built over its nine-year production run. It’s believed that 17 survive today.

5. 1959-1968 Phantom V

Source: James Lipman/Rolls-Royce

Source: James Lipman/Rolls-Royce

You may not know by looking at it, but the Phantom V was a huge technological leap forward for Rolls. Unlike earlier cars, the V featured a standard GM-sourced Hydromatic automatic transmission, and its standardized body designs were a first for the company. In 1963, the Phantom V saw a major styling refresh, getting a new front fascia with quad headlights. And while it looks for all the world like another proper Rolls, John Lennon famously painted his 1965 V like a gypsy wagon, creating one of the most iconic cars of the 1960s.

6. 1968-1991 Phantom VI

Source: Rolls-Royce

Source: Rolls-Royce

The Phantom VI wasn’t much different than a V, but it managed to remain in production for an incredible 23 years. In 1979, the 6.2-liter V8 from the Phantom V was replaced with a 6.75-liter unit, and the interior was significantly upgraded. Other than that, the car left production in the ’90s looking nearly identical to the way it did in 1968. The Phantom VI was a milestone car for the company, being the last body-on-frame Rolls ever offered. Surprisingly, it briefly came out of retirement in 1995, when the Sulan of Brunei ordered three slightly modernized ones from Rolls. Call us crazy, but we doubt the BMW-owned Rolls-Royce of today would do that. 

7. 2003-2016 Phantom VII

Source: Rolls-Royce

Source: Rolls-Royce

It’s astonishing that just a dozen years separate the 1960s-era technology of the VI and the thoroughly modern design of the VII. The first model designed after BMW took ownership of the company in 1998, the Phantom name was revived for Rolls’ 21st century flagship. The massive sedan was joined by the open-topped Drophead in 2007, and the Coupé model in ’08, and the lineup saw subtle redesigns in 2009 and 2013. Though its 13-year production run won’t match its predecessor’s, with nearly 5,000 built, it’s far and away the most popular Rolls flagship ever built.

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