Wings of Desire

Driven to Write profiles the black sheep of Crewe.

(c) inews

Even the most aristocratic families have their outcasts. Whether it’s cousin Geoffrey the bounder, serial adulterer and spendthrift, or aunt Gertrude with the secret laudanum habit, a noble bloodline is no barometer of respectability.

This is as much a truism at the House of Crewe as anywhere else, and while the halls of Pyms Lane may shimmer with any number of Wriaths, Clouds, Shadows or Spirits, within a secluded chamber in a little-visited wing of the facility lies the Seraph, brooding in gloomy seclusion.

The shortest-lived of all Rolls Royces, the Silver Seraph enjoyed a brief life, before it was locked away, not to be spoken of again. I overdramatise of course, but by Rolls Royce standards at least, the Seraph remains something of an outlier.

Lengthy production runs have been a Rolls Royce tradition, as indeed were equally protracted gestational periods. The Silver Spirit/Spur series which preceded it for instance, remained in production for nineteen years before being pensioned off in 1999. This model line, dubbed SZ internally, was a heavily revised version of the older SY-series Silver Shadow which itself dated back to 1965. (Although the styling theme proved older still…)

The SXB, (later P2000/P3000) programme was initiated around 1990 and was the first new body design for generations. Rolls Royce had been under the stewardship of Vickers for some years and by this point, the business was barely scratching a living. Indeed, it was suggested that without the patronage of the Sultan of Brunei and his family, the ‘Spirit of Ecstasy’ many not have been able to continue.

Such were the privations, Crewe’s design department had been reduced to about six full time design staff, lacking sufficient manpower to carry out a complete design. This entailed a great deal of design work being farmed out to external contractors like the Heffernan-Greenley consultancy, Roy Axe’s Design Research Associates and Pininfarina, who worked on many of the Brunei cars.

Leading the design team for P2000/3000 was Graham Hull, who joined Rolls Royce’s styling team under legendary RR design chief John Polwhele Blatchley in 1971, becoming chief designer in 1990, and was therefore steeped in marque traditions.

By then, Bentley had undergone something of a sales renaissance, appealing to a slightly younger (if no less affluent) demographic. To reflect this, it was felt that the Bentley version should be given its own unique style, but a lack of funds put paid to such plans. Despite Bentley’s pre-eminent commercial position, the P2000/3000 body was designed primarily as a Rolls Royce, with Bentlefication being applied later.

By 1995, the main external styling themes had been finalised, with the interior design being overseen by Robin Page, (currently chief designer at Volvo). It was decided that the new car(s) would return to classic proportions and styling details, as it was felt by some that the Fritz Feller styled SZ models had deviated too far from the traditional RR style and that something which reflected the more admired Blatchley cars was required.

Given the design brief and the fact that development took place during a period of unbridled retro, the Seraph’s body style was one of the more convincing efforts of the time. A particularly pleasing touch was the manner in which the formal roofline, C-pillar treatment and slightly truncated rear doors appeared to pay homage to that of the H.J Mulliner ‘Four Light’ Continental Flying Spur, as applied to some Bentley S1 models during the Silver Cloud era.

Engineering chief, Mike Dunn (allegedly with a little consultative assistance from a certain Robert. J Knight CBE) had already transformed the SZ-series from wallowing behemoth to something approaching dynamic capability. For Seraph/ Arnage, body stiffness was increased by 65 percent, and the adoption of modern anti-lock braking, traction control, an electronically controlled gearbox and adaptive damping meant the cars were technically comparable with anything on the market. A considerable sum was also believed to have been invested in updating the production facilities at Crewe.

Part of the Seraph’s technical specification included modern powerplants, Rolls Royce’s own 6.75 V8 unit being deemed no longer viable. Following some consideration, a deal was made with BMW where the Vierzylinder would supply their 5.4 litre V12 unit for Rolls Royce purposes, while the Bentley would employ a twin-turbo version of BMW’s 4.4 litre V8.

Reception to the cars was mixed. While the Seraph was praised for comfort and refinement, customers and critics, used to the low-end torque of the Royce V8, found BMW’s rather peaky V12 less to their liking, while within the finely wrought cabin, rear passengers found space to be at something of a premium.

But the launch coincided with a more dramatic twist. BMW, having been something of a certainty to take over the RR business, were outbid by the Volkswagen group, who made Vickers a considerably more generous offer. A bitter and rancorous battle ensued, which saw BMW threaten to withdraw engine supply, potentially leaving Wolfsburg high and dry.

In 2002, agreement was finally reached, where the two brands were separated. BMW attained the Rolls-Royce trademark and really little else, leaving the Virezylinder to dream it all up again from scratch. Volkswagen however, got the rest, including the Arnage programme, which entailed the Seraph being axed, early in 2003, with a mere 1570 built.

(c) greencarreports

VW embarked on a major and rather costly series of revisions to the Arnage, which saw the original RR V8 heavily modified and reinstated. Rear cabin accommodation was also improved, a matter which had been on Crewe’s to do list, but required funding they didn’t have.

A successful and well-regarded car, the Bentley Arnage lived on until 2009, receiving in 2007, the nose styling which had been mocked up for the model, but not implemented for cost reasons and because the separate indicator units were deemed essential for the Seraph.

(c) cars-data

BMW’s (initially at least) masterful reworking of the Rolls-Royce proposition with 2003’s Phantom led to the Seraph’s demise being overshadowed and subsequently overlooked. Dismissed perhaps as no more than the dying gasp of a fading carmaker, the Seraph was a car of considerable charm and some might argue, a more convincing one than the Bentley with which it shared its core.

While remaining something of a pariah within Rolls-Royce circles, in reality it was more a victim of circumstance and ill fortune. And while it used to be the done thing to lock familial miscreants and ne’er do well’s out of harm (and gossip’s) way, it is perhaps time the Silver Seraph was received back into the angelic orders.

With thanks to CB.

Author: Eóin Doyle

Co-Founder. Editor. Content Provider.

17 thoughts on “Wings of Desire”

  1. It´s news to me the Seraph has anything less than a neutral reputation. In terms of appearance, it looked right to me when it came out and looks even better today. It´s a large car but not too large. The detailing and finish (on the ones I have seen) are as good as you´d expect. And while a large BMW or Mercedes is made to the same high stanard as a small BMW or Mercedes, the Rolls manages to look distinctly lusher, more polished and richer. Yes, there´s the matter of the engine “problem”, a rich man´s problem if ever there was one. I supose a few retired company directors or, more likely, the kind of RR traditionalist buyer who owns one second hand, were upset at having another mill. In what is sometimes called the real world (reality can be relative), the RR´s performance was adequate (in Rolls´ own quaint terminology).

    1. Rarity will no doubt help prop up Seraph values, but it always seemed to me that this car made a much more convincing Bentley – cetainly once VW had brought back the old engine and fettled the chassis. Having slightly tight rear seat accommodation is a bit of a mistake for a car designed to be driven by a chauffeur.

    2. Surely reality is always relative – and it’s probably a sad reality that the customers who can afford a new RR are ones who actually do need a vehicle built like a tank. The sort of brilliant protective transportation produced by Mowag, perhaps? The Seraph’s elegiac elegance is the swan song of a market which no longer exists. And should be appreciated as such.

  2. The Seraph was, in hindsight, a remarkable achievement for a company with such limited resources. It’s a shame that it was so short-lived and then totally eclipsed by the BMW-era Phantom. Regarding rear legroom, there was a LWB version called Park Ward that had a 250mm stretch in the wheelbase:

    In light of the slightly truncated rear doors of the standard model that Eóin mentioned, this version still looks pretty well balanced, unlike the LWB versions of many cars, where the rear door looks obviously too long in relation to the front.

    Given the success of the subsequent Phantom, perhaps it might have served RR better to launch the LWB version as the “standard” Seraph, a car to be driven in, and the SWB version as a Bentley, the driver’s choice?

  3. I always found it elegant and quite compact looking, which maybe part of the problem with it, if indeed there is a problem. It was overshadowed in more than one sense of the word by the Phantom, which is awesome (again, in more than one sense). We won’t mention the new Phantom or indeed the TX4-a-like SUV nightmare … sorry.

  4. Contemporary reports claimed that Rolls Royce was working on a ‘new generation’ DOHC v8 at the time; i don’t remember if it was a derivative of the L series or a completely new design. Iirc, at least one prototype engine survives in the basement of the RREC. Cash-strapped as they were at the time, it is understandable if unfortunate that they could not finish the development of the new V8.

  5. I am a big advocate of body on frame construction – and n0t just for SUVs and pickups.

    I think BOF works especially well for low volume large luxury/exotic sedans like RR and Bentley.

    The road isolation is unbeatable, the minor weight penalty is insignificant compared to the mass of the car, and BOF does solve some handling issues where separate front and rear subframes move relative to each other.

    But, the biggest advantage for a small manufacturer like Vickers-era RR would have been the low cost to restyle, change wheelbase and do new models. One of the reasons Detroit build them like that back in the day was because it was low cost to do a complete restyle every two years.

    Also, the same frame and powertrains could be used for sedans, hardtops, coupes, station wagons, convertibles, dude ranch pickups, short wheelbase, long wheelbase – you name it.

    That all seems ideal for a small volume luxury manufacturer like RR, and I don’t know why they thought it was a good idea to change.

    1. RR thought it was a good idea to change to unitary chassis and independent rear suspension for the 1960 Roller, leaving only the limousine on a separate frame until it croaked to a halt sometime in the mid ’60s.

      So I don’t understand what you’re getting at by saying you don’t understand why they thought it was a good idea to change. They didn’t change, they beefed the unitary body’s torsional rigidity up for the Seraph. The previous body in Bentley Turbo guise was criticized for its constant creaking, as CAR mentioned several times. It needed a bit of strapping here and there.

      BOF has nothing to do with it. They didn’t have a giant live rigid rear axle on leafs or coils to isolate from the body, crashing over bumps like old style American cars, and pickup trucks to this day. Benefit of IRS.

      Compared a 1978 Jaguar XJ6 of a crazy university English prof on our cratered Canadian roads to my friend’s 1978 Caprice Classic 350 back in the day, relegated to the rear seat due to my lofty status as a mechanic by the Shakespeare quoter. The Jaguar won easily in road quietness. BOF is a red herring, useful for purposes not much to do with real luxury cars these past 55 years. Isolation is only 200 kg away with the application of mounds of sound-deadening if that’s all that’s needed.

    2. Bill Malcolm. Body on frame can have an independent rear suspension.

      I think it was a mistake when RR changed the Shadow to unit body. For all the reasons stated above.

  6. I’d wholeheartedly agree on your points about the BOF virtues.
    The temptation to modernise the cars was, in hindsight, exactly
    that – a temptation.

    1. Al, the weight increase for BOF is about 100-150 pounds. That matters for the very smallest cars in expensive motor fuel countries. But for a large luxury sedan or suv ?

      Also, the weight increase for all wheel drive is 200-300 pounds, but no-one thinks that is “too heavy”.

  7. I think the beautiful shape of the Seraph is burdened by too much chrome. Like an attempt to make a Bauhaus design look antique by painting baroque ornaments on it, it just won’t work.

    I have also always taken issue with the name, “Seraph”. Not knowing what it meant, it sounded too much like “serfdom”, “dwarf” or “giraffe” – no suitable associations for a Rolls Royce, I find. Having looked up the meaning, I find it way too biblical. Erm, thanks, but no thanks.

    Lucky for me then, that there is the less chromed Bentley version which to me is the much prettier car. Arnage, to me, sounds elegant, full of splendor and a bit bad-ass. Yes, please.

    1. Oh yes, splendid! I am still trying to decide what seems more out of place: The pop up Audi Infotainment Screen on top of the dashboard or what looks like an Alpine after market car radio…

      Were I to invest in a British luxury car from the 90s/00s (which unfortunately I am a far distance away from), an Aston Martin DB7 would still be my first choice though.

    2. Max, I would pass on the V12 DB7 for sure.

      Check out this assessment of the stock pistons and rods from the V12. (start 18:20)

  8. The story why RR fell to BMW is not quite right. On preparation to the assumed nigh certain takeover of the car company BMW bought the usage rights for the name from the aircraft engine manufacturer RR. Thus, VW ended up with the Crewe establishment and the rights to grille and hood ornament, but not the name. Or thereabouts.

    What the Seraph is concerned, just above 100 kmh / 60mph it developed some win noise, which was a bit naff. I also found it a but uncool that the cockpit and steering wheel plastic came in the colour the car came in.

    1. OAlexander: Thanks for the clarification. The whole BMW/Volkswagen takeover affair was a rather convoluted affair, was it not? probably one which deserves an article in its own right. However, given the machinations which undoubtedly took place, writing one with any hope of accuracy is probably nigh impossible.

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