Driven to Write profiles the black sheep of Crewe.
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.
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.
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.