LAKE COMO, ITALY — Seven decades have passed since the world saw a coach-built Rolls-Royce, so it was with a touch of grandiosity and sprezzatura that CEO Torsten Müller-Ötvös and Design Director Giles Taylor unveiled the Sweptail at the 2017 Concorso d’Eleganza Villa d’Este. The striking one-off stirred the Internet with its Bond villain sheetmetal and improbably swoopy silhouette, but the effect in person was even more dramatic.
First, a bit of background. Four years ago, a globetrotting, yacht-dwelling aficionado of the brand approached the carmaker about building a truly bespoke Roller. Custom coach-built bodies had fallen out fashion since the advent of monocoque construction in the 1950s, so Rolls-Royce saw a unique opportunity to push the brand into a higher echelon. “We were very eagerly, but quietly, waiting for somebody like this to come along,” Global Director of Communications Richard Carter told Automobile. “We’ve worked for the last four years to realize this particular vision with a fully coach-built Rolls-Royce.”
Constant communication was maintained between client and manufacturer throughout the four-year process, keeping 30 to 40 designers, engineers, craftspeople, and testers involved with the project. After the design was finalized, aluminum panels were hand-hammered and installed, save the hood. The new car incorporates floating headlights reminiscent of the 1920s-era Phantom II, while the tail recalls the stern of a racing yacht, and is finished with an embedded ‘08’ license plate milled from aluminum ingots.
The end product is startlingly sculptural: using only five panels (plus two A-pillars), the body’s visual flow is barely interrupted by shutlines. The Pantheon grille’s conventional, multi-piece stainless steel construction was replaced with a unit milled from a single block of aluminum. The piece, polished to a mirror finish, incorporates individual, hand-aligned slats. A lower grille was 3D printed and is framed by a brushed aluminum surround. According to Rolls-Royce, crash re-certification was not required because key points like wheels and headlamps retained their original positions.
Inside is a custom cabin that combines a minimalist instrument panel and a remarkably complex rear deck, framed by an all-glass roof. The dashboard has been eradicated of buttons and switches, taking on a more modern look. The rear seats have been replaced with an elaborately sculpted shelf of Macassar Ebony that incorporates a backlit lip.
Per the client’s request, a hinged champagne and crystal flute dispenser present a bottle of his favorite vintage — 1970 Dom Perignon — between the front seats. A hidden mechanism uses gears milled from aluminum, presumably because the owner might not sleep at night knowing there are plastic bits in his Rolls. Umbrellas are stowed in the front of the doorjamb (fairly typical), but Sweptail also incorporates panniers that slide out from the rear, cradling thin attaché cases. Needless to say, the steed is also equipped with a full set of bespoke matching luggage.
In person, the Sweptail’s shapes feel more comprehensible and harmonious than in photos. Sure, the headlamps seem a tad small in relation to the car’s massive scale, but the tapered tail offers an element of surpise and delight — after all, when was the last time you saw shapes this bold on a modern car? Peer inside, and the woodwork offers what is quite possibly the most arresting element of the car, a labyrinth of sumptuous surfaces forming a pleasantly intricate mélange of three-dimensional forms.
Rumored to have cost $13 million, the Sweptail certainly isn’t for everyone. In fact, it’s really for only one, which begs the inevitable question: who is the Gatsby-esque guy that single-handedly jump-started Rolls-Royce’s return to custom coach-building?
“The owner may indeed be here in the crowd,” one Rolls executive hinted before the unveil, though it was later revealed that the mystery man was indeed present, observing the proceedings from the nearby hotel balcony. We have it on good authority that after taking delivery of the one-off, the owner immediately piloted his new Rolls out of Como and was already zooming past the Swiss border by the time of this writing. As Fitzgerald famously said, the rich are different than you and me — except that we, too, would have chosen to drive.