The Silver Seraph: The Rolls time forgot

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Regardless of when it was built or what it looks like, a Rolls-Royce will always find a place in history as a significant piece of automotive technology. Creating a car for the rich and famous has never been an easy task, but Rolls-Royce’s fervent desire to deliver the absolute best, the utmost in luxury, comfort and sophistication, is what has kept this legendary name in the business for such a long time. Every Rolls has brought something new to the table, from the lavish regal carriage that was the Silver Cloud, to the revolutionary Silver Shadow and even the controversial Camargue.

Each model is unique and each one has both its fans and its critics.

However, there is one mass-production Rolls-Royce model, which even had the distinction of being the company flagship, that everyone seems to have forgotten about. The car in question would be the Rolls-Royce Silver Seraph of 1998, the final model launched in the 20th Century and the last of the ‘British’ Rollers.

So where did the Silver Seraph come from?

Though the car was launched in 1998, the story truly starts way back in the late 1980’s. By this time, Rolls-Royce, which had been bought by Vickers in 1980, was selling three mainstream models; the Corniche two-door saloon, the Silver Spirit and its long-wheelbase brother the Silver Spur, and the flagship Phantom VI. At this point Rolls-Royce also owned Bentley, which provided slightly more sportier versions of contemporary models, including the entry-level Bentley 8, the Mulsanne, the Turbo R and the Brooklands; all of which were based off the Spirit.

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By the end of the 1980’s, the Rolls-Royce flagship was the comparatively humdrum Silver Spirit range.

Of the three, the Silver Spirit and its derivatives, launched in 1980, were by far the most modern; the Corniche having started life as the Silver Shadow two-door saloon in 1965 and the Phantom VI in 1968. However, the technology behind the Silver Spirit essentially went back to 1965 as well, seeing as most of the alterations to the car were only cosmetic while the underpinnings, engine, hydraulic systems (such as the famous self-levelling suspension), and other mechanics were carried over from the preceding Silver Shadow.

The Spirit was largely created not only to replace the Shadow, but to also give Rolls-Royce a more subtle and understated expression in the post-Fuel Crisis world. Lashings of chrome and flowing lines that appeared to have been sculpted by the wind itself, almost like the sweeping arches of Moab, were no longer seen as beautiful. Instead there was truly a contempt for the old and perceptibly decadent lifestyle that had preceded the days of woe in the 1970’s, and massive luxury cars with their exuberant styling were seen as dinosaurs. Curves were replaced with lines, soft corners with hard angles, and the chrome was toned down to near extinction.

The almost American look of the Silver Spirit and its derivatives made it look so little like a traditional Rolls-Royce that if it weren’t for the ever present grille and Spirit of Ecstasy adorning the front it could’ve easily passed for a contemporary Cadillac or Lincoln. While this made for one of the biggest criticisms of the Spirit, the car was still selling well in spite of competition from the likes of BMW, Mercedes-Benz and Jaguar.

However, by the end of the 1980’s, it was apparent that a new breed of Rolls-Royce was needed to keep the company relevant, both in terms of styling and technology. As a result, Rolls-Royce began considering a replacement for the Spirit that would become the luxury car of choice for the 1990’s and the new millennium.

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An early concept drawing depicting the look of the upcoming Seraph.

Chief stylist Graham Hull was assigned to lead the concept team in October 1990, and by mid-1991 the first design had been brought forward. Hull had conceived the car to be a perfect mixture of the two styles of the company’s past and present; the subtle and understated profile of the somewhat humdrum Silver Spirit, but with the angles and lines rubbed down into smooth flowing curves and sweeps which harked back to the classic Silver Shadow. The main intention was to not have a single straight line; the car needed to look and feel sheek and aerodynamic.

The reason for this was to try and get Rolls-Royce back into the aspirations of the youth, their primary customer base at the time being middle-aged to elderly business executives and financial moguls who had earned their fortune in the late 1960’s and 1970’s. As for the high flying young stock brokers and CEO’s, they demanded something with far more performance and much more youthful styling than the comparatively geriatric Silver Spirit. BMW and Mercedes-Benz mixed style with performance, luxury and reliability, and this was what Rolls-Royce had to beat in order to appeal to a younger audience while also not distancing themselves from their established customer base.

Rolls-Royce approved the design in June 1991, and after much tinkering and altering to the remainder of the car’s underpinnings, a definitive concept was reached in 1994. Simultaneously, a Bentley equivalent was also in the works, as had been the case since Rolls-Royce bought the company in 1931. This would differ from the Rolls-Royce model through a more subtle badge and grille, an alternate choice of engines, sports suspension and fewer luxury items; generally giving the car a more high-performance feel.

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The Bentley Arnage was the lower-end but sportier equivalent to the Silver Seraph.

On July 28th, 1995, the patents were filed for the designs of the company’s new flagship models; the Rolls-Royce Silver Seraph and the Bentley Arnage. Seraph is a biblical name associated with a type of celestial or heavenly being in Christianity, Judaism and Islam; derived from the ancient Seraphim. The ‘Flying Lady’ or ‘Spirit of Ecstasy’, the Rolls-Royce company mascot, has often been likened to a Seraph, thus the moniker seemed appropriate. Arnage on the other hand takes its name from a commune in the Pays de la Loire region of France. This was in keeping with the company’s other tradition of naming their models after scenic Gallic locations; examples including Corniche and Camargue.

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Don’t let the Rolls-Royce badges fool you, this 322hp V12 was most definitely BMW’s work.

However, controversy brewed early on when the choice of engine types was made public towards the end of development in 1997. In terms of powerplant, the Rolls-Royce Silver Seraph would be fitted with a 5.4L V12, while the Bentley Arnage would make use of a twin turbocharged version of Rolls-Royce’s 6.75L V8; the pride and joy of the company since it made its debut in 1965 with the Silver Shadow. While the choice of a V12, the first time a Rolls-Royce had been fitted with such since the Phantom III of 1939, was welcomed by most, the biggest problem was the fact that it was being manufactured by none other than BMW. Due to Rolls-Royce’s lack of funds, the company was unable to design a new engine type and therefore had to outsource powerplants from the German builder.

This was further compounded in 1998 when the ailing Vickers Engineering chose to sell Rolls-Royce and Bentley to BMW and Volkswagen, respectively, to try and help fix their financial woes. The deal signed meant that Volkswagen was allowed the rights to the Rolls-Royce Spirit of Ecstasy, grille, the company factory in Crewe and all of Bentley’s intellectual and material assets. BMW on the other hand were allowed to build Rolls-Royce models and was named sole engine provider for Rolls-Royce and Bentley cars, but would only be allowed to build Rolls-Royces at Crewe for a nominal fee; essentially having to pay rent. The Rolls-Royce badge and name itself were still the property of the Rolls-Royce engine company, with BMW only allowed to use the marque under license at a cost of £40m.

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As the deal handed over the Crewe factory to Volkswagen, BMW had to pay a nominal fee to build Rolls-Royces at their own factory.

Though it appeared to be in favour of Volkswagen, BMW truly had all the cards as they had the right to withdraw their engine supply with just 12 months notice, which was insufficient time for VW to re-engineer the Rolls-Royce cars to use VW’s own engines. Volkswagen claimed that it only really wanted Bentley anyway as it was the higher volume brand, with Bentley models out-selling the equivalent Rolls Royce by around two to one.

Either way, the prospect of the Germans taking control of Rolls-Royce and Bentley caused a huge stir in the UK’s national pride. BMW had previously bought Rover Group in 1994 and it was perceived that by 1998 the German builder had deliberately hijacked all the profitable parts of the company and left the rest to rot. The truth of the matter was in fact that BMW invested billions into the upkeep of Rover and it was through their own poor reputation and shoddy build quality that the ailing British builder failed to stay in profit; but I’ve already gone into that particular story in detail elsewhere.

Regardless, BMW owning Rolls-Royce was like selling the Crown Jewels to Berlin, disassociating the vast majority of the company’s established customer base. Bentley, on the other hand, got something of a reprieve as the company had always been seen as second best and not a subject of national pride; in other words, no one gave a monkey’s that Bentley was now owned by Volkswagen.

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The Silver Seraph is unveiled at the Geneva Motor Show in 1998.

In spite of the various German additions made to the car and the dim view many had towards it even before its release, the Silver Seraph eventually made its debut on March 3rd, 1998 at the Geneva Motor Show to a sea of applause; only the 19th Rolls-Royce model built in the company’s 92 year history. From the styling to the luxury and the performance, the Silver Seraph was considered by many to be perfectly deserving of being the Rolls-Royce flagship model, the most luxurious car on sale. At a base price of £155,000, such a car had to be worth every penny of what the young, high flying business executives were expected to invest into it.

That was not the case.

Almost immediately, reviewers noted the fact that the BMW V12 that powered the Seraph was exactly the same as the one in the BMW equivalent, the 750i. However, while the 750 was lauded for its perfect mixture of speed and performance, the Rolls-Royce was not. Weighing in at 2.4 tons, while the equivalent 750i was only 1.9, the Silver Seraph was comparatively lumbering while being just as fuel inefficient.

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The contemporary BMW 7-Series, the car Rolls-Royce had to beat.

Though Rolls-Royce had a tradition of never specifically stating the horsepower output of their cars, simply describing it as ‘sufficient’, the V12 in the Seraph produced around 322hp; identical to that of the BMW. 0-60 came in 7.1 seconds and the car would trundle its way sedately up to a top speed of 139mph. This made it the fastest Rolls-Royce ever built at the time, easily outdoing the comparatively dreary Silver Spirit and its 9.0 second 0-60 time. However, this didn’t count for much as for the BMW 750i, 0-60 came in 6.4 seconds with a top speed that was electronically limited to 155mph.

So, in terms of performance, the BMW outclassed the Rolls-Royce in pretty much every aspect. But let’s not forget, this is a Rolls-Royce, so it has to be the last word in luxury and equipment, right?

Not particularly.

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Though lavish and dripping with refinement, the interior of the car was comparatively spartan.

Rolls-Royce’s association with luxury and refinement is so legendary that it’s even earned itself a place in the English Dictionary as a synonym for something of the highest quality. Indeed, the Silver Seraph dishes out luxury in spades, as you would expect the flagship of the fleet to do. However, the Seraph, in spite of its springy, soft carpets, its lashings of wood, and leather seats you could sink into, was not particularly advanced in terms of features, especially when compared to contemporary BMW’s and Mercedes.

The BMW 750 I was mentioning earlier came with ASC+T traction control, headlight washers, auto-levelling low beam xenon HID headlamps, side tubular airbags, Active Comfort Seats, Electronic Damper Control (called EDC III), power moonroof, rain-sensing wipers, dual zone climate control, electric drivers seat adjustment and electric steering wheel adjustment. The Silver Seraph on the other hand came with anti-lock brakes, traction control, intelligent gearbox and adaptive suspension damping. While it may have also included folding picnic trays, faced with glossy burl walnut veneer, for the rear passengers, the car was pretty spartan. Even the middling Ford Scorpio was better equipped!

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Don’t let looks deceive you, it’s actually quite cramped back there.

Okay, so it’s under-equipped, but it doesn’t matter. People didn’t buy Rolls-Royces back then for equipment, they bought them for oodles of legroom and unbeatable comfort thanks to its hydraulic suspension, right?

Again, the Seraph was somewhat underwhelming in this department also.

While the self-levelling suspension was a vast improvement over the preceding Spirit, the rear legroom of the Seraph was really quite cramped. I had the chance to sit in the back of a Silver Seraph a few years ago and I couldn’t help but notice that I found it hard to relax. My knees were touching the back of the seat in front and stretching my legs proved troublesome. Again, by comparison, the Ford Scorpio offered bags of legroom; an incredibly spacious machine and for only a quarter of the price.

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It’s not a good sign when the lowly Ford Scorpio and its frog-eyed looks was a better investment over the Silver Seraph.

So, what you were paying for with your £155,000 was a very outdated feeling machine with less than stellar legroom in the back, a severe lack of equipment and features, underwhelming performance and a very thirsty engine. By comparison, you could get the BMW 750i, with all the goodies, performance and comfort you’d expect from a BMW, for only £47,000; or a much more spacious though undeniably hideous Ford Scorpio for £27,500.

With that in mind, the Seraph was utterly trounced in the sales department. The last year of the preceding Silver Spirit, 1998, 172 of these units were sold against 67 of the brand new Seraph’s for the same year. Production peaked in 1999 with 858 units sold but then tapered off to 333, 122 and finally 2 for the 2002 production year when this car was finally removed from sales after 1,570 cars.

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A post-facelift Arnage, which kept the Silver Seraph design alive until as late as 2009.

However, things were looking rosier on the Bentley side of the fence, as the Arnage, which combined the ultimate in luxury with some get-up and go performance thanks to its 350hp twin-turbocharged V8, sold 1,110 cars in its first year alone. The car would eventually spawn multiple variants including the Arnage T, the Arnage R and the Arnage Green and Red labels; each of which featured minor tweaks and changes to the performance or internal features. The Arnage would keep the design staple of the Silver Seraph off which it was based alive until 2009 when it finally left sales, having been replaced by the new Mulsanne.

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The Corniche V, in spite of its looks, was based off the Bentley Azure rather than the Seraph.

I would stop to mention the Corniche V, essentially a two-door convertible version of the Seraph, but in truth that car isn’t based off the Seraph. This new flagship of the fleet, unveiled in 2000, was actually based on the underpinnings of the completely unrelated Bentley Azure convertible of 1995; making it the first and only Rolls-Royce developed from a Bentley rather than the other way around. The styling was based on the Seraph, but mechanically the two were unrelated; it’s engine being the same 6.75L Rolls-Royce V8 found in the Arnage.

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The new Rolls-Royce factory at Goodwood, the home of the most luxury car builder on earth since 2003.

As mentioned, production of the Seraph ended in August 2002 when BMW chose to move Rolls-Royce assembly from the VW owned Crewe factory to their own plant at Goodwood near Chichester. During the 5-year pseudo partnership between BMW and VW, the company had quietly developed and tested what would become the new flagship of the Rolls-Royce company, a car that would succeed where the Seraph had failed in providing the discerning customer every single luxury known to man; the Phantom of 2003.

The Phantom, while largely related to the BMW 7-Series, is not directly based on it. The car has a unique chassis, a much larger body, a 6.75L BMW N73B68 V12 and pretty much every feature known to man. Features included a navigation system with voice recognition, power sunroof, upgraded leather upholstery, rear-view camera, rear-seat DVD entertainment system, 15-speaker Lexicon Logic7 premium sound system, 8-disc CD changer, 18-way power front seats, 16-way power rear seats, heated and cooled cup holders, rear-seat tables, outside-temperature indicator, universal garage door opener, power tilt/telescopic heated wood and leather-wrapped steering wheel with radio, climate, and navigation controls, power open/close boot lid, power closing doors, wireless headphones, iPod adaptor, refrigerator, and air conditioning with 5-zone climate controls.

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The Rolls-Royce Phantom, the replacement for the Silver Seraph and now one of the most desirable luxury cars on earth.

Small wonder it was voted Car of the Year by pretty much every car critic and reviewer across the world. While such a grandiose machine was the final straw for the established, middle-aged Rolls-Royce clientele, for the new money and young businessmen the company had tried to woo with the Seraph, the Phantom had become the ultimate luxury machine and the truest statement of one’s wealth.

So, what of the Seraph?

Well, if it had been remembered then we wouldn’t be discussing it.

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The final Rolls-Royce products leave the factory at Crewe, ending 64 years of Rolls-Royce production at the site.

The Silver Seraph truly fell into a hole of obscurity once the last ones were released in 2002. What was supposed to be the company’s flagship for at least 10 to 15 years, like the Spirit, instead became just a temporary stop-gap while BMW organised itself and developed a more permanent machine.

Surprisingly though, in spite of its obscurity, the car has managed to retain its value phenomenally. Seraphs even today still hold an asking price of at least £50,000, which, when compared to the preceding Spirits and Shadows, of which mint condition examples can go for as little as £7,000, shows an incredibly low depreciation. Perhaps the biggest thing that keeps prices high for the Seraph is its rarity and its reliability. Only 1,570 of these cars ever left the factory, and with their BMW mechanics underneath they’re incredibly dependable machines. Like the 7-Series of the same period, these machines will happily go on and on for years and years without major breakdowns, though when things do go wrong they can be quite expensive to fix.

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Seraph’s still do find regal roles, such as this example used by the Mayor of Westminster.

Overall, the Silver Seraph really was the wrong car at the wrong time. While Rolls-Royce tried to be different and appeal to the youth with performance and speed, their insistence on maintaining the less profitable established customer base of middle aged business executives meant they were sending a donkey to run the Grand National. BMW, Mercedes and Audi had given the masses the perfect mixture of luxury, performance and speed, while Rolls-Royce was lost in the past as some carryover from the mid-1960’s. Wood, leather and springy carpets are nice, but the young don’t want to be surrounded by an interior that wouldn’t look out of place in Victorian England. Carbon fibre and technological toys were the way forward now, and the Seraph simply couldn’t compete.

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Despite its flaws, the Silver Seraph is still a true thing of beauty and a magnificent testament to traditional luxury cars.

Still, that doesn’t make the Seraph any less of a car. It is by far the most reliable and the fastest classic Rolls-Royce you can buy, but don’t expect prices to dip anytime soon. Recent years have seen a newfound appreciation for these machines and what they actually are; and for many these cars make surprisingly cheap alternatives to the modern crop.

If you’ve got the money and just want simple luxury and comfort that will cosset you without compromise, the Silver Seraph may just be your answer. 🙂

Scores

  • Looks – 7/10 – While not as magnificent as the Silver Cloud and Silver Shadow, the car was an improvement over the boxy Silver Spirit and still commands quite a presence on the road
  • Comfort – 7/10 – Hydraulic self-levelling suspension and piped leather seats provide the finest in comfort, but rear legroom is a real bugbear for the taller passenger
  • Practicality – 7/10 – Aside from the aforementioned rear legroom, this car is quite a practical machine with large amounts of bootspace for several large cases
  • Features – 5/10 – One of the car’s most notable flaws was the fact that it didn’t really bring much to the table for its asking price, while the comparative BMW was a hotbed of gadgetry
  • Reliability – 5/10 – While the BMW V12 will last until hell freezes over, other parts of the car’s construction and long term reliability, especially the hydraulic suspension, can be called into question
  • Efficiency – 3/10 – At 16mpg the car is comparable to other luxury models, as well as the previous Silver Spirit, but that’s not a good thing
  • Quality – 9/10 – Despite it’s flaws, the quality of these cars was still excellent, with handcrafted precision being a staple of the Roller experience
  • Speed – 3/10 – By no means a speed machine, with a 0-60 of 7.1 seconds and a top speed of 139mph, a comparative snail to the likes of the BMW.
  • Handling – 6/10 – Generally precise, but only to a point. High speed cornering will make it wallow and roll to the point of seasickness
  • Price – 4/10 – A mixture of rarity and comparative reliability help keep the costs of these things high, with the cheapest examples going for as much as £50,000
  • Value – 8/10 – That bodes well for anyone attempting a resale though
  • Total – 58/110 – Not a bad car, somewhat middling. However, when you consider that it’s a Rolls-Royce, middling is not a good term.

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