A Rolls-Royce designer explains how the $300,000 Ghost meets ultra-wealthy customers' desire for elegant minimalism over 'premium mediocracy'

  • The $330,000 Rolls-Royce Ghost just entered its second generation. The goal in designing the new car was what the automaker calls "post opulence," or minimalist luxury. 
  • That meant making the car a number of things: historical, fancy but not busy or gaudy, future-focused, timeless, minimalist, and ready for a 10-year stay on the market — the amount of time the first-generation car stuck around.
  • Henry Cloke, the lead exterior designer on the Ghost, told Business Insider how and why the team at Rolls-Royce made that happen.
  • Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.

Modern cars in the "costs as much as a house" price range often scream their price with design features alone. Waves of diamond-quilted stitching on seats and doors. Mood lighting. Accents with accents on their accents. Quilted stitching with extra quilts, for extra fanciness. Materials galore. Colors galore. Everything, really, galore. 

But that wasn't the goal with the second-generation Rolls-Royce Ghost, introduced this year with a new tagline and a $330,000 base price. The goal was minimalism: to create a modern Rolls-Royce without unnecessary, busy — and perhaps most importantly, susceptible to going out of style — features to revolutionize its look.

There's a reason, after all, that a Rolls-Royce looks like a Rolls-Royce, whether it's from 2003 or 2020. There are rules to this game.

Henry Cloke, the head exterior designer on the Ghost, said he started work on the car six years before its debut — around the time the last major refresh came out on the first generation of the Ghost, which debuted in 2009 and got its facelift in 2014.

When the 2021 Ghost came around, it took strong cues from the old one. The overall styling was similar, as was the whisper-quiet V12 engine. But details showed an elegant, minimalist modernization of the car, inspired by what Rolls called a "shifting attitude among Ghost clients in the way success is expressed."

To satisfy that shift, Cloke said a few things guided the design process on the new Ghost: Rolls' historical elements, such as the automaker's Spirit of Ecstasy hood emblem; the company's new concept of "post opulence," in which features "don't shout, but rather, whisper" their luxury; and a goal of aging gracefully through a six-year development period and a lengthy stay on the market. 

After the first-generation car's run from 2009 through 2020, Rolls-Royce said it wanted "a new product that would resonate with Ghost clients for the next 10 years" — or, as Cloke described it, one akin to "certain pieces of clothing that are simple enough that you feel that you can adapt them to all of these different scenarios." 

Achieving that, Cloke said, meant trying to "really understand what [buyers] loved about the first Ghost." But it's not about particular features or trends. It's more meta than that.

"Not 'I liked the headlamp that was this shape,' but the fact that 'I liked it because I felt I could use it to go to a friend's house and also to a business meeting and also to a big event, and somehow it fit in all of those scenarios,'" Cloke said, describing something you can also do in a Toyota Camry. But a Rolls-Royce isn't a Toyota Camry, since a $400,000 car blends in at the grocery store about as well as the Space Needle would in a forest. 

The guiding principle, then, was minimalism. Or if you want to get fancy, "post opulence." 

"This philosophy is the antithesis of 'premium mediocracy,'" the company said upon announcing the new Ghost, a jab at most other luxury automakers. "This refers to products that use superficial treatments, such as large branding or, in the context of motor cars, busy stitching and other devices that create an illusion of luxury by dressing products lacking in substance in a premium skin."

Your diamond quilts? To Rolls-Royce, they're not as cute as you think they are.

Cloke alluded to "post opulence" as a mixture of elements: historical, fancy but not busy or gaudy, future-focused, timeless, minimalist. Ready for a 10-year stay on the market.

As evidenced by the $110,000 Nissan GT-R, that's a century in the life of most cars. For the Ghost, it's just the standard.

The new Ghost might look a lot like the last one on the surface due to its staples: the Spirit of Ecstasy hood emblem, coach door handles, and Pantheon grille. But look closer and the company's design team built on — and subtracted from, in that "minimalism" spirit — each to make the car more modern and more evolved. 

Rolls-Royce added a soft light behind the slatted, stainless-steel front grille, and Cloke said the company went through several iterations of it before landing on the right one — the one with a "warm glow," not a "super techie blue light that [seems] futuristic."

"Our first iterations were much too bright, because if you fully polish everything and then add light, it didn't fit with this calm mood we wanted to create," Cloke said. "That's why the backs of all of those individual veins have actually been sandblasted, so they're effectively matte on the backside and gloss on the front side."

Rolls-Royce also loves to describe the Spirit of Ecstasy emblem as "on the edge of an infinity pool." While the first-generation Ghost had a whole lot of lines cutting across its nose and hood, the new one pares those distractions down. 

That paring down, Cloke said, speaks to the whole car — and it's something lead engineer Jonathan Simms said was unpopular with the people creating it at first, since part of the fun with many ultra-luxury cars is seeing just how cool of a design you can create in that diamond-quilted stitching. 

But busy features like that can hide imperfections, such as a missed stitch here or there. That wasn't what Rolls wanted.

"You actually have to [tell the] craftspeople, 'Hang on, we don't want to show what you can do by putting additional details in — we want to show what you can do by removing any opportunity you've got to make a mistake," Simms said. "But actually when you get the [craftspeople] coming along and really starting to see how proud they are of putting out a part that looks as perfectly finished with just those minimal details, it's actually a really nice journey to go on."

Heritage also doesn't just inspire certain features like the Spirit of Ecstasy. It inspires the car's entire shape. That's why the Ghost and Phantom, for example, taper from a large, imposing front end to a tight boat-like tail at the back. 

Cloke said a Rolls-Royce "should look like it has motion to it" — like it has direction, even if it's not moving at all. 

"[The rear is] basically a complete contrast between the front end, where you're really trying to show the width of the car, you're trying to show this chassis is now 13 millimeters wider," Cloke said. "Then the rear end, you're doing exactly the opposite. You're trying to really taper it in."

Another important part of a Rolls' side profile is its balance between front and back seats — whether it's the smaller Ghost sedan, the larger (and somehow even fancier) Phantom sedan, the new Cullinan SUV, or the two-door Wraith and Dawn models.

Unlike the Phantom, designed as a chauffeur car, Cloke said the design of the Ghost is all about portraying a car that customers can both "drive and be driven in."

"For Ghost, that meant having this pretty balanced cabin," Cloke said. "If you think of the Phantom cabin, it's really drawing your emphasis to the back seat, especially if it's the long wheelbase. With the Wraith, obviously the minute you open the door, you probably want to get in it and drive it because it's looking toward the front seat. 

"So, it's not necessarily that we have one rule book across the whole portfolio of cars. You're actually drawing up a car that specifically has to really do whatever a Phantom has to do or what a Cullinan has to do or what a Ghost has to do, so [it's about] making sure that they're all differentiated visually and even in the character, the way they drive, the way they feel — that they all have these personalities."

The one thing that applies to all of the cars? Balancing luxury with engineering. 

"If you have a car that is just super technical and cold, it doesn't feel like a Rolls-Royce," Cloke said. "If it's over flamboyant and it doesn't feel sincere, it also doesn't feel like a Rolls-Royce. So a huge amount of it is finding that balance point." 

Designing the Ghost was all about finding that balance point in every aspect, from timelessness to minimalism worthy of $330,000. Whether that exercise was successful is for time — and those with garages worth more than most people's homes — to decide.

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