IT'S OFFICIAL. After more than 70 years, Rolls-Royce and Bentley are no longer part of the same company. In 1931 Rolls-Royce acquired the financially ailing Bentley Motors and the two celebrated marques existed side-by-side, but in 1998 a deal was completed by Volkswagen (VW) to purchase the marque's Crewe factory and, thought VW's chairman Ferdinand Piech, the rights to the names of the two eminent brands. Compatriot Bernd Pischetsrieder, however, had other ideas. Pischetsrieder, then with BMW, successfully bid for the Rolls-Royce name, logo and Spirit of Ecstasy bonnet motif for a fraction of the price Volkswagen paid for Bentley. By a delicious irony, Pischetsrieder was ousted from BMW shortly afterwards, but has now succeeded Piech as the head of Volkswagen. Part of the deal, concluded in 1998, allowed VW to continue to build Rolls-Royce models under licence from BMW. This expired last September. But another condition of the deal was that BMW could not release its own, new Rolls-Royce until 2003. No advance publicity would be permitted and even the Rolls-Royce name could not be used before that date. Hence, what became known as Project Rolls-Royce established a new assembly plant in Goodwood, Sussex on the estate of the car-mad Lord March. The Rolls-Royce set-up in China has also changed. Sime Darby Hong Kong, a unit of the Malaysian conglomerate Sime Darby Group - local distributors for BMW, Ford, Land Rover, Peugeot, Nissan, Mitsubishi and Suzuki - took over the luxury marque's distributorship for the mainland and the SAR on January 1. The new dealership will be called Rolls-Royce HK (tel: 2870 1692) and plans are 'under way for a showroom in Central and service facilities to be set up in Hong Kong and Kowloon. Similarly, Rolls-Royce centres are being planned for Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou in the next few months,' says Sime Darby Hong Kong project director Peter Goh. After four years of gradual and secretive development, the wraps finally came off the new Rolls-Royce Phantom at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit this month. The Phantom is a massive machine, standing on 20-inch wheels and in Michelin tyres. Over 5.8 metres long, the Phantom has an elegant presence that is enhanced by the traditional Rolls-Royce grille and the legendary motif which, incidentally, retracts to deter souvenir hunters. The rear doors are hinged at the back to ease passenger access, thanks to the relaxation of European regulations. An electric lock automatically prevents the doors opening on the move, while located in each rear door is an umbrella that could save a socialite's hairdo in a sudden summer downpour outside The Landmark. Strategically located drainage channels allow the umbrella to be stowed when wet without dampening the interior. The natural way to enter a car generally is to bow the head and duck in; with the rear-hinged doors on the Phantom and the roof at its highest at this point, all but the tallest passenger simply walks in and sits down. The doors are then closed automatically by pressing a tiny button on the side of the compartment. And because the occupants sit well back in the car, rear side airbags are considered unnecessary. The wrap-around rear seat cossets its passengers like no other. At its sides are small quarter mirrors which from the inside look like an extension of the side windows. Up front the traditional walnut dash has a clever revolving centre section: on one side is an analogue clock while on the other is the monitor for the latest in satellite navigation and information systems. The power plant is a purpose-built 6.75-litre V12, complete with variable valve timing and variable valve lift which produces 453bhp (338 kW) at 5,350rpm. Rolls-Royce claims a 0-100 km/h sprint in 5.9 seconds and an electronically limited top speed of 240 km/h. Of greater importance is the Phantom's torque output which is a mighty, sledgehammer 720Nm at 3,500rpm. Rolls-Royce claims that as much as 560Nm, or 75 per cent of the V12's torque, is developed as low as 1,000rpm. Barely more than tick over. The Phantom's body is an aluminium space-frame upon which non-stressed aluminium panels are hung. Built at Dingolfing in Bavaria, the bodies are transported by road to Goodwood for final assembly. All leather and wood work is carried out at the new Goodwood plant, where the bodies are also painted using water-borne colours and a clear lacquer coating. The bodyshop combines the latest robot spraying equipment with hand-finishing to ensure the best lustre and shine. The leather shop, while maintaining its craftsmanship and tradition, also has the benefit of the latest laser-guided cutting equipment which minimises waste; earlier methods involved a great many off-cuts which, co-incidentally, found their way to China where they were made into gloves. Each Phantom interior requires up to 16 hides - all from the same batch to maintain perfect colour matching - with the sewing and stitching carried out by hand on the latest computer-aided machines. The woodworking shop is similarly optimised by the latest computer-controlled presses and routers, but traditional craftsmanship and a craftsman's eye are essential when it comes to matching expensive veneers. Tiny layers of aluminium are incorporated into the wood trim to give added strength and, apart from the Black Tulip option, the veneers are neither bleached nor stained allowing their natural properties to be maintained. The Phantom's lines are classic, but are not based on any previous Rolls-Royce although certain cues have been incorporated in the overall styling. The car was designed in Britain in an old bank building near London's Marble Arch. Chief stylist of the Phantom was Marek Djordjevic who headed up a team of British and German designers. Although much of the development was carried out by BMW's centre in Munich, the company insists the Phantom is a British motor car in the finest Rolls-Royce traditions. The large C-pillar, behind the rear doors, accentuates the traditional styling of the car while a single chrome strip runs the length of the car to the grille. The Phantom II of the 1930s offers some design features: large wheels, short front overhang and a rising sill line that gives the car a takeoff stance. Further inspiration came from the Rolls-Royce Silver Cloud of the 1950s and even the later Silver Shadow of the 1960s. The aluminium space-frame gives stiffness and strength but also allows the marque the flexibility to make a convertible, long wheelbase models and possibly a two-door coupe version later. Rolls-Royce HK has already started taking orders for the new Phantom and expects to bring in the first car in April, says Goh, adding the car would cost 'about $4 million'. The manufacturer has an allocation of only 20 units for Hong Kong this year and this could well cause a shortage of supply, Goh says. 'There has been a lot of interest for the new Phantom in Hong Kong, ever since we held a 'closed-room' viewing event last September. Over 100 VIP guests were invited to this event and [we] have had very positive feedback. As a result, several orders have been taken.' Buying a Rolls-Royce motor car is an investment, Goh says. 'And with it comes the value of the marque, an iconic symbol of excellence, luxury, prestige and success,' he explains. 'The new Phantom is a precision, hand-built motor car, combining the best of the past with the best of modern design, engineering and technology.' But will it still sell in recession-hit Hong Kong? Sure, Goh says. 'A premium price is what a Rolls-Royce buyer would expect anyway,' he says. 'Despite the economic downturn in Hong Kong, we are confident the new Rolls-Royce Phantom has the strongest appeal and attraction to many of Hong Kong's wealthy and elite customers.' Which isn't surprising, because BMW has done an excellent job with the new Phantom. It is a truly classic motor car and one undoubtedly worthy of the name Rolls-Royce.