What’s the most extraordinary optional extra you can specify in a contemporary car? At the upper end of the market, you’re spoilt for choice by bespoke picnic hampers and champagne fridges, high-tech infotainment systems and intricate clocks, or even lavish paint finishes and special materials.
Yet nothing really comes close to Rolls-Royce’s Starlight Headliner, a glittering ceiling of fibre optics that transforms the company’s already lavish interiors into a widescreen theatrical presentation.
Rolls-Royce contends that the Starlight Headliner is now an integral part of the company’s iconography, a suite of instantly recognisable elements that includes the famous double-R logo, the towering ‘Pantheon’ grille and the iconic Spirit of Ecstasy bonnet sculpture.
Available on every model in the company’s range, save for the droptop Dawn (for obvious reasons), the Starlight Headliner will set you back a minimum of £10,000. Delve deeper into the infinite universe of possibilities offered by this celestial canvas and prices can be much higher. How much higher, the company isn’t saying, for Rolls-Royce maintains a very aristocratic aversion to talking numbers of any kind.
What it doesn’t mind doing is discussing new ideas. Few manufacturers – in any industry – can give their customers as much leeway as Rolls-Royce. The company has a dedicated Bespoke division that can translate the more outré suggestions of the super-rich into a workable piece of design.
For Rolls-Royce, ‘bespoke’ means exactly that; not merely a special coat of paint or an extra bit of carbon fibre, but sometimes an entirely new car, conceived and constructed from the wheels up.
The Starlight Headliner began life as one of these requests. As the company tells it, ‘a client was suffering from Photophobia, an extreme sensitivity to light, and was only able to enjoy reading his daily newspaper under the starlight on his rural ranch.’ His solution for this conundrum? That Rolls-Royce develops some kind of starry-roofed ambience for the back seat of his new Phantom. Like many of the marque’s rich trove of historic anecdotes, it’s an origin story with a whiff of myth about it. Nevertheless, the resulting technology is entirely real.
That very first headliner came with 800 stars, each created by the pinprick of light at the tip of a strand of carbon fibre. Beneath the finely stitched leather headliner is a complex wiring loom, hand-assembled so that the constellation of lights varies and twinkles just like the real thing. Having sought the original customer’s permission to extend the idea to other cars, RR Bespoke set about ‘productionising’ it.
Naturally, there’s an infinite variety of options on hand, and each ‘constellation’ is unique to its owner. Special requests – the position of the stars on a particular date, for example – might require up to a week’s worth of intricate threading, pricking, and positioning. Colours, shapes, images, anything is possible, including animation and even the presence of ‘shooting stars’ that flash occasionally across your private night sky (and which never seem to appear when you’re looking out for them).
A Starlight Headliner can contain as many as 1,600 pinpricks of light, fully adjustable for brightness and visibility. Certainly enough to read your newspaper by.
As F.Scott Fitzgerald put it in an oft-quoted paragraph from his 1926 short story “The Rich Boy, “Let me tell you about the very rich. They are different from you and me.” Fitzgerald didn’t exactly go on to lionise his era’s one-percenters, but this nuance has been lost to history. Instead, what remains is the apparently stark and inviolable assertion that having enough money excuses almost anything.
This is something that could be attributed to a complex mix of jealousy, indignation, bafflement, and admiration, and it sums up the 99%’s response to so much of what’s created under the banner of modern luxury design. You wouldn’t do it yourself. You couldn’t do it yourself. But somehow, you’re still glad that someone, somewhere, is doing it for themselves.
The Starlight Headliner is unquestionably something that stirs this cocktail of emotions. A Rolls-Royce is a wonderous thing, without a shadow of a doubt, and its fantastical elements like this that bolster its slightly delirious image of excess.
The sheer technical complexity of the Starlight Headliner probably precludes any other carmaker from ripping off the idea, even in this age of polychromatic LED light displays spilling from every crevasse of a car’s interior. It deserves its spot as the option that’s totally out of this world.
This article is part of The T3 Edit, a collaboration between T3 and Wallpaper* which explores the very best blends of design, craft, and technology. Wallpaper* magazine is the world’s leading authority on contemporary design and The T3 Edit is your essential guide to what’s new and what’s next.