Automobiles are no strangers to art galleries. Take just one famous example, New York’s MoMA. Its permanent collection is a pristine multi-story car park which includes a scarlet 1946 Cisitalia 202 GT, a matt olive ’52 VW Beetle, and a ravishing blue metallic 1961 Jaguar E-type roadster. For three days in London this past November, though, there was a marque so iconic it filled an entire gallery – and there wasn’t a car in sight.
Rolls-Royce took over Kensington’s Saatchi Gallery and hosted an exhibition that showcased what the most storied name in opulent four-wheeled motoring is all about: Detail. There were trunks of walnut, there were swathes of hide, there were interactive displays where one could become a starlight Spirit of Ecstasy and change a neon-lit room to one of Rolls’ 44,000 colour options. The only actual piece of car on display was a door, part of an installation showing a rainbow of opening umbrellas flying from its housing.
Innovation was also a key theme, and this is the challenge Rolls-Royce faces in this millennium: How to marry state-of-the-art technology and modern sensibilities to such a traditional British brand.
A few weeks before the Saatchi exhibition, I awoke 50 floors above London as first light began to peek over the Thames Barrier. You should never close the curtains when staying at the new Shangri-La in The Shard, the capital’s (and indeed the European Union’s) tallest skyscraper. The view is too breathtaking for that. Run a bath while enjoying a 180-degree panorama from the Houses of Parliament to Tower Bridge; it’s not like anyone can see in at this height.
Dead ahead sprouts the City of London, with glass cathedrals like ‘The Gherkin’, ‘The Cheesegrater’, and ‘The Walkie Talkie’ rising above St Paul’s and Fishmongers Hall, seats of power centuries before the FTSE took over. What moniker might a Rolls-Royce adopt? ‘The Fat Cat’, perhaps. But stereotypes change as cultures shift, and London is a city that never stands still. In the past, you might expect Rolls to launch their latest limousine at a stuffy gentlemen’s club or a creaking stately home, but instead our base is an Asian-influenced hotel sandwiched between commercial offices and multi-million dollar apartments in a strikingly futuristic 87-storey structure that pierces the clouds.
The Shard is an oasis of calm in a frantic business world, and this is exactly what a Rolls-Royce represents.
Downstairs awaits the company’s latest car – the Ghost II. Its exterior is masterful in that it is both impactful and restrained. There is economy of line, but there is also verve. It is timeless but of its time.
The changes aren’t immediately obvious, but they are there and refresh the 2009 design. The first clue to the 2014 model are all-new LED headlights which bring the car bang up-to-date. The lights widen in the city to help pick out pedestrians and narrow on the motorway for a more intense beam. There are new 21-inch wheels, which will flatten the landscape in front of you. The old silver-clad plastic door handle is now steel, which feels beefier and more in keeping with this car’s so-solid character. The front quarter of the car, which took 100 percent of the designer’s attention, looks more cemented and framed, almost reductionist.
Switching between driving and being driven, the Rolls and I made our way out of London to the Kent countryside, to the modernist home of a Ghost owner for lunch with the company’s design director Giles Taylor. A graduate of London’s esteemed Royal College of Art and previously chief designer at Jaguar, the 46-year-old bares a remarkable likeness to Britain’s Prime Minister, David Cameron. “I like to imagine people as cars,” he tells me over mouthfuls of salmon tartare. “A Rolls walks that fine line of status and authority. I imagine Peter Cushing or Rita Hayworth. It needs beauty, intellect and a little bit of arrogance. If you have a conversation with it, the car will get the upper hand.”
The Ghost has been Rolls’ best-selling car – which is a bit like describing Carl Fabergé’s best-selling egg; it’s still an exclusive audience. The company has taken 4,000 orders this past year, of which Ghost production represents roughly two-thirds. Therefore it’s important this revised model maintains Rolls’ record-breaking sales trajectory. Orders are up 40 percent in Asia Pacific and, startlingly, 60 percent in supposedly belt-tightening Europe.
The Ghost is the junior of Rolls’ two four-door models, the daddy being the Phantom. Whereas the £300,000 Phantom is a behemoth rarely driven by the owner, the Ghost is a more manageable size akin to a long-wheelbase Mercedes S-Class. At £215,000 it is considerably more than an S-Class (or a BMW 7-Series or Jaguar XJ-L for that matter), but relatively modest by Roller standards. Yet really, to compare a Ghost with an S-Class is to miss the point entirely, because a Rolls-Royce is like no other car.
You don’t drive a Rolls-Royce, it wafts. You don’t travel, the world comes to you. There is no sport button, no paddle-shift. Screens are hidden behind wood and only appear if needed. The only labeling you’ll find in the cabin are those redolent double-R motifs and the Spirit of Ecstasy revealed under the crystal iDrive touch pad like a jewel. Here, technology is kept behind the scenes. That slab of veneer and leather at the front of the cabin is like the thick velvet curtain at the Palais Garnier that disguises the backstage goings-on from the opera’s audience. But it’s behind here that the Ghost II’s biggest advances lie. The Ghost now has the satellite-aided transmission that debuted on the Wraith, Rolls’ rakish coupe, last year and was first developed by the BMW F1 Team. Designed for stealth, it doesn’t make the car more urgent but what it does beautifully is tees up the gearbox every time you approach a corner, selecting the perfect gear and thus making the ride all the smoother and the engine economical.
You drive a Rolls-Royce with your fingertips, the super-thin bakelite steering wheel responding almost telepathically with smooth confidence. Far from being a chore, I think I’d give my chauffeur the weekends off. There is a satisfaction that comes from piloting a Rolls, and it’s different to driving anything else. Sure, the XJ is much more involving and, I would argue, the S-Class is more relaxing with its clever steering-assist (which essentially means it can drive itself) but pointing the winged lady at the end of that long bonnet towards the apex of a corner is like taking a deep drag on a Cuban cigar and chasing it with a sip of single malt. It stirs the soul.
From the rear one best appreciate the cabin design and the quality of the trim. The carpet is so deep you cannot resist kicking off your shoes. Each car uses nine bull hides – 45 square metres of the stuff – and one senses each animal had tremendous pedigree. The leather is as soft as Devonshire cream. And like the finest wine, Rolls’ leather improves with age. It won’t squeak, creek or crack. Due to the nature of wood, no Ghost is the same. It’s like a fingerprint. Interestingly there are more leather and wood craftsmen at Rolls-Royce’s Goodwood factory than in chassis production, and this is largely down to bespoke demands. A remarkable 82 percent of Rolls-Royces have bespoke elements, such as the ‘picnic tables’ for rear passengers. These are often inlaid with custom marquetry using different veneers that can take up to a month each to complete. The wood is sourced from sustainable forests around the globe by one nameless expert – the best in the world – who has a network of timber spies. It brings to mind a shadowy figure, a kind of ‘M’ of lumber!
The peerless audio system was designed in-house from the ground up, right from the start of the design process so there are no compromises. There are 18 speakers that are ‘larger than live’, including exciter speakers in the roof that bring the sound down to ear level.
It’s one thing to be cosseted in a Ghost II, but this also needs to be a control centre. Money never sleeps, according to Gordon Gekko, and from the back seats I can connect to wifi or watch the world markets on the TV screens.
That Wall Street reference is maybe a little retro given this car’s contemporary leanings. Cruising back under the Shangri-La’s glass canopy and gazing up at The Shard one is reminded that the world has moved on from red braces and the Filofax and onto Apps and Clouds. The Ghost II, with its grille and ornament gently raked to convey a little more elan and less in-your-face ostentation, is designed to meet the needs of the traditional ‘Fat Cat’ but also appeal to a younger, tech-savvy audience that doesn’t lust after a butler to change their gears but will pay through the nose for a satellite to do it for them.
AUTOBIOGRAPHY: ROLLS-ROYCE GHOST II
ENGINE: 6.6-litre V12
TORQUE: 575 lb/ft
TRANSMISSION: 8-speed automatic with satellite assistance
BODY: Four-door saloon
ACCELERATION 0-100KM/H: 5.0 seconds
TOP SPEED: 250km/h (limited)