Automobiles are no strangers to art galleries. Among the MoMA’s permanent collection in New York is a pristine multi-story car park that includes a scarlet 1946 Cisitalia 202 GT, a matt olive ‘52 VW Beetle, and a blue metallic 1961 Jaguar E-type roadster. For three days in London last Christmas, though, there was a marque so iconic it filled an entire gallery – and there wasn’t a car in sight.
Rolls-Royce took over the 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, swathes of hide, interactive displays where one could change a neon-lit room to one of Rolls’ 44,000 colour options. The only actual piece of car on display was an installation showing a rainbow of umbrellas flying from their position inside a Rolls-Royce door.
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 after 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 Shangri-La in The Shard, the capital’s tallest landmark. The view is too good 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 you at this height.
The pool boasts the ultimate vista. Dead ahead is the City of London, its glass cathedrals rising above St Paul’s and Fishmongers Hall, the seats of power before the FTSE took over. In the past, you might have expected Rolls to launch its latest limousine at a gentlemen’s club or a stately home – instead it went for a strikingly futuristic 87-storey structure that pierces the clouds.
At the base of the Shard awaits the Ghost II. Its exterior is masterful; impactful but restrained. There is economy of line, but also verve. It’s timeless but of its time.
The changes to this 2015 model are subtle but important. LED headlights bring the Ghost II bang up-todate, and are quite menacing at night. 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 handles are now steel and feel more in keeping with the Ghost’s solid character. The front quarter of the car 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, stopping by at the modernist home of a Ghost owner (a lady, like 15 per cent of Rolls’ customers). Here I had 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 bears a remarkable likeness to David Cameron.
“I like to imagine people as cars,” he tells me over salmon tartare. “A Rolls walks that fine line between 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 is the junior of Rolls’ two four-door models, the daddy being the Phantom. The latter is a £300,000 behemoth rarely driven by the owner, but the Ghost is a more manageable size, akin to a longwheelbase Mercedes S-Class. At £215,000 it will set you back considerably more than an S-Class (or a BMW 7-Series or Jaguar XJ-L), but it’s 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 glides. 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 when required; technology is kept behind the scenes. The 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. It 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. It tees up the gearbox every time you approach a corner, selecting the perfect gear and thus making the ride smoother and the engine more economical.
You drive a Rolls-Royce with your fingertips, the super-thin bakelite steering wheel responding almost telepathically. Driving is anything but a chore – I think I’d give my chauffeur weekends off. There is a satisfaction that comes from piloting a Rolls that sets it apart from any other car. Sure, the XJ is much more involved and 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.
The best place to appreciate the cabin design is sitting in the rear. The carpet is so deep you can’t resist kicking off your shoes. Each car uses nine bull hides – 45 square metres of the stuff – and 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 two Ghosts are the same. Interestingly, there are more leather and wood craftsmen at Rolls-Royce’s Goodwood factory than there are workers in the chassis production team, largely down to bespoke demands. A remarkable 82 percent of Rolls-Royces have bespoke elements – the “picnic tables” for rear passengers, for instance, are often inlaid with custom marquetry using different veneers that can take up to a month to complete. The wood is sourced from sustainable forests by a nameless expert – the best in the world – who has a network of timber spies.
The peerless audio system was designed in-house from the ground up. There are 18 speakers 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 it also needs to be a control centre. Money never sleeps, according to Gordon Gekko, and from the back seats I can connect to Wi-Fi 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-yourface ostentation, is designed to meet the needs of the traditional Rolls driver while also appealing to a more modern market. This younger, tech-savvy driver doesn’t lust after a butler to change the gears – they’ve already paid for a satellite to do it for them. b