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Sense of occasion

The first Rolls-Royce I drove was a 1960s Shadow, across the Cairngorms on the glorious A939 to Tomintoul.

24 September 2008

12:00 AM

24 September 2008

12:00 AM

The first Rolls-Royce I drove was a 1960s Shadow, across the Cairngorms on the glorious A939 to Tomintoul. It was a memorable drive, clear skies, snow-capped mountains, little traffic. When we returned to his Speyside house the owner suggested I try his Jaguar XJ6, which he thought a better drive than the Shadow. It was: even by XJ6 standards, the Shadow’s steering and suspension, geared for the American market, were too light and soft. But there was still something special about effortless stately progress behind that wonderful Spirit of Ecstasy.

Shadows got better as they got younger and I suspect the subsequent Spirit was better still. But my next truly memorable RR drive was a 1954 Silver Dawn which I bought in London on behalf of a friend and delivered to Versailles. It was a car whose presence was an immediate check to loose behaviour, compelling respect and motoring manners. When it snapped its fan-belt on a trial run I immediately forgave it.

The journey was a delight. We were waved like royalty to the head of the ferry queue and at a junction in Amiens my co-driver fell lastingly in love with two French girls in a Mini whom we so delighted that they waved with all four hands and nearly ended up beneath our polished grille. Later, as I unwittingly crossed a busy junction against all the lights, everyone stopped for us.


The next RR drive was the steel-blue mid-1950s Silver Cloud 1 belonging to our postman, Steve. The late John Blatchley’s Silver Cloud design is a motoring icon, the model that every subsequent RR or Bentley designer plunders for cues. Steve’s is lovingly maintained and offers a very satisfying, simple drive; if it were mine I would never sell it (nor will he).

And last week I drove another Rolls-Royce: a new Phantom. Not just any Phantom but the Extended Wheelbase, a magisterial, 20-foot leviathan. Launched by BMW from its Goodwood factory in 2003, each Phantom model echoes John Blatchley’s long bonnet, wide C-pillars, upright stance, short overhangs, separated windows and rising profile. With its uncompromisingly upright front end, it was clearly designed to make a statement, to impose and impress. Opinion is mixed: some say it lacks the grace of virtually all earlier Rolls-Royces and it featured in the Telegraph readers’ poll of the 100 ugliest cars ever; others rate it the best car in the world. What I say is, wait till you’ve driven it.

It was more than good to get behind Nellie Thornton again (she who posed naked for the Spirit of Ecstasy, was mistress of Lord Montagu and drowned when the ship she was on was torpedoed during the first world war). The sculpted bonnet view is incomparable, making you want to drive for ever; helpfully, you can also see the wings. The wheel is slim and slightly flattened on the facing edge, which feels right; pedals and footrest are huge and the throttle floor-mounted; the dash (maple veneer in this case) is pleasingly uncluttered, with a few clear white analogue dials which spring to attention rather than drag themselves to usefulness. Instead of a rev counter there’s a power reserve dial (I’d prefer the former). A rough count of cabin controls (including door handles, and so on) yielded 76, which, for a sophisticated car, is reasonably frugal. The push-button electronic parking brake is easy to use, but presumably means you couldn’t take your test in it since you’d be unable to demonstrate a handbrake start.

In the back there is business-class leg-room and, behind those wide C pillars, first-class privacy. If I sat absolutely upright in the raised but non-adjustable rear seat my hair just brushed the roof (it doesn’t in a Volvo S80), yet relaxation soon comes in a car like this. A button to operate the rear doors spares passengers ungainly stretching.

The drive is an enduring sense of occasion. You expect quietness (though aircon is audible), smoothness (despite 21-inch wheels) and seamless changes from the six-speed auto, and naturally you expect effortless power from the 6.75 V12, but nothing quite prepares you for the combination of light, precise handling at all speeds, impeccable road manners and serious performance. Doubtless the 50–50 weight distribution, space-frame aluminium chassis and composite panels have a lot to do with this, but every aspect of the car feels well-engineered, from the substantial bonnet catch to the 15-speaker Lexicon audio system. In response to customer demand, gear selection is no-nonsense reverse-neutral-drive-park. The only niggle was windscreen reflections of the console.

Cost? £313,500 upwards, so if you need to ask you can’t afford it. Mpg? Don’t be silly. The point about this car is that, before driving one, I couldn’t make up my mind about it. Now I can. It’s the best Rolls-Royce since the Silver Cloud and I want one.


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