The motor industry likes anniversaries because they help sell cars. This year is the centenary of Ford’s assembly plant at Trafford Park in Manchester — its first outside North America — which produced the Model T from kits. It’s also the 50th birthday of the E-Type Jaguar (how many times will we see the word ‘iconic’ alongside that this year?). My favourite, however, is the shapely Nelly Thornton, immortalised in 1911 as the Spirit of Ecstasy that has adorned most Rolls-Royces ever since.
It’s not proven that Eleanor Thornton, mistress of Lord Montagu and secretly mother of his child, modelled for Charles Sykes, creator of the Spirit, but rumour becomes myth and myth historical reality if enough of us believe it. What is undoubtedly true — sadly — is that mother and child were drowned when the troopship on which all three sailed for Egypt was torpedoed in 1916. I once proposed it as a film, only to hear that someone was about to make one, though nothing seems to have come of it.
But Nelly lives on, gracing those famous (another opportunity for ‘iconic’) grilles, and her anniversary seemed reason enough to try out the Ghost, the baby Rolls. Of course, it’s not a baby at all, being over 17-feet long, weighing nearly 2.5 tonnes and featuring a new engine (6.6-litre V12, 563bhp, 575lb/ft) that makes this the most powerful Rolls ever. It is, however, over 16 inches shorter than its big sister, the Phantom (Spectator, 29 September 2008), albeit with comparable interior space as a result of monocoque construction. Its lines are softer than the stately brutalism of the great barge and it’s more likely to be driven by owners than chauffeurs. Since its introduction in 2009, it has attracted enough new buyers to justify two shifts at the Goodwood factory without, surprisingly, diminishing Phantom sales. In fact, some existing Phantom owners are forking out £200,000-plus to have the Ghost as well.
I don’t blame them. It drives as well as it looks, a tribute to engineer Helmut Riedl and designer Ian Cameron. I was initially baffled by the transmission, parking brake and ignition sequence, but once I did get it started I genuinely — genuinely — thought I hadn’t, so quiet is the engine thanks to the double bulkhead. Nor was the appearance of the car seriously marred by a scattering of stone chips at Nelly’s feet — a memento from the Top Gear team who nearly trashed the vehicle in Albania.
Despite adaptive air suspension and all manner of electronic safety and handling aids, it still has the traditional Rolls features, such as the high, authoritative driving position, chrome violin key switches, clear uncluttered dials, an analogue clock, a short front overhang, the long bonnet and sharply raked A pillars. Passengers in the adjustable (and massaging) rear seats may still shelter from the vulgar gaze behind wide C pillars. The rear suicide doors open to a generous 83 degrees, encouraging graceful ingress and egress.
But it was the drive that captivated me. Such power (0–60mph in 4.7 seconds) and such road presence are rarely so unostentatious, nor so handy and nimble. It’s also a great skill to combine seeming simplicity with unexpectedly appealing options such as the head-up instrument display. Overall, the Ghost combines good-mannered tolerance with real performance ability — what ought to be a car of contradictions is melded into an automotive symphony that makes you want to drive all day.
Its only real rival must be the new Bentley Mulsanne (Spectator, 13 November 2010), and it’s hard to insert a cigarette paper between the two. The Mulsanne probably has the edge in dynamic handling, the Ghost in its cosseting everyday drive — and you do have the elegant Eleanor for ever before you. You pays your money and you takes your choice. As with both marques throughout their histories, if you need to ask how much you probably can’t afford it.
However, if like me you’re on an economy drive and your AA membership is approaching an unmentionable anniversary, you can save a bit by complaining. Renewal of joint membership for my wife and me — with all the options — was going to cost £252.80. I rang and asked why there was no reduction for more than four decades of loyalty (and little use), pointing out that I could leave and rejoin the next day for a quoted £172. Or I could defect to the RAC for the same. Would I prefer to pay £172? they asked. In which case, they’d reduce it. And when I renew next year, if I ring and say the same, they’ll do the same.
I guess such craziness comes from being the customer of a commercial company rather than a member of the mutual organisation I joined all those years ago. So much for loyalty.