James Donnelly is a lovely man. A softly-spoken Scot, ex-Merchant Navy, he knows more about Rolls-Royce than you can shake a polished walnut burr stick at. He’s the kindly face of 21st-century R-R, giving tours around the uber-futuristic Goodwood factory. Word of his wit and warmth spread to PetrolBlog HQ, so we decided to pop across the South Downs to hear what he had to say.
We were welcomed into a conference room to first hear from head of marketing Marc Mielau about an exhibition that’s soon to run at the Saatchi Gallery. Did you see that Channel 4 series, Inside Rolls-Royce? Good, wasn’t it? But as much as it spun cheerful PR for the brand, it also perpetuated a few myths that they’d rather it hadn’t – that thing about the squillions of pounds’ worth of diamonds laid into a glimmering dashboard? Between you and me, that might have been C4’s idea…
So, the exhibition will be a hands-on brand experience involving immersive paint and light scenes, tactile wood displays, suspended leather, and all sorts of vaguely innuendo-laden concepts. Stuff to help people feel what R-R’s about in 2014.
All very impressive. But where’s Mr Donnelly? Aha, that’s the fella, shuffling in with a grin on his face, sharply-suited and ready to educate.
He gives us a detailed run-down of the intriguing history of Rolls-Royce (did you know that Henry Royce, a prolific inventor, first patented the bayonet cap you find on lightbulbs?), up to the complicated quagmire of offers, counter-offers, brand element distribution and legal wrangling that surrounded the BMW/VW/Rolls-Royce/Bentley situation in the 1990s. It’s too hideously complicated to go into here, you’d better ask James.
The upshot of it all was that a new factory was built at Goodwood – yes, that Goodwood, right by the racing circuit – opening in 2003. And it’s a magnificent creation, its grassed roof changing hue with the seasons, the whole plant working in harmony with its surroundings. James furnishes us all with a neat beige R-R-monogrammed jacket (‘Health and safety,’ he says, rolling his eyes. ‘They need to be able to identify visitors in case there’s a fire – but to be honest, all you’d need to do is follow the James-shaped blur…’), and leads us into paradise.
Yeah, you heard – paradise. Even people who are sceptical about uber-luxury motors would be won over by touring this facility. As a dyed-in-the-wool Rolls-Royce-o-phile, I was beside myself with excitement. So, er, I’ll do my best to condense the tour down to just the highlights. Apologies if I waffle on a bit.
Twenty cars a day are built at Goodwood, a carefully considered figure to balance exclusivity with volume demand. Every Roller in the world is built here, it’s the only place they hammer ’em together; 35% go to China, 36% to the US, quite a lot to the Gulf states… and every single one is the very best that it can be. Allow me to demonstrate this fact with a specific example: torque wrenches. There’s a section of the factory called the ‘marriage centre’, where the drivetrain meets the bodyshell. (‘There are no divorces in Goodwood, only marriages,’ grins James.)
Now, as the vast engines and gearboxes are mated with axles on the rolling rig prior to being stuffed into a shell, the mechanics torque up all the bolts… and when they reach the sufficient amount of twist, the wrench glows orange. This signifies that it’s being recorded – that specific bolt was wrenched to that particular torque on that date, at that time, by that person. It’s all noted in the computer via Bluetooth. So if that bolt shakes itself loose in thirty years’ time, they can find out why. Imagine that level of fastidiousness, applied to everything in the car. It’s incredible.
How about those starlight headliners? You’ve seen them, the roofs with the pretty lights? They represent the sky above Goodwood on January 1st 2003; over 1,300 pinpricks of light in all, each one hand-drilled, with the fibre-optics painstakingly snipped by hand.
And the leather for the seats? That’s checked for imperfections by a guy with eyesight so incredible he’d be able to find a drop of oil in an ocean of Evian. He’s probably brilliant at Where’s Wally. It takes the hides of twelve bulls to upholster a Phantom, all from the same herd, who graze at high-altitude and are kept well away from barbed wire – which might prick their skin, of course. It’s dyed by the guys who do Fendi’s work and, James says with a cheeky wink, ‘any waste leather gets sent to Bentley’. The little scamp.
Meanwhile, on the production line…
You can spot the cars that are going to China – they’re usually black, with red leather inside. It’s a status thing, doncherknow. Interestingly, Chinese-spec Phantoms have bumpers a few millimetres shorter than standard, so that they’re not so long that the owner needs to take a bus licence test. A recurring theme that James keeps slipping into his narrative is ‘We can do anything. This is Rolls-Royce.’ (This makes itself known as he winces while showing us an acid green leather sample. The customer knows best, etc.)
Build tolerances are atom-precise, and nothing at all is done by robots, save for the paint-spraying – everything is assembled by hand. Bespoke work can be done on the line, but there are dedicated bespoke-ing booths for the really big stuff. ‘One chap asked for the entire boot of his Phantom to be made into a fridge,’ says James, ‘so that he could do his grocery shopping, then head to the pub!’ Honestly, imagine having all that money for a custom Rolls-Royce and not knowing about Ocado…
The coachlines are interesting too. You know how every other Cortina and Cavalier throughout the 1980s had a side-stripe stuck on? Well, a Rolls-Royce coachline is the ultimate luxury version of that: these are applied by hand and by eye, with a squirrel-hair brush, and there’s only one man at Rolls-Royce that can do it. He’s taken on many an apprentice over the years, but no-one’s been able to replicate his hand-painted perfection. And it’s not just straight lines – he can do crests, dragons, kanji characters, you name it. He used to paint pub signs in Chichester, incidentally.
Our engaging tour guide leads us along a gantry above dozens of finished cars being quality-checked. He points out three rooms off the main floor. ‘That first one is the shaker room,’ he explains. ‘There are four rams in the floor, and the car’s parked with a wheel on each. One person sits inside, another stands outside, and the rams simulate the worst roads imaginable. It has to be absolutely silent in there – if either tester can hear so much as a tiny squeak or rattle, the car goes back to the line.
‘The next room,’ he continues, ‘is the rolling road. Funny story: when this was first installed, the company that was contracted to build it fitted the wrong rollers. The test driver of the first Phantom to use the rolling road was a young lad, about 18 I think, and he accelerated up to 160mph – at which point the car jumped off the rollers and smashed straight through the back wall. It had barely a scratch on it, of course…
‘And the third room? That’s the monsoon simulator. But they don’t make anyone stand outside the car in that one.’
The final quality checks are carried out by a formidable and shadowy team known as the ‘Iron Ladies’, who I imagine to be a bit like those metal spider things in The Matrix. They have ultimate power of veto – an infinitesimal speck in the walnut burr surround for the heater controls, any stitch out of place at the edge of the lambswool carpet where it meets the base of the rear seats, anything at all that isn’t 100% perfect, and the whole car’s sent away to a dark corner to think about what it’s done. As you might hope, the pursuit of perfection at Rolls-Royce is relentless, with potential copybook-blots hunted down with Terminator-like vengeance.
But I know what you’re thinking. ‘Stop banging on about the factory and just drive the cars, already.’ Well, reader, your (slightly rudely-phrased) wish is my command. Emerging blinking into the light, I’m handed the keys to a brand-new, 64-plate Phantom. And the marrow in my bones turns to water.
Here I am, surrounded by the finest motor cars in the world, in my hoodie, jeans and skate shoes. I haven’t had a shave. I am, frankly, lowering the tone. But hey, I’ve got the key in my hand now. What can possibly go wrong…?
This, of course, is a stupid question. Nothing will go wrong. Rolls-Royce do not build cars that go wrong, so any embarrassment here can only be caused by driver error. And I’m pleased to tell you that I was very well behaved. Well, sort of.
The Phantom is a jarring thing to climb into – the sheer size of it alone reframes your perceptions of automotive scale. And yet, despite the obvious girth, there’s a delicacy to it. The steering wheel is tastefully thin-rimmed, like a classic Moto-Lita, and the switchgear is beautifully tactile, every movement falling into place with a mixture of gentle smoosh and solid click. Not quite sure how they achieve that, but it’s beautiful.
Operating the thing is very simple too – reaching for where you think the gearstick and handbrake might be will leave you with a handful of stereo controls; instead, it’s all on one stalk to the right of the wheel. Click the end like a retractable biro to turn the handbrake on or off (this engages itself on hills anyway, naturally – you wouldn’t want to do something as uncouth as roll into a Transit will pulling away at an uphill junction), and you pull the lever toward you and down to stick it in Drive. Easy-peasy.
Spookily, it’s utterly silent. Like, totally. I suspect the company has developed some kind of top-secret, ultra-thin mattress that they staple to the underside of the bonnet, or something. It’s eerie. In addition, the 6.75-litre V12 has two alternators (one for each battery; one of the batteries is just for starting the car) which are water-cooled to eliminate noise. All very neat.
But enough of this technical jiggery-pokery. Is it quick? Um, yes. Yes it is. Traditionally Rolls-Royce would never do anything so vulgar as to state a power figure – they’d go as far as ‘sufficient’ – but those days are over. The Phantom rocks a sturdy 453bhp – about as much as you’d find in a Ferrari California or Aston Martin DB9. It may be a necessarily heavy thing (let’s call it 2.5 tonnes), but it’ll scamper from 0-62mph in under six seconds.
62mph is an irrelevant figure really, as you won’t be watching the speedo – you’ll have one eye firmly on the Power Reserve gauge just to the left, as the other watches the scenery blurring by. ‘Power Reserve’ is what you find in an R-R in place of a rev counter. It starts at 100%, indicating that you have all the power left to use, and sweeps round toward zero when you put your foot down. Incredibly, Rolls-Royce have invented something even more addictive than a boost gauge…
I pull into a layby to further fulfil my lowering-the-tone role. Sliding NOFX’s White Trash into the CD player, I clamber into the back, kick off my shoes and Instagram a few pictures of the Phantom. (Shut up, it’s 2014. This is normal Millennial behaviour.) A retired couple in a camper van wander out to take a look, asking if it’s mine. I grin, lie to their faces, then think better of it in case they assume I’ve stolen it. ‘Yep! Er, I mean, no, sadly not. Nice though, isn’t it?’ And I surf back to the factory on a wave of V12 mischief, redefining the term ‘wafting’ by turning the Goodwood hedgerows into that scene from Spaceballs where they go to Ludicrous Speed.
Back at HQ, I’m given the keys to the Wraith. This is Rolls-Royce’s hot rod; a two door coupé with suicide doors – sorry, ‘coach doors’ – into which they’ve shoehorned that sodding great V12, then strapped on a couple of turbos for good measure.
It has 623bhp. It’ll do 0-62mph in 4.4 seconds – as quick as an Audi R8 or a Lamborghini Gallardo, but with the added bonus of 2”-deep lambswool carpets, and more electronic gizmos than you can shake a stick at. It’s a simmering combination of brutality and refinement, at once jaw-droppingly fast and extraordinarily relaxing. I wouldn’t be at all surprised to hear that every Wraith owner across the world found themselves immediately banned from driving; ‘I’m sorry officer, I didn’t realise I was bouncing off the 155mph limiter, it felt like I was doing about 30…’
It’s a beautiful and delicious piece of automotive sculpture, and the couple in their camper van melted into little puddles of desire when I pulled back into that layby to take a breath. I’d already decided in advance of the day that the Wraith would be my favourite of the bunch – on paper, and since launch, I’ve been in love with the idea of a Rolls-Royce muscle car.
But I was wrong, as I so frequently am. Oddly, inexplicably, I found myself favouring a car that’s bigger, heavier, and less powerful. I tried the boxfresh Series II Ghost, and I was besotted.
OK, I say ‘less powerful’. It’s all relative, isn’t it? The Ghost shares the Wraith’s twin-turbo V12, detuned slightly to 592bhp. But that’s still a lot. A LOT. As much as a McLaren MP4-12C or a Pagani Zonda F, but wrapped up in something that’s almost as big as the Phantom; sure, the bigger brother is the flagship and the car most frequently referred to as ‘the best car in the world’, but to a pleb like me the Ghost offers everything that the Phantom can as well as having utterly otherworldly performance.
While the Phantom surprises with its keen, sporty handling, the Ghost exploits that agility by stirring in the oomph of the boy-racer Wraith. It’s the best of both, becoming far greater than the sum of its already jaw-dropping parts. And there’s more legroom in the back. Plenty of space for extra carpet. (I keep mentioning the carpet – it really is wonderfully soft. It was genuinely hard to stop myself nuzzling it with my face.)
Sitting behind that slender wheel, you feel like you’re a plutocratic captain of industry – or, er, chauffeur – as you do in the Phantom, but the subtle heads-up display reminds you of the vast swells of torque that are just an ankle-flick away. And there’s the Power Reserve gauge, of course. It really is brilliantly unusual.
I pull into the layby one more time. The retired couple are a few glasses of wine under by now, so I decide to make their day a little more surreal by giving them a ride. They’re giddy with excitement, totally ignoring my dull monotone as I describe the clever workings of the satellite-aided transmission, and just drinking in the opulence of the appointments. And then, after dropping them back at their camper van, I sneak into the Goodwood Motor Circuit, just to prowl around the paddocks like some kind of wealthy upstart.
A group of chaps standing around an Aston DB4 race car ask if I’m going to take the Ghost onto the track. And a little part of me dies as I realise that it’s something I’ll probably never do. With heavy heart and much reluctance, I point the nose factory-wards and prepare myself for the tragedy of handing the keys back.
…but at the final roundabout, at the factory entrance, I think ‘Sod it – when will I ever get to do this again?’. I gun the V12 and slide the tail around in a manner most uncouth, bury the throttle and head off into the countryside. Hey, they squeezed all of this power into the car, they must have known this kind of thing might happen. I’m sure James Donnelly would approve.
I bought a EuroMillions ticket on the way home, naturally. The thought of a Ghost-free life is frankly too ghastly to contemplate.