When the call came in, I had shit on my hands. I’m speaking literally here, standing atop Quarry Rock in North Vancouver, tomato-faced and lathered with sweat after a hurried hike. My sleeping infant daughter had somehow just managed to relieve herself on the outside of her diaper – real assassination-of-JFK stuff, a second pooper on the grassy knoll.
Would I like to spend a day squiring a Rolls about town? Would I ever: a few short days later and I’m peering through the steering wheel spokes of a vehicle that is as quintessentially British as Queen Victoria herself.
Which is to say, a big fat German with a limited sense of humour.
Yes, peel back the aluminium bodywork of this eight-horse gilded royal stage-coach to find a beating twelve-cylinder heart built by a company whose previous efforts once propelled Junkers over London’s East End to blast chirrupy Cockneys into smithereens. That was then, this is now.
The Rolls-Royce Phantom’s V-12 might share architecture with the boorish seven-series BMW, but it does so in the same way that the House of Hanover once sent over George I to assist the ruling families of Britain in breeding a race of men composed entirely of teeth, charisma and forehead. Which eugenics program, by the way, is going rather swimmingly.
This is a pan-European vehicle – the aluminium space frame is forged in Norway, machined in Denmark, welded in Germany and then shipped off to jolly old Blighty for final assembly. Each Roller is built to client specification in the Goodwood factory, a few miles from the racing circuit of the same name, once the playground of well-heeled gentleman racers.
Vancouver can boast the largest number of long-wheelbase Rolls-Royce Phantoms anywhere in North America, though you’d not often see one. These sit on the road the way one of Edward I’s conqueror’s castles stand on the Welsh countryside – huge, dark, brooding things with their own gravity well of opulence; mirror images of the machines that ferry their Pacific Rim masters in whisper-silence past factories, tenements, the noisy, dirty, roiling mass of low-caste humanity. You might not be able to hear the clock on the dash anymore, but if you listen closely, you can hear groans of the workers that bear the weight of these monstrosities on their back, churning out an endless stream of cheap consumer products for our relentless Western appetite.
On the other hand, the Phantom Drophead coupe is meant to be a much less serious pleasure yacht for the acceptably wealthy. You know, Bertie Wooster, Jay Gatsby – that sort of thing. In fact, when I show up at the local dealership carrying a camera and wearing a seven-dollar button-down, the Drophead is just leaving on a test-drive with an actual Count. I meet the man briefly later and he seems all charm and polish and breeding and disinclined to bite anyone on the neck or to cackle with joy while tallying up a number of unconvincing bat puppets.
Here are the changes for the now decade-old Phantom, if you care, which you probably don’t. The transmission is now replaced with an eight-speed BMW unit, the headlights have been changed out for slitted LED units, and the front grille is now hewn from a single piece of stainless steel – the better with which to mow down
pheasants peasants, one assumes.
Minor tweaks, to be sure, but the improvement is really quite marked. The old round headlights for the previous generation car always made the car look like Thomas the Tank Engine’s derpiest friend – as though someone had stuck wide-spaced googly eyes on the Flying Scotsman. Now though, the Series II has the face of a Monarch, even if the royal in question is, you know, a bit Henry-VIII-ish.
Gazing out over the polished prow, nose, beak, bowsprit, snout, proboscis – anything to avoid the Conneticut-accented “bonnet” with which the RR PR lady sharply corrected my “hood” – I can’t help but feel that I’m about to engage in the largest single act of fronting since Vanilla Ice pretended to sling rock. There is no way I could ever conceive of affording a half-million-dollar machine like this. Six or seven generations ago, my ancestors wouldn’t even have been allowed to own a horse worth more than five pounds.
Automotive writing can already be weird this way: you catch yourself saying things like, “Oh, but I’d rather have the Porsche,” when really, I’d have the Subaru. And I’d buy it second-hand. However, poncing about in a gleaming white Rolls is on another plane of feigned success entirely.
It’s a bit like being handed the Crown Jewels for a day – the immediate visceral response is to do something wildly inappropriate. I am instantly filled with the urge to go directly to the nearest McDonald’s drive-through and ask for Grey Poupon on my Chicken McNuggets. Instead, it being such a sunny afternoon, I go for a sail. Er, drive.
“Smooth” is, as the old Monty Python skit goes, an inadequate description of the sweetmeat. This machine glides like a dowager Duchess yet accelerates like Prince Phillip hearing a liquor cabinet open. Apply some gentle pressure with your right foot and feel the nose lift slightly – both yours and the car’s. There’s a sense of great inertia, of hundreds of years of privilege and heritage, a great heavy, ponderous mass like a post-lunch House of Lords.
Of course, this being the Rolls one buys if one is interested in driving, there is a sport button on the steering wheel. It’s quite prominent, and labelled proudly with a burnished S and – well imagine you were on a bus tour and came around a corner to find that someone had fitted Westminster Abbey with anti-roll bars and an enormous spoiler. It’s as farcical as, oh I don’t know, strange women lying around in ponds distributin’ swords.
Elsewhere the cabin is – it’s whatever you want it to be, really. Rolls-Royce’s bespoke program allows you to carpet the seats and line the floor in leather, if you so choose. Chuck out the back seats for a humidor? Done. This is all ordering off the menu; if it’s physically possible, RR’s engineers will have a go at it.
All part of the experience, but so too is the beacon of affluence this thing projects. The roads here are cluttered with Range Rover Sports and AMG-badged Mercs and Porsche SUVs and M-sport BMWs and the Roller just crushes their showy, desperate, over-chromed avarice beneath its wheels as Gatsby’s creamy yellow Ghost did Myrtle Wilson.
Or so it would seem to me, as I glide along in the sunshine, radiating positively Trumpian levels of smug self-satisfaction. And then – you can’t make this stuff up – someone drives past going the other way in a Ferrari Enzo. Well, that puts rather a damper on the evening.
Time for Cinderella’s carriage to turn back into a pumpkin – time for me to return to the comfortable middle-class lifestyle my parents worked their asses off to get: a lifestyle my daughter’s children might not be able to enjoy no matter how bright they are, nor how hard they work. This Roller is a chariot for the glittering Eloi, and if we’re not exactly Morlocks yet, that does seem to be the way things are going. Even the once enthusiastic Chinese are saying things along the lines of, “only a dragon can breed another dragon; the children of rats are fated to scrabble in the darkness.”
I head back to return the keys via the looping asphalt of Stanley Park. The traffic is nonexistent, and I am entirely ensconced in the throne room of my own mind when I turn a corner and come across a young family waiting at a crosswalk.
I shift my right foot off the accelerator and gently depress the brake, causing the Royce to roll to a halt soundlessly, graciously. A magnanimous tilt of the head and intentions are made clear – the saucer-eyed child grips his mother’s hand tightly and the father half-raises a hand in salute as the family crosses the road.
There, beneath susurrating trees that send leafy shadows dancing across the Spirit of Ecstasy, safe in the green heart of our city of glass, we smile and smile and smile and smile – I in my borrowed ermine robes, they in their mass-produced best.
And, at the very same time, thousands of miles away, the thump of industrial looms sends sand scurrying from a fresh crack in the foundation of a Bangladeshi garment factory; gas-flares flicker weakly in the poisonous miasma of a Nigerian swamp; a blind, mindless grey dragon receives the wrong instructions and pivots on kevlar wings to vomit fire and death into an Afghani wedding – the brief, bright, burning flash of Hellfire rockets turning love and hope and joy and life into heaps of drifting ash.
This is a fine automobile. A lovely bright bauble built to amuse the super-wealthy and then be discarded once it is no longer a status symbol. It’s a chariot for the people who would be our kings.
Well, I’m a peasant. And I didn’t vote for them.
Rolls-Royce provided the vehicle tested, insurance and fuel.