75 years ago, in Great Britain’s gravest hour of need, the tranquillity of the blue skies over southern England was abruptly shattered by the roar of high-powered engines. Those on the ground would crane their necks to the heavens, captivated by the death-defying banks, rolls and dives of these metal birds as they wove their way in and out of the clouds in a kind of aerial ballet.
However, what those onlookers were witnessing was no choreographed showpiece. It was gladiatorial combat in its most deadly form played out against the backdrop of unfathomably high stakes; the very future of this island nation as we know it. The year was 1940, Britain stood alone as the last bastion of resistance against a seemingly unstoppable Nazi war machine and the famous “Few” of RAF Fighter Command were about to embark on the hardest day of the most relentless summer in British history.
Fast forward to the present day and Inside Lane finds itself in the very same leafy surroundings, amongst a gaggle of onlookers waiting to catch a glimpse of two icons of British engineering, each inexorably linked to the other. Firstly, the mighty Spitfire, R.J. Mitchell’s symbolic Battle of Britain hero. Today, dozens of ‘Spits’ from around the globe join the array of Hurricanes and Blenheims converging on Goodwood Aerodrome for the largest gathering and flypast of World War Two Aircraft since the end of the conflict that altered the course of European history.
Anyone who has seen or heard a Spitfire in full flight will immediately recognise the distinctive whirring of its Rolls-Royce Merlin engine. This second icon of British engineering not only provided the power for that airborne war hero throughout the darkest days of the 1940s but is also responsible for many of the finest four-wheeled creations of all time.
It’s on this premise that Insidelane trundles into the headquarters of the world’s most famous name in luxury car manufacturing. Just a stone’s throw from the historic Goodwood Aerodrome and the eponymous world-renowned motor racing circuit, Rolls-Royce Goodwood is almost exactly as you would imagine it. A weaving driveway leads through the grand gated entrance and winds its way through a topiary garden of pristinely pruned trees and hedges whose geometric perfection sets the tone for a world in which detail is king. Today, the courtyard is populated not only by a smattering of resplendent Rolls Royce Phantoms, Ghosts and Wraiths but also by a gathering of journalists from around the world who are here to witness a new dawn for the Rolls Royce brand.
The car we are all here to see emerge from the darkness is indeed the new Rolls Royce Dawn, a drophead coupé that essentially hopes to attract a younger audience to a brand whose tradition-steeped heritage can sometimes appear somewhat fusty in the eyes of an ever-growing market of prosperous millennials. Except, strictly speaking, the Dawn isn’t a new dawn for the brand at all. Rather, it’s the sunrise.
The origin of Rolls Royce’s new direction should really be traced back to the launch of the Wraith coupé. Released in 2013, the Wraith is based on the chassis of the Ghost luxury saloon; but that’s where the similarities end. From the moment we saw the sleek, fastback shape and heard the mouth-watering performance statistics – 642BHP from the V12 engine, 0-62mph in 4.4 seconds, top speed limited to 155mph – we knew the Wraith was unlike any Rolls Royce that had gone before it. The fastest, most powerful vehicle ever to don the Spirit of Ecstasy was not only a marvel in itself but also signalled a momentous sea-change in the company’s overriding philosophy. From now on, Rolls Royce could do adrenaline and excitement just as well as it has always done grace and elegance.
Which brings us back to the Dawn. Rolls Royce has been very keen to emphasise that its newest creation is not simply a topless Wraith. Indeed, contrary to prior media speculation, 80% of the exterior body panels of the new Dawn are brand new, lending the drophead its own discernible characteristics. There is a clearly detectable softness to the lines of the new Dawn that is absent from the sharper, heavily sculpted bodies of its stablemates. Look at any of the current Rolls Royce line-up, or most classic models for that matter, and your eyes will inevitably be drawn to a series of grand, sky-scraping vertical lines, perfectly exemplified by the towering stately grille of the current generation Phantom. The Dawn, on the other hand, offers an altogether different interpretation on the theme of majesty and grandeur. Here, horizontal lines dominate, giving the Dawn a noticeably low-slung appearance compared to other models from the double R. A sleek, high beltline swoops up unobtrusively from beneath the front headlamps and wraps its way around the rear passenger cabin. The Dawn’s curvaceous and flared rear flanks spill over the 20” rear wheels and taper in to echo the famous ‘boat tail’ Rolls Royce drophead coupés of old. It’s quite striking that in a day and age where car designers continuously extol the styling virtues of ‘muscular masculinity’, strength and power, the Dawn drophead coupé could easily be interpreted as the most feminine Rolls-Royce in decades. And that’s a fine thing indeed, because whichever way you look at it, the Dawn is a gorgeous car.
This launch example Dawn is adorned in midnight sapphire with an arrestingly bright mandarin interior. It is a treat for the eyes and opening the immense coach doors, you are immediately immersed into an orange world of opulence. Magnificent teak decking at the rear gives way to the beautifully crafted veneer of the dashboard which encases the classic and characterful instrument dials. Personal touches are plentiful, not least the trademark Rolls Royce-embossed umbrella that nestles within a hidden pocket built in to the frame of the coach door. Rolls insists in no uncertain terms that Dawn is a true four seater and most certainly not a ‘2+2’ convertible. “Same difference”, you might assume. Not in the Rolls Royce universe it isn’t. The Goodwood-based design team regarded the compromise in practicality of other luxury convertibles, with particular reference to rear leg-room, as an avoidable compromise rather than an inescapable design necessity. As Insidelane has by now found out, compromise is not a word that enters the Rolls Royce vocabulary. Thus, roof up or down, the Dawn will comfortably whisk all four adult passengers from Monaco to St. Tropez, or anywhere else befitting of its elegance, in the lap of ultimate luxury.
Performance-wise, the new Dawn shares the same 6.6 V12 BMW engine that underpins both the Ghost saloon and the Wraith coupé, producing 563BHP and hitting a limited top speed of 155mph. Whilst its 0-62mph sprint time stands at a marginally more sedate 4.9 seconds compared to the Wraith, the Rolls Royce Dawn’s true pièce de résistance is unequivocally its drophead fabric roof. Adopting the typically uncompromising approach indicative of the Spirit of Ecstasy, designers set out to create none other than the quietest convertible car in the world. That is exactly what they achieved. Folding silently up or down in just 22 seconds at speeds of up to 31mph, the fabric roof is unquestionably a thing of beauty and in no way detracts from the overall curvaceous good looks of the Dawn. On the contrary, the soft-top is as aesthetically immaculate as it is aerodynamically impeccable. Rolls Royce designers insist that not even the merest hint of wind noise is detectable with the roof up, ensuring that life inside the cabin of the Rolls Royce Dawn is just as tranquil as it is on board any hard-top Wraith, Ghost or Phantom. It’s a magnificent achievement for a convertible car. But then, this isn’t just any convertible car.
As we have seen, Rolls Royce is absolutely right to stress that the Dawn is not merely a drophead Wraith coupé. Nevertheless, it’s undeniable that the new model shares much of the Wraith’s more youthful DNA. To put it another way, both cars have been cut from the same, distinctly 21st century cloth. However, that’s not to say the Dawn nameplate doesn’t boast a rich history of its own. To underline that fact, Insidelane is met in the main foyer by the 2015 car’s ancestor, a resplendent 1952 Rolls Royce Silver Dawn drophead coupé. One of only 28 examples ever built, the original Silver Dawn drophead, like its modern day namesake, represented a seminal moment in the brand’s history, being the first Rolls Royce model ever to be offered with a factory-built body.
Some of the methods and technologies employed on the production line may have changed greatly over the years but the very same recipe for coach-built individuality and uniqueness that characterised the Silver Dawn remains at the heart of the new Rolls Royce Dawn in 2015. One only has to take a quick tour of the Goodwood assembly line to realise that, in the world of Rolls Royce, the accepted conventions of car manufacturing do not apply.
The Dawn joins the ranks of a burgeoning production line, where 800 highly skilled men and women keep the Goodwood plant calmly ticking over. It’s a fascinating bubble, vastly different to the average vehicle production line. Insidelane is assured that production is very much at full steam today; and why wouldn’t it be? After all, over 4000 cars rolled out of the Goodwood factory last year, over ten times as many as a decade ago. Naturally, the manufacturing schedule will be more packed than ever with the addition of a fourth model to the Rolls Royce range. However, absent is the anticipated chugging and whirring of heavy machinery or the cacophonic hiss of a dozen welding irons. In a manner indicative of the brand, the assembly line exudes all the serenity and composer of a library at tipping out time; dozens of workers go about their individual tasks with an almost dreamlike unruffled calmness. At Rolls Royce, nothing is rushed.
During its conception, the Dawn will pass through 16 stages of assembly, during which time barely a single robotic limb will touch it. Almost every part of the Dawn will be painstaking put together by hand; its 8-speed gearbox is assembled and installed using wirelessly controlled tools akin to keyhole surgery, its engine secured to the body with just 16 bolts whilst its beautifully symmetrical teak decking and dash veneers can take more than 3 weeks to perfect.
It is, therefore, no surprise that order books for the £250,000 Dawn are already full for the whole of 2016. At Rolls Royce, a car is not a vehicle but an accessory, an accessory whose production cannot be rushed and whose ultimate exclusivity is guaranteed by an infinite amount of bespoke specifications. And that is the crux of the story; the Dawn will take the unrivalled levels of individuality and personalisation synonymous with the Rolls Royce brand and use them to entice a new, younger breed of customer for whom standing out from the crowd, rather than falling in line with social expectations, defines their generation.
As any blurry-eyed commuter will tell you, each daybreak heralds the beginning of something new. The same can be said of Rolls Royce, where no two Dawns are ever the same.