College: youth in exuberance, optimism and innocence. Although I remember it slightly differently. You queue at the loans department, you queue to wear a funny hat, queue to accept a piece of paper, and then queue in the unemployment line. At least you did if you were among the 99 per cent.
Alex Innes skipped that last part straight into the world of the remaining one per cent. Fresh out of design school, the boyish Innes was put to work in Rolls-Royce’s design department.
Charles Rolls was only 25 when he founded this car marque in 1904. Another Rolls-Royce designer Andreas Thurner was 25 when he designed the Ghost. There is youth frolicking through Goodwood’s halls again. The company wants younger buyers and that’s why these guys are there.
After he did the Ghost, you could grossly undervalue Thurner’s work and say that the Wraith was a lunch-break doodle. Philip Harnett, the Wraith project manager, recounted an anecdote: “I remember we were at a briefing and there was a technical problem. We couldn’t get our presentation set up, so the designer just sketched it right there and then, and he used three lines. That was it, three lines to draw the car… And the people we were briefing understood the design completely. You don’t have to see the grille; you don’t have to see the Spirit of Ecstasy to know that this car is a Rolls-Royce.”
I may not be a Royal College of Art graduate but I did learn about lines and shapes in grade two, so I’d like to think I’m qualified when stating the Wraith is magnificent in sheet metal.
It is principally a very simple design, free from any unnecessary surface treatments, free of ungainly look-at-me LED shapes, no spoilers, winglets and scoops. In essence it’s just, well, three lines. Very big lines mind you. The Wraith sits half a metre longer than Bentley’s Continental GT. It’s longer than a long-wheelbase BMW 7 Series, wider and significantly taller too. As a contender for the role of ultimate grand tourer, at least the grand part’s already taken care of.
But forget about your conditioned perceptions of a motor car for a moment. At the Wraith’s international launch in Vienna, viewed next to one of the local diesel hatchbacks, you don’t know what to think. The scales are just so off. It’s like looking at a pygmy pony and a Shire horse. On its own however, the Wraith is perfectly proportioned and that’s what counts.
The fastback roof sweeps low across its length and accentuates the immensity of the rear deck, tapering down to join the high waistline at the tip of the rear. The greenhouse thus seems small at first, but not from behind the wheel. With a 3,112mm wheelbase Rolls-Royce has ensured the wheels are pushed out far into the edges of the car for shorter overhangs. A massive door fills up the surplus of profile real estate. And the rest is just subtle detailing. Notice the slightly flared wheel arches accommodating a wider rear track, the marginally longer bonnet, deeply recessed and narrower pantheon grille, and a hunched Spirit of Ecstasy mid-flight, angled forward by five degrees. Like I said, detailing.
These tiny but significant nuances continue inside. The steering wheel rim is marginally thicker, but the diameter is the same as in the Ghost. You’re not robbed of any headroom by the fastback design and even in the back the accommodation is throne-like for two adults. I find that in a Rolls-Royce though, it’s best to ease yourself in by first sinking your hand in the lambswool carpet. You can’t help but exhale at this moment. It’s a small sensory introduction for what’s yet to come.
Perhaps I didn’t know this before, but it turns out a mark of a wonderful cabin is how long you just sit in it before departing for the first time. I sat in the Wraith for a while. There’s a lot to take in, the differing grains and surface textures, smells, certainly the pleasing heft of the switchgear with hints of Victorian engineering in the crafted air vents, the gleaming woods and honeyed hides. If there is a heaven, this is where cows go.
A highlight though has to be the largest single wood panel in any production car, enveloping the inner door in one piece and continuing backwards to wrap around the cabin’s occupants, perfectly bookmatched throughout (the wood is sliced and mirrored on both sides of the car, meeting in the middle). Rolls-Royce calls its special new wood treatment Canadel Panelling, a more modern open grain trim with a satin finish that retains the wood’s natural texture. The story goes that company co-founder Henry Royce had a house in South of France in a place called Le Canadel. He had a route down there where he used to test-drive Rolls-Royce cars, and there’s a little cove in the area, which became the main inspiration for the Canadel Panelling as the wood wraps all the way around, like a cove.
The contemporary focus of the Wraith is further exemplified by its connectivity features. Naturally it’s not all obvious at first glance — the digital display is best left retracted at a push of a button when not in use so as not to clutter the classical restraint of the dash — but there are iPhone inspirations hidden in there. The infotainment system’s rotary controller features a crystal glass surface embossed with an image of the Flying Lady, and it acts as a touch pad as well. A Rolls-Royce can’t have unsightly fingerprints staining a simple touchscreen, so the rotary controller comes with the ability to read characters ‘written’ by your fingers over its surface. Using now familiar (thanks to smartphones and tablets) pull and pinch commands you can also pinpoint areas of the screen and zoom in or out. And don’t worry, the Wraith recognises Arabic.
Underneath, it would be wrong to call the Wraith a two-door Ghost. You’ve already heard the company harp on about how this is the fastest and most dynamic car in its 109-year history. But Harnett, the car’s creator, is the first to admit, or rather just clarify: “The Wraith is not a sportscar, but it’s definitely performance orientated and very powerful — 624 horsepower from the twin-turbo V12 and a 0-100kph time of 4.6 seconds. We say it’s the definitive gentleman’s gran turismo… It’s bringing this romanticism back into GT motoring. Lots of cars wear the GT badge, but this car is bringing it back from the era of the Fifties and Sixties — it’s a big, graceful, powerful GT.”
In fact, its inspiration stemmed from further back than the Fifties. The Wraith team mused Charles Rolls’ aeronautical background as well as the art deco coupés of the Twenties and Thirties. Look at the Wraith in a two-tone finish and it’s all there in plain sight; the boat-tail of coachbuilt pre-war cars, the two wings on the side of the car inspired by a catamaran, and the several design touches stemming from aviation. They amount to the cabin’s sportier side as orange accents and orange clock detailing reminiscent of dials in planes for night-time legibility. Rolls, ever the adventurer and pioneer, was the first person to cross the English Channel and come back again in an aeroplane, flying these contraptions when they were made of sticks and cardboard.
For its dynamic and performance properties, however, Rolls-Royce looked not at black-and-white photos, but at a crystal ball for inspiration. The transmission uses futuristic satellite aiding to process GPS data and read the road as well as the driver’s mind, ensuring the right gear is always selected and that the trademark waftability is never compromised (the system works in the Middle East).
This is good, because the gear shifter is a column stalk and there are no flappy paddles. Heated dinner conversations arose: why didn’t Rolls-Royce fit paddles behind the wheel? I can see the value of some of the arguments, especially regarding our 370km Alpine route with steep downhills and hairpins where it would’ve been handy to shift down a few cogs and let engine braking help out. But I could also agree with the strongest point of all: why would a Rolls-Royce driver want to shift gears?
Similarly there is no traction control button or sport mode switch anywhere in the Wraith. It goes against Rolls-Royce’s nature, and anyway it’s plain poor form to ever have to rely on reinforcements. With a Wraith you get what you get, and it’s more than enough.
In an earlier interview with Harnett in Dubai he said to me on the subject, “Do you need a sports mode? Do you want to get in this car and have to change the driving mode? The suspension? That’s not a Rolls-Royce. As soon as you get into the car, it’s all there. During the development phase I did lots of driving; performance cars, supercars, sportscars… It’s a nice part of the job, but I remember afterwards getting into the Rolls-Royce, closing the door and thinking, ‘You’re home’.”
Home is where you make it, they say. And if you’ve really made it, home is a Rolls-Royce Wraith.
I can’t escape the impression that this is now Goodwood’s flagship. The Phantom Coupé may be grander, more expensive, somehow even more luxurious, but 95 per cent of our regional Rolls-Royce customers drive their own cars, and the Wraith is undoubtedly a glorious driver’s car. But only if we remember Harnett’s own admission that it’s not a sportscar.
The rear axle is 24mm wider than on the Ghost, and the wheelbase 183mm shorter dropping the centre of gravity lower thanks also to a 50mm reduction in height. That alone makes a huge improvement and allows you to pilot a Wraith in complete safety at triple-digit speeds. It still always feels like floating on air, which warrants some recalibrating of your car-handling-node as you pitch it into a tight corner and anti-roll stabilisation, dynamic stability control, cornering brake control and dynamic brake-control systems take care of the rest. There is never an intrusive feeling of the car interrupting your flow: just caress the accelerator pedal — no need to be aggressive with 624bhp and 800Nm of torque from 1,500rpm — and let the world keep turning. The car’s remarkable, level cornering is also psychologically heightened as the seat side bolsters gently tighten their embrace on you should a bend get a bit too severe. Simply, the Wraith is on the limit of how sporty a Rolls-Royce should be, but well beyond the limit of how luxurious and wondrous a gran turismo could be.
Nobody really expected the Wraith to be a sportscar. It’s twice the price of a V8 Bentley Continental GT, so that doesn’t even come into the equation. What it is though is a proper Rolls. “To create something new you have to be very, very careful,” said Harnett. “[The Wraith] is new, but it has to be 100 per cent Rolls-Royce.” Someone’s getting a Christmas bonus.
Anyway, I got to thinking. We once described a Lexus LS as riding almost as well as a Rolls. I still stand by this, but in comparison everything about a luxury car such as an LS or any of its rivals, really, feels enslaved, forced to cooperate. An LS is beautifully comfortable, but drive through a corner and the car strains to hang on, the steering feel delays responses trying to gather up its wits, and the body rolls, squats and dives helplessly. A Wraith is the complete opposite, always comfortable, always unperturbed and confident in its capabilities, executing them with panache and grace. It works really hard to achieve that level of dynamism and luxury, but it doesn’t let on. The word ‘effortless’ is impossible to avoid when describing a Rolls-Royce.
Perhaps more than anything, what I loved about my bond with the Wraith was the acceptance from this car. It’s very considerate. For the first time driving a ridiculously expensive machine, I didn’t feel completely incongruous; I wasn’t embarrassed to parade around with this white lie painted on my face. I didn’t own it, so what? It owned me.