I’d never driven a Rolls-Royce, although once was a passenger in an early 90s Silver Spur formerly owned by Paloma Picasso, the jewelry designer for Tiffany & Co. (and Pablo’s daughter). I was told by the Spur’s new owner, an entrepreneur and dealer of precious gemstones who was my chaperone (and de-facto chauffeur) for the day through the picturesque countryside outside Geneva, that his friend Paloma had recently been through a divorce and sold him the Rolls as it reminded her too much of that past. I was working for De Beers and on my first overseas business trip – yet despite all the hullabaloo – the giddy excitement of riding in that second-hand Rolls-Royce is my clearest memory of that journey back in 1998.
Like seeing Madonna at the gym, one remembers a brush with the stuff of legend. And while I’ve still not been granted an audience with Madonna, earlier this week Rolls-Royce invited me to get up-close and personal with their marvelous machines at an event just outside Palm Springs, CA. Together with a handful of fellow journalists, I would drive the Rolls-Royce Wraith and Phantom II through the desolate gorgeousness of Joshua Tree National Park, and on the racetrack at the Thermal Club – which upon completion will be like a country club with a racetrack rather than a golf course at its center – located just a stone’s throw from Coachella of music festival fame.
One might imagine, and rightly so, that a racetrack flatters a Rolls-Royce like horizontal stripes on a third-trimester pregnancy. In all fairness, Rolls-Royce is under no illusion that the track is their home, but wanted us to fully explore the performance capabilities of the Wraith, billed as the most driver-centric car (their words) it has ever offered. Mission accomplished, as I was duly impressed with the Wraith’s agility considering its considerable heft, yet I couldn’t quite shake the feeling as I flung the rakish fastback coupe through its paces on the track – weaving between orange cones and sliding around corners – that something was unseemly and amiss. Like the Queen of England donning dungarees in public, Rolls-Royce wasn’t born to work, so after a few screeching laps I was looking forward to experiencing the Wraith, as well as the penultimate Phantom II, in a more natural habitat.
The Wraith is among the most striking cars on the road today, imbued with dual senses of purpose and occasion, opulence and reserve. Based on the Ghost sedan, which is the smaller brother to the (even) more mammoth Phantom II sedan, the Wraith coupe offers ample space for all four passengers, a rarity it shares with few other two-door cars. Its interior is beautifully finished, particularly when equipped with the optional (yes, even a Rolls-Royce has extra-cost options) “Canadel Panelling,” which lines the “coach doors” – which open suicide-style – and rear quarter panels with your choice of bookmatched exotic wood which is angled at 55 degrees to create an effect like avant-garde cabinetry. How does it drive? With effortless authority and near-total immunity from mortal concerns like shoddy roads, noise from traffic and wind, and slower motorists who think you’ve surely no room to pass. On the uneven, undulating pavement of the two-lane highway that snakes through Joshua Tree State Park, with the needle of the Wraith’s “blood-orange tipped” speedometer reporting deeply triple-digit speed, only the fear of obliterating a roadrunner – together with my chances of Rolls inviting me back again – slows our progress.
While the Wraith has haste and duty on the brain, stepping into the Phantom II requires an adjustment to the senses. Here there’s no rush, because if you’re driving this car, the world will wait: nothing's going to happen until you get there anyway. There’s no compulsion to text or chat on the phone, because if they’re worth communicating with, you’ve already summoned them on board. The clamor of the digital world is kept to a bare minimum, the only digital display confined to a single large screen for navigation and infotainment at the center of the dash which duly pivots away at the touch of a button in favor of an exquisitely finished, beveled bezel analogue clock worthy of a Christies auction. This cabin is “furnished,” with leather-lined drawers and nesting boxes rather than mere storage compartments, thrones in place of seats; that “new car smell” from leeching plastics has been swapped instead for an air of permanence. Driving the Phantom II is like commanding a mighty vessel, its windshield an observation deck, crossing the seas with steady, unbowed certainty. But don’t imagine it’s an unwieldy land yacht; 90mph where authorities had posted a preference for 45mph became routine during our all too brief time together.
I've yet to learn what it’s like meeting Madonna, but I can assure you that Rolls-Royce is an idol that will not disappoint.