The Enigma of Rolls Royce


Just a few miles from the famous Goodwood hill, what is it that makes Rolls Royce so special?

Think about motoring manufacturers and what makes them famous; Ferrari and motorsport, Ford with the GT40, Porsche and the evergreen 911 in famous racing liveries, the original Silver Arrows of Mercedes, the Blower Bentleys at Le Mans...

However, there's one manufacturer who has quietly bucked this trend. You've heard of them. Rolls Royce.

Depending on your age, Rolls Royces are either the choice of dignitaries and monarchs, aging commedians and football managers, The Muppets, or Alan Sugar. They're still a byword for quality, but they don't garner a huge amount of press coverage. Outside of certain major cities, they're also a rare sight.

I thought about this as I drove down to the south end of the Goodwood Estate where Rolls Royce have their factory. I'd seen the Phantom and Ghost driven on Top Gear, but my expectation was very old world, men in white lab coats hammering pieces of steel in a factory that would be understated and full of tooling that looked like it had been handed down through generations of fathers and sons. These were quickly superceded as I drove through the factory gates and saw a modern facility made of steel, glass and wood. Designed by the architect responsible for the Eden Project, and at a cost of £200m, it's a relatively low rise facility that is both understated and modern. This would set something of a theme for the day.

Unfortunately the factory wasn't running, but even looking around the reception and waiting areas showed collections of Rolls Royce productions - from cars to cufflinks - that all showed precision manufacture and an awareness of tiny details, right down to the etched RR logo buried in the Ghost headlight unit.

This way, sir. The easiest way to enter is just to walk in.

Sitting in the back of a Ghost, there is so much to take in. All the materials are flawless, from the soft lambswool carpet to the leathers and veneers. As this car had the theatre pack option - allowing both control of the seat back screens, as well as any other function of the car not related to the driving including the front passenger seat position - there was an iDrive controller nestled between the seats, but the menu and option buttons appeared to be frosted glass. The airvent unit between the seats also sprouted what Rolls Royce call 'organ pull' controls to open the vents. Everywhere you looked, there were more details, materials and design touches to take in. Everything was incredibly well integrated though, and rather effortless. While a screen offering your choice of digital TV, DAB radio, phone, or whatever you choose to plug into the video connectors down by your foot may seem more A380 than Silver Spirit, it works very well.

Appropriately, I did have one burst of speed to enjoy. As Rolls Royce were providing the course car, they organised for me to take a ride up after a group of Le Mans prototypes had run. Once at the start line, seats were allocated amongst various guests, and sadly the Ghost was full. Would I mind going in the Mercedes instead? While the Ghost was a production model, the Mercedes - used by the Chief Marshall - was Bernd Mayländer's old company car from the 2008 F1 season. The dash contained the TV screens and warning lights from its time as the F1 safety car, and when running, the 6.3 litre bi-turbo engine was accompanied by a whirring of high pressure fuel pumps behind the seats which contribute to both the 680bhp output, and the 3mpg fuel consumption...

The Festival of Speed is many things to many different people. When I have attended in the past, it's been all about Formula One cars, photos, watching cars in action up the hill, noise and burgers. This sits happily alongside a different Festival of Speed, one of drinks, canapes and high society. Even looking around the show stands while munching on your locally sourced ice cream, there is a Gazoo-liveried Toyota GT-86 alongside a Gumpert Apollo courtesy of Michelin a few stands down from the new Mercedes CLS shooting brake.

In a way, the Festival of Speed is a beautiful analogy for Rolls Royce itself. The Festival of Speed is both a quintessentially English, high-society event while also showcasing the latest automotive technology. The trick that the Festival does so well though, is not having the technology - the F1 cars, the Le Mans hybrids, the concept cars and EV racing prototypes - make the event any less accessible or diminish its character. Having spent some time in the Ghost, I can certainly say the same is true of the Royce.