Driving the Rolls-Royce Dawn takes me on a trip down memory lane, and on the path to redemption
When past meets present – a letter to the uncle
DEAR UNCLE, Remember the set of keys you spent hours looking for? It was a quarter of a century ago so you probably don’t remember what I’m talking about, but I think the time is ripe to confess. You didn’t misplace that set but it was I who transferred that key to a different place. A safer place. I couldn’t bear the thought of not ever seeing that car in our garage again and I just had to have a physical memory of it. Something beyond the family photos and the trunk full of trophies we had won with it.
Hell, even I had forgotten about that key until today. Today those memories have all come rushing back. There was something strangely familiar about the shape of the Dawn’s Parthenon grille with the Spirit of Ecstasy adorning its crest that took me back to that day; reminded me of my guilt. Watching the sun rise over this disused industrial compound, lighting up the flanks of this gleaming new RollsRoyce, my mind jogged back to those Sunday mornings we would spend cleaning Dadu’s Phantom. How I would sit on those enormous running boards munching a sandwich, as we kids weren’t allowed to eat inside the car.
Life has come a full circle. For years I imagined what it would be like to drive Dadu’s Rolls, knowing full well that dream would remain but a dream. Except this is no dream. This is not a 1936 Phantom II, but this is a Rolls-Royce nevertheless. And just like our Rolls was at the cutting edge of automotive technology when it was introduced to Kolkata’s streets, so too this Dawn is the pinnacle of… well… I’m at a loss to explain what a two-door four-seat convertible represents except for decadence on an unimaginable scale. But the excitement I’m feeling, that fluttering of the heart is exactly what I used to get every time I climbed into the seat of our car and drove out in to my world of make-believe.
As my backside sighs into the wonderfully plush driver’s seat of the Dawn I remember, not without a hint of regret, how my little frame would sink into the black leather seat of our car and I couldn’t see past the polished oak dash. If I peered through the thin four-spoked steering wheel I would just about make out the wing tips of the Spirit of Ecstasy. Even today I can’t see her except I realise the Flying Lady can be sunk into the grille at the touch of a button. I touch that button and am presented with a view that very, very few get to experience. You should consider yourself fortunate to have experienced that in your youth! I’m only thankful that despite sinking at least six inches into the plushness of the red leather I can see well past the flat expanse of the bonnet and the road ahead. Oh what a view it is! I imagine this is the view aircraft carrier commanders get from the helm of their warships. And of course, my feet can reach the two pedals quite easily. You remember how much I struggled to get my right foot on the throttle? No longer.
I also remember how that steering wheel felt in my little palms and the Dawn triggers some of those memories. Unlike the cars I test on a regular basis the Dawn has a large and thin-rimmed helm. If a gentleman of the Raj wanted to race the Orient Express he got himself a Bentley. If a gentleman wanted to drive like a gentleman ought to he got himself a Rolls, and that philosophy continues with the Dawn. This is a Rolls for that rare species of super-wealthy that likes to drive themselves but this is also a car that will not be hustled.
Some things of course are different, and the wood veneer on this feels quite different to my fingers from the memories stored and cherished for all these years. The RR fellows call the wood veneers ‘book-matched’ as if the wood on your car was mismatched. The white-faced dials too look different or am I wrong in assuming your Phantom didn’t have white-faced dials? I also can’t remember there being a tachometer on our car, and neither does the Dawn have one. Instead it gets something called a power reserve counter, which I shall explain to you shortly. And of course the velvet upholstery of the passenger cabin has now been replaced with leather. What is it that you told me, that royalty sat on velvet and leather seats were only reserved for drivers and the help as they were hard wearing? Yes, the times, they are a changin’.
There’s no way I can repay you for all the memorable drives in our Phantom but let me try by taking you for a drive in the Dawn. There’s a 6.6-litre V12 under a bonnet that stretches half way to Kolkata and with twin turbochargers it makes 563bhp and 780Nm. Those two figures are unimaginable. You step on it – yes I know gentlemen don’t ‘step on it’ but I’ve got petrol in my veins – and the prow rises. Gracefully but very, very powerfully. There’s a punch in the small of my back, delivered with a velvet glove. It’s like the hand of god pushing
you towards the horizon; the turn of pace is unreal. 100kmph takes less than 5 seconds, 4.9 to be precise. Top speed is an electronically limited 250kmph but then who cares about top speed in a car of this kind? This is about cruising in yacht-like luxury. And that power reserve counter, it’s always showing 90 per cent in reserve, but I guess that’s to be expected when 780Nm peaks at just 1500rpm.
There is of course an automatic gearbox, eight speeds in this case, but nothing so… unbecoming … as a Sports mode. Not even a manual mode, I guess a Rolls owner doesn’t concern himself with shifting gears even via paddles or some such. Nope, this automatic gearbox is sat-linked and if, for instance, it detects you are on a winding road it will downshift with more urgency than before. Kind of like Jeeves thinking for you.
I wish our Bengali version of Jeeves was around, to remind me of what our Rolls used to sound like. Oh wait, she hardly made any noise did she? No wonder I have no memory of it! And so too this Dawn. Thumb the polished starter button and you hear… nothing! Not even with that fabric top folded down and out of the way, which incidentally takes 22 seconds and can be done at speeds of up to 50kmph. Did I mention that the folding of the roof is also achieved silently? It’s called a ‘Silent Ballet’ in RR-speak – in my line of work we learn something new everyday! The only sound is the ticking of the Seamaster I’m wearing, the one you gave me when I graduated.
I’m embarrassed to admit that I also attempted to explore the Dawn’s handling, in hindsight pushing the tyres on its sidewalls seems like a most inelegant thing to do. That said, this cruise liner does turn. It has active anti-roll bars and the structure is stiff, which cuts body roll through turns. You can position it wherever you want on the road and it reacts remarkably crisply. The ride quality that you so used to like, what you had once called a magic carpet over Kolkata’s pothole-ridden roads, is probably a Rolls-Royce hallmark (of course I had no idea about it at the time). The Dawn too glides over everything under its wheels; potholes, bumps, ruts… everything. Only RR has a name for it now. They call it wafting.
So I wafted my way through the test drive, the photoshoot and down memory lane to that day, 25 years ago when I had sneaked into your room. I knew exactly where you kept that third set of keys. How
THE WOOD VENEER ON THIS FEELS QUITE DIFFERENT TO MY FINGERS FROM THE MEMORIES STORED AND CHERISHED
could I not? I had seen you take it from there so many times on your way to the garage. The sight of you searching for them when they came to take the car away has never left me. I felt guilty that I was causing you so much trouble but I was angry too because that car was special and I hadn’t driven it and they were taking it away. I may even have wept a little but boys don’t cry so we will leave it at that. But the Dawn has put me in a special place. If not for that subconscious longing to drive Dadu’s Rolls I doubt I’d have set off on a path that now has me testing cars for a living. And driving a Dawn is, without doubt, one of the more spectacular moments of my working life. The luxury, the opulence, the decadence – my god!
I must also tell you that this Dawn costs a breathtaking eight and a half crore rupees. Think about it, if a new Rolls costs so much what might an eight decade old Rolls be worth right now? If you’re now pining for the car we once had, go into my old room and look at the back of the second shelf of the short steel cupboard for a little red jewellery box. In there you’ll find what you didn’t that day.
DRIVING A DAWN IS, WITHOUT DOUBT, ONE OF THE MORE SPECTACULAR MOMENTS OF MY WORKING LIFE
Above: Tachometers are for lesser mortals, RR owners need to know how much more they can access. Below: That Parthenon grille, the Spirit of Ecstasy and the suicide doors have been an RR signature since 1909
Facing page: My heart still flutters when the Spirit of Ecstasy emerges. Top: With a sub 5-second 0-100kmph, this might be all you see. Above: The profile is more yacht-like than car. Left: Like our old ‘36 Phantom’s straight six, this V12 barely purrs