Bear with me if I wax poetic. You'll understand.
It was unbelievable luck. Five full days in England in May and the weather was sent from heaven; 75*F and sun with perfectly spaced cotton-puffball clouds. There was one rain squall west of Oxford on Day Three that lasted an hour or so, but it just made the two cars look incredible and that much more in their element. The raindrops on the long hoods vibrated with the engine revs and leaned as we steered through the gusting winds.
A True Grey Poupon Moment.
Brought to you by the Rolls-Royce Phantom VI and Bentley Continental GT you see here. We didn't put them together out of any stretch in our imaginations that might legitimately compare them. It's just that Bentley and Rolls-Royce are the two quintessential British marques and will forever be mentioned in the same breath with kings, queens, sultans, sheiks and maharajahs. And driving these two side-by-side from the right front seat over hill and dale in the place where they mean the most is something we all should have a chance to do in our lives.
But even driving these cars under these conditions isn't the whole story. On Day One we drove them both to the still spanking new (June 2002) Rolls-Royce headquarters on the south English coast, then on Day Two we headed north to Bentley HQ in the hallowed Crewe stomping grounds. Full tours of each facility ensued. By Day Three we were comfortable driving on the wrong side of the road and we had a more complete sense of how important these two magic rides are to their country of origin and their respective companies. Our driving styles even altered into a statelier mode and every curve was to be carved, not cut.
Now go ahead. Go ahead and laugh at me and tell me that both Rolls and Bentley are owned and run by Germans--the former by BMW and the latter by Volkswagen. Bathe me in your cackling skepticism, pointing out that the Continental GT uses a modified version of the VW Phaeton architecture and W12 engine and drivetrain. Bronx-cheer me all you want as you tell me that almost every single part on the Phantom VI is sent to the south English coast courtesy of BMW in Bavaria.
Who cares? The truth of the matter is that in most every respect both Bentley and Rolls-Royce are far better global companies in the hands of German management and the quality of the assembly (still done absolutely by Brits and just a few key robots in both cases) is greatly improved thanks to high German standards. I loved these companies when both were in Crewe and jumped at any chance to drive one or the other. Now my faith has paid off and both marques are getting back their distinct British mojo thanks to major German faith.
Did We Cost God His Job?
The timing was certainly uncanny, anyway. We interviewed the Rolls-Royce chairman-CEO in his lair on the South Downs on the Wednesday before his surprise resignation at the start of the following week.
"Gott" in German means God and I'm certain that many a German speaker called Tony "Herr Gott", or Mr. God, when addressing him. Gott was the last #1 man when both companies were still united in Crewe and has always been one of the least self-obsessed executives in the car business. He will be missed. His replacement at Rolls, Karl-Heinz Kalbfell, has been involved in managing the Rolls-Royce rekindling from the start and will make a fine complement to Bentley's Franz-Josef Paefgen (and Aston Martin's Ulrich Bez).
Rolling Into Chichester
The front gate to the $90-million new Rolls-Royce facility on the Goodwood Estate in Westhampnett near Chichester is just there all by itself on the south side of a brand new roundabout. We drove up and over the rise on The Drive and peered down upon the expansive front carport surrounded by a glass palace. Dreamy stuff and any employee building cars anywhere else might rightly feel pangs of envy. Landscaping is all new and most of the trees are saplings held up by thick wires against the nearly constant wind off the ocean.
Hell of a contrast to the Phantom VI the place crafts at a rate approaching six a day. There isn't a wind made that can knock over a 5,489-lb Phantom.
I hadn't personally seen the facility, not even in pictures, until this visit. From what I'd read everywhere I was expecting a factory totally covered in heaps of local sod to create a manmade hillock, cattle grazing peacefully above the assembly line, lighting supplied by solar-powered chandeliers, beer kept naturally chilled by the constant underground climate and the like.
In reality, the design by Sir Nicolas Grimshaw is all airy glass, metal and wood with large solar-activated sunshades all around, discreet sedum groundcover planted over the entire low-lying roof and manmade lakes that act as heat exchangers for the air conditioning. Lord March's Goodwood Estate is prime National Trust material and the chief demand made on the design was that it be seen as little as humanly possible. Grimshaw tackled this chiefly by bulldozing dirt to form a surrounding rise that almost meets the height of the facility, very much like a Bronze Age earthen defense. In other words, this ain't Buick City.
And heard as little as possible. Deliveries are forbidden between 7 p.m. and 7 a.m. With all heavy manufacturing of Phantom parts happening elsewhere, Goodwood is almost strictly an assembly zone which certainly helps noise levels as well. Within the BMW Group family, Rolls-Royce is the arbiter of bespoke luxury and a major ingredient in this is the interiors of leather and wood. Being near the boat-building capitol of Southampton, there were many local craftspeople eager to join the Rolls staff and ply their trades away from the scent of fish. Other than painting the cars on-site, wood and leather are the only two areas in which actual manufacturing occurs and, again, high-decibel levels don't come into play. The hides provided by Hewa in Germany are all from bulls (cowhides often suffer during the dying processes) and all are beef cattle.
The famed "Spirit of Ecstasy" hood ornament--also called "The Flying Lady," sometimes "The Silver Lady," even nicknamed "Emily" by some--comes in batches of six from Polycast in Southampton. To prevent hood ornament thievery while parked at the local Circle K and to satisfy some international pedestrian-impact laws, she can duck down out of site at the press of a button in the glove compartment, or you can make her do this automatically every time the engine stops.
It was amazing to see around 60 Phantom VI bodies in white (a chalky sage green really) from the Dingolfing, Germany, factory in various states of assembly. The aluminum space frame architecture is tank-like in its construction, certainly helping make this Rolls over twice as stiff as any previous Rolls when it comes to on-road twisting stresses.
Each Phantom VI takes roughly 250 man hours to complete, compared to 25 hours for a New MINI at the plant up the road in Oxford. A total of 500 people work on the site. The early goal is still 1,000 cars per year, but the operation could expand a little in the future and add a second shift if it wanted in order to deliver up to 2,000 annually.