God, I hate driving on the wrong (left) side of the road, even if I'm situated on the wrong (right) side of the car. My left eye has spent its entire life lining up with the road's centerline and the left front corner of the car. When I'm in those rare foreign lands, my right eye (the right one) tends to line itself up with the ditch, not oncoming cars.
But to claim the first journalist drive in the new Rolls-Royce Wraith (and I did want that very badly), I had to fly to England.
Once behind the wheel, I was quick to abandon all pretense of cool competence in favor of not having some catastrophic international incident in a preproduction prototype of the 2014 Wraith. I took the first turn at the wheel, all right, because it was mostly on a limited-access dual carriageway (a backward version of our interstate). I was relieved when I was done and pulled over to the left (wrong) side of the road without incident.
Our afternoon blasting around the Goodwood Circuit, home of the Rolls-Royce factory, was another story altogether. With no one but myself out there, woman became one with machine. But since a driving report of the Wraith has been embargoed until after this magazine goes to press, that review is on hold.
A couple of observations, then.
First, does it strike you as odd that a car weighing 5200-ish pounds that is vast in all dimensions (although not as large as the Phantom line) is built in a factory surrounded by fields, farms, and roads that are a lane and a half wide? Right. This means that driving the Wraith around local roads is like running the Amtrak Coast Starlight on a Thomas the Tank Engine train track.
Second, the Wraith name is delicious. Slightly mysterious. Perhaps a guardian angel, but one that's a little bit wicked.
Richard Carter, the epitome of public-relations perfection in dress and in diction (South African, when he isn't doing a fine impression of my Michigander nasal quacking), recalled endless discussions over naming the exciting new shape, designed by Andreas Thurner. "There are a finite number of ethereal names -- Ghost, Phantom, Spirit. Naming is terribly important. We are running out of those names unless we resurrect names from the past." The last Wraith was launched in 1938.
Design director Giles Taylor told me: "With the Ghost [as the base], we had the length to do a fastback without running out of car and saying, 'Oh shit, we're finished.' To be honest, we started by saying, 'Let's do a coupe.' We did a little notch design, and it [looked like] a Phantom Coupe. But the fastback had the character we were looking for, that [classic] Maserati coupe, you know? The Ghibli. Look at the DB4s and DB5s, the Cisitalia, the Lancia Aurelia. The lines are un-self-conscious. The Wraith pays homage to those sectional values. It's formal below the belt. The cabin has a lovely window graphic evocative of the classic GTs."
On the road -- where all design must ultimately be judged -- the Wraith is magic. I was looking out a window at the long, tapered rear and the fabulous new wheels when the car began to pull away. Without thinking, I got up from my chair and went straight outside to watch it leave. Then I realized that was not something I would normally do. The Wraith is magnetic. It's fascinating how we think of Rolls-Royces as belonging to aristocratic snots. The reality is, they're being made by craftsmen who care deeply about what they're doing. Everyone who touched this car, from the people in the leather shop to the woodworkers to the engineers, is as far from haughty as you can imagine. Having met them, eaten and drank with them, and spent the day with them, when you drive the car you feel their warmth and care.
The last night, at dinner in a pub by the sea, having a piece of fish with the local ale, Carter said, "We're trying to make Rolls-Royce accessible." He's right. The best thing this fine company could do is to let tourists come see the factory, walk the grounds, and go for rides in the cars. It would help Rolls-Royce lose its perceived status as the vehicle of choice for the world's robber barons and, instead, to be appreciated as a work of art that's handcrafted, designed, and built by people like you and me. Only way more talented.
Until Rolls is open for those tours, why don't you go to rolls-roycemotorcars.com and take a virtual tour?
Take a virtual tour of Jean's website, too: www.jeanknowscars.com.