CHICHESTER, England — The Dawn is the best-looking car by Rolls-Royce since the iconic British firm came under German ownership a dozen years ago. That’s our opinion, yes, but if reactions of the guests who were treated to a glimpse of a preproduction example of this elegant 2016 convertible at the Pebble Beach Concours in August are any indication, it’s a simple, objective fact as well.
It has been more than eight decades since the rugged and reliable Rolls-Royce Silver Ghost was proclaimed by the automaker to be “The Best Car in the World.” Since those glorious days, there followed many splendid Rolls-Royces but also some truly dismal ones, notably in the Great Depression era. And when BMW and Volkswagen were ferociously vying to acquire the R-R and Bentley brands in 1998, almost any Japanese economy car was better engineered and certainly more reliable than the revered symbols of British imperial superiority. But what can you expect from a firm on the verge of bankruptcy?
With BMW now in charge, every Rolls-Royce coming from the splendid, purpose-built factory on Lord March’s fabulous Goodwood Estate in southern England is now actually as good as the firm’s carefully cultivated reputation has long claimed. The Rolls-Royce Dawn convertible is the latest expression of this renewed corporate spirit. It shares its 122.5-inch wheelbase as well as its chassis architecture with the Wraith coupe and, like all modern Rolls-Royces, it features a twin-turbo V-12 derived from the engine used in the BMW 760Li.
The overall impression here is beauty and elegance, not just some designer’s stylistic self-indulgence.
If the Wraith is the hot rod of the Rolls-Royce lineup, the Dawn convertible is the marque’s boulevard cruiser, and it makes you see yourself motoring elegantly in Nice, France, along the Promenade des Anglais. Its name recalls the Rolls-Royce Silver Dawn drophead of 1952, a grand car that symbolized Britain’s emergence from the shadow of World War II, appearing in the same era that Queen Elizabeth II ascended the throne, Edmund Hillary climbed Mount Everest, the de Havilland Comet jet airliner made its first commercial flight, and a British car won the 24 Hours of Le Mans for the first time since the Lagonda in 1935.
Of course the new Rolls-Royce Dawn is presently too far from production for us to drive, but it shouldn’t be too different from the Wraith, a gleaming black example of which we recently drove on the roads that surround the factory. The Rolls-Royce Wraith has 624 hp at its command, yet we still expect the less powerful Dawn to provide a similar impression of endless power and torque, as its 6.6-liter twin-turbo V-12 will deliver 563 hp at 5,250 rpm and 575 lb-ft of torque at 1,500 rpm. We’re told that the Dawn is meant to accelerate to 60 mph in less than 5 seconds, amazingly quick for a massive car that measures 208.1 inches from tip to tail and weighs 5,644 pounds. The Wraith and the Dawn might be the smallest cars in the Rolls-Royce line, but one is struck by their overall size, which is a matter of concern not only on the British roads near Goodwood that were laid down a thousand or more years ago but also on the traffic-choked streets of Beverly Hills.
Rolls-Royce makes a point about bringing some utility to big convertibles such as this with an interior that is configured to truly fit four passengers rather than only two passengers in front and two picnic baskets behind, which was all the Bentley Azure could manage a decade ago. Rest assured, a man with a 97.5-percentile torso length can sit in the back of the Dawn with ample clearance between his head and the folding top’s headliner. The baseline of the side glass rises toward the rear, giving rear passengers the impression of being particularly well protected from the weather and the prying eyes of those on the sidewalk.
The convertible’s multi-layer fabric top results in a car as quiet as a limousine as far as wind noise is concerned, at least according to the test driver who had brought a heavily camouflaged Dawn prototype from the proving ground down to Goodwood for us to examine. Meanwhile, those who retract the electrically powered roof will be impressed by the manner in which it happens. A wood-paneled section behind the rear seats lifts up and back to allow the softtop with its glass backlight to drop into its hiding place. The whole carefully choreographed business takes 22 seconds to perform.
What really distinguishes the Dawn is its vastly superior aesthetic presentation. Rolls-Royce says 80 percent of the body panels are unique to the Dawn, and it’s better for it. The roof is beautifully profiled, and its high point has been located properly over the driver’s head, whereas the roof of the Wraith peaks a little too far forward. The rear profile is subtly in tune with the softly sensuous sheetmetal curves. In the 1940s, many wealthy Americans bought convertibles for their style, even though they never put the tops down. And thus was invented the “hard-top convertible coupe,” the first examples of which were Buicks and Cadillacs. That can, and probably will, happen again with the Dawn.
The Dawn is subtly voluptuous where old Rolls-Royces are strictly architectural. Notice the evolution of the classic, handmade R-R radiator shell, a graphic symbol that dates back to the 1906 Silver Ghost. The traditional, three-plane Parthenon-style shape has slowly been softened, and a curve now exists across the top, while the strict vertical arrangement of the grille bars that most Rolls have carried has been maintained. For both the Wraith and Dawn, these bars are recessed into the shell by 1.8 inches, while the Dawn’s lower front bumper has been extended 2.1 inches compared to the Wraith’s, which is meant to focus attention on the convertible’s jetlike front air intake.
The overall impression is beauty and elegance, not just some designer’s stylistic self-indulgence. This is a credit to Rolls-Royce design director Giles Taylor, who, as a former leading stylist at Citroën, knows something about the design of cars out of the mainstream. It is up to Taylor and his small team of multinational designers that both legacy clients and completely new ones are assured of continuity with the legend and aura of Rolls-Royce while bringing the aesthetic forward and, in some cases, dramatically altering it.
The example of the Dawn you see here, photographed in a secret London studio, wears Midnight Sapphire paint over a leather-upholstered interior in Mandarin Orange—a dramatic combination that is a far cry from the received ideas of Rolls-Royce from days of yore. It no doubt outrages traditionalists, yet it looks surprisingly unsurprising to our eyes. Besides, traditionalists were the people who put the firm into a decline that would have led to oblivion had not new owners and new attitudes come into play.
With the Rolls-Royce Dawn, the name of a new car for once has some resonance with what it represents for its manufacturer. One really can talk about a new dawn for Rolls-Royce, as some strictures of the past have been relaxed to assure that the revered standard of vehicular superiority will be as relevant to the radically different global society of the 21st century as previous ones were to the lingering vestiges of the imperial era of Victorian and Edwardian times.
1. A soft curve, very slightly flattened for the center 8 or 9 inches, is completely different from the three-straight-segment grille top used for more than 100 years on all Rolls-Royce cars.
2. The lower inner corner of the Wraith and Dawn grilles has a large radius in front view, with the traditional vertical grille bars recessed from the nominal front surface plane of the shell.
3. The outer lower corner is a strict, sharp 90-degree change from the vertical sides to the horizontal base of the shell.
4. The top of the A-pillar has a slight rearward hook in the painted portion, but the bright trim is properly straight and has a nicely dimensioned radius that leads the trim across the windshield header, giving no impression of being a coupe with the roof removed. Very nice indeed.
5. The prognathous chin sticks out ahead of the nominal bumper strike face, a truly unusual execution.
6. Critical to the perfect shape of the softtop is placement of the high point of the profile being slightly behind the driver’s head. Executing this same roof in steel would be far more beautiful than the awkward fastback of the Wraith, and it could still have the “night sky” liner.
7. The unobtrusive but important slight surface change in the body side skins recapitulate the profile of the rear-hinged door’s leading edge, a surface modulation repeated for both front- and rear-wheel openings to good effect.
8. The subtle, sensuous curve of the Dawn rear fender is three-dimensional in the sense that the form rises over the rear wheel and “Coke bottles” outward in plan around the wheel opening. Whether the hard-painted coach line is necessary will require examining a car without it. The basic form is excellent either way.
9. The perimeter trim for the taillights is amazingly complex, worthy of M.C. Escher at his best. Transitions from convex to concave surfaces are beautifully managed, and the rim is properly proportioned from any angle.
10. More subtlety in the creation of a trip lip for the rear airflow that must reduce the aerodynamic wake of the Dawn while giving some definition to the rear deck.
11. Uncomplicated but still very nice, the exhaust outlet trims nicely punctuate the considerable mass of the rear body, which must accommodate the substantial top when folded, and still retain some useful baggage space.
2016 Rolls-Royce Dawn Specifications
- Price: $320,000 (est)
- Engine: 6.6L twin-turbo DOHC 48-valve V-12/563 hp @ 5,250 rpm, 575 lb-ft@ 1,500 rpm
- Transmission: 8-speed automatic
- Layout: 2-door, 4-passenger, frontengine, RWD convertible
- L x W x H: 208.1 x 76.7 x 59.1 in
- Wheelbase: 122.5 in
- Weight: 5,644 lb
- Fuel Mileage: 16/24 mpg (city/hwy) (est)
- 4.8 sec (est)
- Top Speed: 155 mph