Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

January 17, 2022
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You can drive my car

How does a GP get to drive a Rolls-Royce? By becoming a car journalist, of course

As a busy family physician I somehow found time to pursue aviation as a hobby — even though my true love has always been the automobile. However, I was able to use my flying experiences to convince (or should I say trick) an editor into believing that someone with a multiengine rating and a commercial pilot license should be knowledgeable and high-tech enough to write about cars.

Neither the editor nor the car companies asked about the excruciating number of inept accidents I've had while reversing. It wouldn't have bothered the car manufacturers too much, as it's widely known within the industry (except perhaps to auto journalists themselves) that car writers write better than they drive.

Parlaying my aviation pseudo-sophistication into a place among national car writers, I was able to get an assignment to the Arctic Circle for Volvo's introduction of the S70; to Hawaii for Mazda's presentation of its Miata; to Germany, where I drove BMW's flagship M1 on the autobahn at speeds that now frighten me. I also made what I suspect must be the slowest lap at Le Mans, France in a Peugeot turbo diesel; and was the first North American car journalist to sample a prototype Ferrari Mondial on the factory's Pista di Fiorano test track in Maranello, Italy.

But none of those cars had the allure or the mystique of Rolls-Royce. My forelock-touching reverence for Rolls-Royce started in the late 1930s when I was a small boy in the equally small town of Crieff, Scotland, and one of the local gentry parked his Hooper 1929 Phantom close to where I was standing. He flipped me a shining sixpence with "Hey! Guard my car for half an hour, that's a good old chap!"

I never wanted him to come back.

My veneration continued when, as Edinburgh medical students in the '50s, we'd scurry out of the way as consultants to the Royal Infirmary purred into our domain in their fancy cars — attending physicians in the refined Rolls-Royces and the blood-and-guts surgeons in the more boisterous Bentleys. Later, as residents, we'd stand at attention while freezing our anatomy in the hospital car park waiting for those same cars as they came for Grand Rounds on Saturday mornings.

Problems of the Rich
Those cars reminded young doctors that F. Scott Fitzgerald was right when he said the rich are different. They are. They stay at hotels such as the Brenner's Park in Bavaria, where an employee does nothing but polish coins so guests never have their hands soiled by change. They fly in corporate jets like the late Time Warner boss, Steve Ross, who needed a second jet to carry the gifts he brought on a Christmas trip to Mexico. They can drive a car that costs as much as a house and revel in the fact that it's the best in the world.

Once I, too, had this sense of careless abandon — albeit short-lived. After I'd written some articles about Rolls-Royce, a friend at the company sent up a white 1981 Silver Wraith from New Jersey for use at my daughter's wedding in New Hampshire. Afterwards, the bride asked if I'd take some wedding gifts to her apartment in New York when I returned the car.

I agreed before finding that, to my dismay, one of the gifts was a large kitchen table. The table was in a big, flat cardboard box and I had to fix the trunk to force it to stay open. It made for an embarrassing ride, especially at a time when Rolls-Royce was asking car journalists driving its vehicles to wear a white shirt, tie and dark jacket.

It poured rain and the cardboard got soaked. As I went over the curved ramp at the Triborough Bridge into Manhattan in heavy traffic a piece of wet cardboard blew off the table, flew out of my trunk and skittered past the driver-side window. I was distracted and skidded.

I overcorrected and went down the ramp sideways — across the lanes at the only moment when all were empty. I recovered my nerves and have never mentioned it till now. But it taught me that the rich are not only different, but they also have different problems.

One of those problems apparently occurs when a man dressed in tails for an evening function wishes to check the oil level in his Rolls. This difficulty was conquered in the mid-20th century. "See!" said Reg Abbiss, the former vice president of communications in the North American office, bending over my shoulder to demonstrate, "When you press this button the fuel gauge becomes an oil gauge; you don't have to get your white gloves dirty when you check your oil." Wow, I thought. I'll remember that the next time I'm wearing tails and white gloves.

Parking the Rolls at Work
If white gloves go with a Rolls, white coats don't. My partners used to complain that, if I was testing a Rolls-Royce and parked it at our office, collections dropped the next month. That didn't bother the staff in our four-doctor practice. As long as I took them to a drive-through restaurant at lunch so we could roll down the windows and order our hot dogs we were all happy.

The 1980s were great days for Rolls-Royce. It was hard to believe the parent company had approached bankruptcy 10 years earlier because of cost overruns on the airplane engine that powered the Boeing 747 and Lockheed Tristar.

In the '80s, Rolls had style. It had an outside temperature device that flashed "ice" on the warning panel if the temperature dropped below freezing, an odometer that went to 999,999.9 miles and a stereo system described as "a 120 mph concert hall." It had the famed cathedral radiator grill — after the Coca-Cola logo the most recognizable trademark in the world. A dozen sheet metal workers practised this "black art," hand-making the Parthenon-curved entasis which made the shell look perfect. They each averaged a quarter century of service to Rolls-Royce.

At that time, every Rolls-Royce since 1906 had contained a throttle-knuckle joint which seemed to smooth the gasoline flow. Nothing had appeared to improve on this gadget Henry Royce first put in his cars more than 90 earlier. Yet the energy crisis necessitated that cars become lighter. This was not easy at Rolls-Royce because Henry always said to never put in one bolt if you can get in two.


Old Faithful?
In the 1990s, the cars were starting to look tired. It must have been hard for a company to stay leading edge when so few cars were being sold. Numbers fell even as dot-com wealth swept North America. Rolls-Royce sold only 600 cars in 1998 and 444 in 1999. In the US, its best market, it sold only 75 cars in 2001 and 75 in 2002. The decline had started.

I test-drove a Corniche Convertible around the turn of the century. It was then priced at $US359,000. I pulled out of the dealer's lot into heavy traffic. Cars ahead slowed, I caressed the brakes and nothing happened. I stood on them hard. My heart stopped but the car didn't — until it was inches from the car in front.

I dragged back to the dealer's to complain. "It's not our car," a salesman cheerfully explained. "It's a factory car sent for the convenience of local car journalists. You're not the first to comment about the brakes!" I drove it carefully for a few days but it was no longer fun.

And it wasn't fun following the tribulations of the company as it went on the block at the end of the 1990s. Mercedes affected disinterest; it had its own high-priced Maybach to market. But two other German companies fancied the brand: BMW and Volkswagen. The British press, aghast that so famous a British company might be sold to a German one, watched fascinated as the two duked it out.

Volkswagen won — but its lawyers had failed to notice that the parent company of Rolls-Royce held the right to the name, not the car company itself. The final business transaction got Volkswagen the Rolls factory and the brand Bentley (and, for obvious reasons, new lawyers!) — but BMW was able to snatch the Rolls-Royce name.

What BMW bought was 100 years of great history. For 60 of those years, Rolls-Royce had set the standards for engineering and luxury. But in the 1990s it was turning out the most beautifully-crafted cars — of the 1960s. The only reason then to buy a premium product that was essentially a dinosaur was perhaps to impress your neighbour.

Reversing Rolls
BMW knew it had work to do. It brought 20 designers and engineers to London to an empty building near Hyde Park. The group was given a clean sheet of paper and told to design the Rolls-Royce of the 21st century. A new factory rose up near London, 500 employees were hired, the association with BMW was muted and the new Rolls-Royce Motor Cars emerged with a North American office in New Jersey.

The US is still the brand's biggest market, with Southern California, Southern Florida and Metropolitan New York stacking up in that order. The Canadian dealership is in Toronto. Says Leo Rubino, director of sales operations at Rolls-Royce Motors Toronto, whose dealership sold nine Rolls-Royces last year, "I don't think there are any differences between customers in Canada and the United States — the Rolls-Royce stands alone. It has a big, brute-looking quality, but once you drive it you find it conforms neatly to the road. My customers call it a coach on wheels."

The name Phantom Centennial was chosen for the 2004 car, though perhaps Phoenix would have been more appropriate. Rolls-Royce really has risen like Lazarus from the dead. Two years ago, you could buy a Phantom in New York for $US355,300.05, though I suspect Manhattan Motorcars wouldn't have made an issue about the nickel.

But buying a Rolls-Royce is not buying a car, it's making a statement. Says Bob Austin, general manager communications, Rolls-Royce Motor Cars NA. "The word to describe our owners is success.' One third of our customers are persons whose names you'd recognize. You can't sell a third-of-a-million-dollar car to everyone," he explained. He clarified that the psychology behind the purchase may not be what we imagine: "You don't buy a Rolls-Royce to show off; you buy because you've worked hard or worked smart all your life, you have achieved everything you expected to achieve and now you owe it to yourself to buy the best car you can get."

If Rolls customers owe it to themselves, the company certainly delivers. In the "bespoke program" buyers can sit down with the designer and make requests. Rolls has had the trunk reconfigured and a safe placed in it; they've added humidors, drink cabinets and computer stations. And although they offer 18 standard colours and 60 percent of their customers choose black, Rolls offers an unbelievable 45,000 exterior colours. One woman chose a colour by sending examples of her nail polish. Another wrote, "I've always had my Rolls-Royces trimmed in wood from my own forest. May I send you a tree?"

The Japanese market is 95 percent bespoke, but North America customers are not patient enough to wait the one year that might take. We are one of the few markets that buys off the floor. One New York customer came in with a poodle and opened a door in each of the floor models. The dog showed no interest then suddenly jumped into one. "We'll take that car!" said the woman. The same thing happened in Florida with a Great Dane.

Phantom at the Opera
So what's the Phantom like to drive? Well, as Rubino said in Toronto: it's big. It's 20 percent larger than any large car. It may seem massive but, with its rigid and strong aluminum space frame, it comes in at 250 kilograms lighter than the Maybach, its Mercedes competitor.

Yet the Phantom's height created problems. The designers wanted the car to be impressively tall, but historically a Rolls-Royce height has always been twice the height of its wheels. The designers decided the wheels would be 78.64 centimetres, but nobody made tires that size, so they had to be special ordered.

For such a big car, its drag coefficient of 0.383 is reasonable. This figure indicates how aerodynamic a car is — the smaller the number, the better. A Hummer H2 rates 0.57, a Porsche Boxster 0.29 and a Toyota Prius 0.26. In the US, testers of the Phantom claimed 5.8 kilometres per litre in cities and 10 kilometres per litre on the highway.

At a recent press introduction in Southern California for 24 national car journalists, where DOCTOR'S REVIEW rubbed shoulders with Car & Driver, Road & Track and Playboy, six Phantoms were made available. Cones were placed on one runway, 21 metres apart for slalom performance, and other cones for the "Moose test." Here the challenge was to swerve at 97 kilometres per hour into the left lane because cones blocked your path, then to snap back to the right, the gap being 14 metres.

The final adventure was simply blasting down the runway at a top speed of 208 kilometres per hour to note how stable and silent the car was at that speed. If you start and remain in first gear you can go from 0 to 97 kilometres per hour in less than six seconds!

The new Rolls-Royce is a surprise. It's twice as stiff as a Formula 1 racing car, and it shows. The speed-sensitive rack-and-pinion steering is sensational and though the tires squealed on the slalom course, the car remained incredibly stable. Watching others, I felt that they seemed almost out of control because the car was really being flung around. But when it was my turn I felt completely in command — the Rolls is so responsive, it doesn't feel heavy or awkward to drive.

The exquisite Logic7 sound system is absolutely the best I've ever heard in a car. It was developed by Harman International and created by Lexicon using 15 speakers, two of which (45 litres of sub-woofer) were engineered into the floor space. The rear compartment gives real privacy to those in the back, though Rolls-Royce says a surprising number of new owners sit in the front because the Phantom is much more fun to drive than previous models.

I felt the brake light was mounted too high above the rear window, reducing a little of the driver's view of the road behind. I also couldn't really see the lower dash controls in front of my left knee and I've never liked how thin the steering wheel is in Rolls-Royces. But those were my only complaints.

It seems the ultimate winners in the bizarre transaction that gave BMW the right to make Rolls-Royces are going to be the customers. BMW has gone out of its way to allow its new company a free hand and let it strive for perfection as did Henry Royce a century ago.

There are a lot of nice touches: umbrellas are inserted into both rear doors; when the car stops, the hubcaps always remain with the logo RR upright; the dash clock rotates into the navigation system; and an instrument on the dash tells drivers how much reserve power they have if, say, they are about to overtake.

The famous hood ornament can be lowered if the driver wishes. The designers felt this famous Spirit of Ecstasy hood ornament was too big and ostentatious for today's cars. Furthermore, so many hood ornaments had been made from the original mould that the features had become obscured. BMW went to the descendants of Eleanor Thornton, who was the 1911 model for the Nike-inspired statuette that has graced Rolls-Royce's hoods ever since, and created a new mould from family photographs. Eleanor had been the "personal" assistant of Lord Montagu, an aristocratic car enthusiast, and both drowned travelling together when their liner was sunk by a U-boat in 1915.

The BMW fastidiousness with niceties suggests this automobile legend is now in safe hands. Says Peter Miles, president of Rolls-Royce Motor Cars NA, "If you had to pick a custodian for this most famous of British car brands, you'd be hard pressed to find a better one than BMW. I'd like to think that in 10 years' time, people will say the defining moment in 110 years of Rolls-Royce history was this moment."


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