The commemoration of an epic alpine endurance race was the occasion to celeberate the legend of the ‘Ghost,’ and see just how it earned its title of ‘Best Car in the World.’
Hairpin turns. Curves. Clouds. Just a couple of degrees on the thermometer. In short – the Stelvio Pass. What is a Rolls-Royce doing here – bigger than a battleship of the British empire – climbing vigorously up 2,758 meters to the most legendary pass in the Alps? You would expect the Ghost to ride pretty well on the polished asphalt of Knightsbridge in London, with the ubiquitous chauffeur who opens the door for the lady covered in Harrod’s shopping bags. Instead, here we are, tackling curve-after-curve with a Spirit of Ecstasy on the bow, while framing the snow-capped peaks as an ideal viewfinder, taking the necessary steps to avoid getting catastrophically stuck between a guardrail and a bus.
We came to the mountains between Lombardy and South Tryol for two fundamental reasons. First, for the opportunity to get behind the wheel of this symbol of British style, immortal like the 5 o’clock tea and Queen Elizabeth, here, on the Italian stage of the Alpine Trial – an exhausting endurance race, which, 100 years ago, saw the triumph of the Ghost’s ‘grandmother,’ the Silver Ghost (see the box on the left). So it’s no coincidence, then, that behind us there is an inexorable line of grumbling and slow, but monumental and vintage, Rolls-Royce’s, driven by elegant and wealthy owners dressed in tweeds and big goggles, which make the scene all the more surreal. The second, but no less important, aspect – the Ghost is a real modern-day Rolls. In other words, definitely a regal car as befits the noble British brand (though it has fallen, as has its Bentley ‘cousin,’ into German hands), but also capable of combining a considerable mass (2.4 tonnes) and the gallantry of a sports car (the 6.6 litre V12 engine delivers 563bhp) with a startling agility.
So much so that we are able to stick, one after the other, every bend in Stelvio, as if they were pearls on a silk string. The perception of the road is so muffled that one seems to be flying on a cloud. But, it’s not as if under the hood of the Phantom’s ‘little sister’ they have inserted a pair of electric engines in order to guarantee an even more absolute silence to the few who can afford such a monument on wheels. The technicians of the British brand assure us that this is not the case, and explain that this effect is due to quasi-maniacal soundproofing, in addition to a refined system of electronic pneumatic suspension. Even the doors don’t slam shut, there are simply no unwelcome sounds – please remember that we are in a Rolls, and that the doors must come to us. This is done by a locking mechanism that hooks them.
So, then, if below this there is all this horsepower prancing about, when the street becomes more challenging with a spectacular sequences of curves, the real test begins. And it’s here that the Ghost shows the other aspect of its character. It’s this facet that induces many of the 2,700 fortunate owners (in 2012; for 2013, the forecast looks even brighter) to ask the chauffeur to move aside and hand over the steering wheel. This is the moment in which the mind that is not yet fogged by the altitude clearly sees the ability of BMW, the brand’s owner, independent of the fact that the transfer of technology from Munich is still consistent (even if they prefer to forget this fact at Goodwood), has not denatured the fascination and the rarefied atmosphere that only a Rolls-Royce can evoke.
The Germans were able to transforms a slightly dusty company into an organisation that churns out profit and looks (almost exclusively) to ever newer horizons. But, at the same time, they were able to retain all the things that make this car an extra-temporal icon, which requires 20 days of work and pampers you with a profusion of leather, burl wood, and chrome. Your feet sink in the essential lambswool carpets. Then there’s the club sandwich carefully set on the picnic tables, together with the crystal chalices and the champagne bottle that emerges, at just the right temperature, from the refrigerated box. At this point, there’s nothing else to do than to sink into the back seats, leaving to others the task of manoeuvring the helm. Because that’s where the Rolls-Royce also demands indulgence.
In celebration of the ‘Best Car in the World,’ 48 vintage Rolls retraced the 2,900 kilometer Raid that saw the triumph of the Silver Ghost
James Radley was never phased or rattled – the English gentleman driver of repute. An expert in endurance racing, he had prepared his Silver Ghost carefully to confront the gruelling Alpine Trial, one of the best-known races in which cars tested their resistance at the dawn of motorization. He had already taken part in 1912, but he was forced to forfeit due to a transmission issue. In the summer of 1913, after having developed a new transmission and a reinforced suspension, he tried it again, crossing the finish line after 2,900 kilometers of riding the Alps between Austria, Switzerland, Italy and Slovenia. The victory would award the Silver Ghost with the title of ‘Best Car in the World,’ and launched the model’s myth. To celebrate that feat, the Ghost 20 Club, a fellowship that joins passionate Rolls-Royce owners from the world over (British, obviously, but also Germans, Americans, Australians, and South Africans) has organized a re-enactment, bringing the 48 Silver Ghost’s back onto those same streets – built between 1909 and 1926 – during a 15-day tour which began and ended in Vienna during the month of June.
The participants’ vehicles were all extraordinary, every one with its special story. The original, with which Radley performed his great feat, was in glorious attendence – today it belongs to a New Zealender, collectionist John Kennedy who, in the 60’s, found it almost by chance inside a barn in England. But there is also a 40/50 HP which belonged to Winston Churchill, a limousine used by an Indian Maharaja, and the Open Boat Taile Skidd, a curious model shaped like a hull.
Profusion of sumptuous leather, veneer, and precious fabrics, all offer a remarkable sense of hospitality. Getting on board is a unique experience.
The Ghost that was driven during the commemoration is a limited-edition inspired by the Silver Ghost of James Radley. The centenary Alpine Trial Collection boasts of only 35 units (nearly all sold) through the Bespoke program of personalization, which allows each Rolls to be singular and unique. The body has blue and silver paint – the radiator grille and wheels are black. The interior is enriched by a few precious details, such as the elevation profile of the race imprinted on the dashboard, and the analog clock with the times of the stages of the competition. A uniquely aesthetic character, but under the skin it remains a Ghost like all the others with all the privileges that entails – ultra-soft leather upholstery (eight livestock are sacrificed for each model – they are bred in fields without barbed wire in order to avoid scratches and imperfections in their skin) for massaging and ventilated seats, fine wool for the upholstery, burl obtained through the meticulous work of expert cabinetmakers, all originated from the same tree to guarantee uniform colours inside the passenger area. And then there are the unmistakable details, like the umbrella housed in the driver’s door, ready to be unsheathed in the event of rain, and the Spirit of Ecstasy, the famous mascot designed in 1911 based on an idea of Lord Montagu. His drawing is inspired by the Greek goddess Nike, who personified victory, but the model that was actually used was the Lord’s lover who died in a tragic shipwreck soon after. Since then, her silhouette has achieved immortality and thrusts itself out from all Rolls-Royce grilles. It can also be hidden in the hood, so as not to invite kleptomaniacs – seeing that the statuette, usually made of steel, can also be had in silver. And for those who really want to go all out, in gold.
Alpine Trial Centenary Collection
563bhp @ 5,250rpm
780Nm @ 1,500rpm
8-Speed Automatic Transmission
Max Speed: 250km/h
0-100km/h: 4.9 seconds
Average Consumption: 7.35km/l
Rs. 3.6 crores
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