The Rolls-Royce Dawn made its debut in an underground car park, just a stone's throw from Wallpaper's HQ. Granted, it was the car park beneath Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners' award-winning Neo Bankside development, and the other bays were full of Ferraris, Maseratis and other exotic metal. But still, it was a rather inauspicious unveiling for a grand convertible costing some quarter of a million pounds. For a start, there wasn't the lighting or the distance to do anything but admire the craft, appreciate the details and count down the days until we actually got to drive it.
Under the sub-equatorial sunshine of Cape Town, the Dawn is a very different proposition. Car designers talk animatedly about the importance of the play of light on their complex, sculpted surfaces, and this was a stark demonstration of how right they are to be concerned. The Dawn is a big car – nearly 5.3m long – and with that near vertical ‘pantheon’ grill it is nothing if not imposing. But it’s also incredibly handsome, parlaying its bulk into something that’s grand and majestic on the open road. That’s due in part to the way light bounces off its substantial flanks, creating a flowing, elegant line that’s accentuated by the thin highlight colour that runs from nose to tail.
Like every Rolls-Royce – and almost every other luxury car – the Dawn isn’t intended as a car to use every day. The Goodwood-based company makes just a few thousand cars each year and it knows every customer very well. Some 97.5 per cent of all Rolls-Royces receive additional customisation, and the long-drawn out process of commissioning a car can run to many years, with every option painstakingly explored in detail. It’s more akin to buying a yacht or building a house than simply ticking the boxes on an online configurator.
Owning such a car therefore becomes about much more than simply using it for transport. Rolls-Royce is bullish about its role as probably the best-known of all luxury brands, but it knows full well it has to co-exist with its ‘competitors’. Rolls owners typically have a small and varied fleet of vehicles, often spread across a couple of continents, so it’s imperative that each individual car delivers what it promises. In the case of the Dawn, the promise is one of pleasure. Open-top motoring used to be the norm, of course, but once mass production methods started churning out millions of cars, the grand convertible evolved into a statement piece, akin to the country estate, sleek motor boat or even a late-period Monet – something that can be admired from afar, representing embedded potential and the dreams of escape.
The Dawn’s classical associations begin with its name, which nods to the original post-war Silver Dawn. A 1952 example was even shipped out to South Africa to stand alongside its modern siblings, and you can see where the Rolls-Royce design team has drawn on its sense of sybaritic grandeur. Giles Taylor, the company’s director of design, describes how the Dawn’s forward-looking stance was achieved by the careful distribution of visual weight around the car, even adding a few inches to the height of the stowed hood (despite the engineering team’s insistence that it could be thinner). These instincts have paid off handsomely. The Dawn sits on the same chassis as the sleek Wraith, itself closely related to the Ghost, the ‘smaller’ of Rolls-Royce’s product line. In effect, it replaces the Phantom Drophead Coupé, an even more ostentatious open-topped car that’s derived from the flagship Phantom Saloon.
On the road, with the multi-layered, ultra-insulated roof folded down beneath the richly grained wood of the rear deck, the Dawn drives like a metaphorical dream. Rolls has always underplayed the role of raw power in its automobiles, preferring to let the creamy, effortless delivery do all the talking. There’s nothing as déclassé as a raucous engine note, either, just instant acceleration should you need it and well-sprung, near-silent progress when you don’t. The thin-rimmed steering wheel is a throwback to an earlier era and the in-car tech – all derived from parent company BMW’s vast warehouse of cutting edge gadgetry – is discrete and downplayed. The navigation screen can even be concealed by a swivelling dash panel should you wish to blot out the 21st century for good (you’ll have to turn off the head-up display as well).
On the roads east of Cape Town, driving the Dawn was akin to sitting in an IMAX on an Eames Lounge chair. The views were so sweeping and cinematic they looked like matte paintings, and the comfort levels exceeded all expectations. The media’s luxurious sojourn on the Cape wasn’t necessarily designed to help the company sell more cars (order books are full until 2018 in any case). Instead, the backdrop and the ambience are designed to remind Rolls-Royce owners of what their cars can do. To own a Dawn is to have the potential for ambience, elegance and the perpetual anticipation of something special, forever lurking just a wheel-turn away.