There is no nation more car-crazy than Japan. But forget the Initial D manga series and the spectator sport of drifting. Forget the mods, from Pikachu-themed vans to camo-patterned, tracked kei cars, so bizarre they render America’s kitschy pimpmobiles prosaic. Because beyond the cultural exports, the most fascinating customs are those that percolate quietly, out of sight of the average gaijin.
Take exotic imports, for instance. People order their Ferraris and Lamborghinis in the same left hand-drive versions as Italy’s, never mind that Japanese roads are not similarly configured. So common is the practice that garages at upmarket condos provide card readers on either side of the roadway to accommodate. For establishments that pander not, drivers keep at hand a telescopic arm – akin to a selfie stick – to grab tickets through the passenger’s window. The dedication boggles the mind.
The curious practice started in the ’80s. Flushed with cash from Japan’s rapid industrialisation but insecure about their newfound status, the rich swept up luxury goods from Louis Vuitton handbags to prestigious cars. Insisting on something in its “original” form from the factory confirms its authenticity.
Strangely enough, folks often apply the same preference to UK cars, whose steering wheels, like in Japan, are on the right. And that is how I find myself navigating Tokyo’s notoriously Byzantine streets sitting in the “wrong” side of a Rolls-Royce Dawn, a new four-seat uber-plush soft-top launched just this year, with deliveries in Singapore arriving by press time.
ENGINE: 6.6-litre, 12-cylinder twin-turbo
POWER: 563bhp at 5,250 rpm TORQUE: 780Nm at 1,500 rpm 0-100
KMH: 5 seconds TOP SPEED: 250kmh (electronically limited)
Its minder, a 30-something Briton who speaks fluent Japanese, shares that while many of the company’s cars are still supplied this way in Japan, younger buyers with no such hang-ups are departing from this archaic inclination.
OLD VERSUS NEW
This tension between dwelling in the past and moving ahead with the future is very real here in Japan. From the elevated bypasses that form the capital’s nervous system, you see it in the paucity of traditional architecture, save for the sprawling Imperial Palace in the centre, surprising for a country that so treasures convention and craft.
The ancient wooden townhouses, or machiya, have long been razed. In their stead are generations of skyscrapers, each more gleaming than the previous one. Few are more than a decade or two old, a shelf life even shorter than that of demolition-happy Singapore’s. One shrine, in the city of Ise, is torn down and completely rebuilt using new wood every 20 years, a ritual repeated for two millennia.
What does all this have to do with Rolls-Royce? Plenty, as it turns out, for a similar renewal is afoot at Goodwood. Many consider the marque the gold standard in motorised transport since engineers Charles Rolls and Sir Henry Royce formed an illustrious partnership in 1906, but its fortunes have fluctuated over the years. Under BMW Group, though, which won the rights for the trademark in 1998, it has seen a resurgence of sorts.
The initial car under the new ownership – the Phantom limousine – was the first proper, modern Rolls-Royce in decades. But it was not until the 2010s, when the Ghost, a smaller four-door sedan, and the Wraith, a sporty two-door coupe, came along that Rolls-Royce became, arguably, trendy.
(RELATED: Why is the Phantom taking a final bow?)
These two cars have had a huge hand in attracting a new one-percenter demographic – Silicon Valley entrepreneurs and private bankers who reward themselves for a successful IPO or for earning a particularly fat year-end bonus. The global average age of a customer is 45, down from 55. Asian clients are even younger.
“There is nothing else quite like the Dawn, regardless of how much money you’re willing to pay.”
Indeed, the duo managed to find the answer to a seemingly unsolvable conundrum: how to strike the delicate balance between maintaining the essence of a Rolls-Royce and shedding its stuffy image. The Dawn is the latest attempt to sway this cohort over making other discretionary purchases such as a yacht, and the upcoming Black Badge range pushes boundaries even further.
2+2 ISN’T ALWAYS 4
First, the nuts and bolts. Rolls- Royce emphasises that the Dawn is not just a Wraith with the roof chopped off: only 20 per cent of the body panels are held over from the coupe. It offers four proper seats, with a massive amount of head- and legroom – it feels like the back of a BMW 7er in here.
VIDEO: The roof of the Rolls-Royce Dawn convertible – the largest single piece of fabric in a current production car – closes in 20 seconds in complete silence.
Towards the back, the shoulders rise up as if to cocoon its occupants, a side effect of which is that it poses a strong masculine stance not unlike that of a classic American muscle car’s. In fact, the whole design exercise is so well- executed that, in my opinion, this is one of those unheard of convertibles that is more ravishing with the roof up, than down – not that the latter look is shabby either.
The otherwise ubiquitous 2+2 configuration is not the only compromise that Rolls- Royce refuses to make. The roof, too, is engineered to death. It is a soft-top because folding metal would take up so much space as to render the trunk useless – this lid, when stowed, takes up less space than that of the BMW 2er convertible. But with six layers of fabric sewn with sound-reducing French seams, I can attest that a sealed-up Dawn is as quiet as the Wraith. Not just that – the boffins spent 12 months developing a mechanism that is almost inaudible. It opens and closes in 22 seconds flat in a “silent ballet” and works at car speeds of up to 50kmh.
It is a beautiful late-spring day as we enter the Tomei highway, heading south towards our destination, the resort town of Hakone. There is zero chance of experiencing the romance of raindrops pattering on the roof – the other touted benefit of a ragtop – but no matter. I don my sunnies; this drophead is going topless today.
Even without a wind deflector fitted, I am surprised by the low amounts of buffeting even at speeds of 80kmh. No need to raise your voice to converse; it is all very civilised. On the dual carriageway clogged with vans and trucks transporting goods from the port of Tokyo all over the country, the Dawn is, paradoxically, in its element. The steering is lazy and the throttle, almost slumberous, melting away any possible stress and adding up to an exceedingly relaxed cruise.
For sure, plant your right foot right down into the deep-pile lambswool carpet – which you occasionally have to do to join the motorway because of the mildly dangerous right- hand-side sliproads – and the engine delivers with no fuss. Shifts from the eight-speed automatic are seamless, and are synced with the sat-nav to bring up the correct gear for the road. Save for a “low” setting on the stick, there are no paddle-shifters or even manually selectable cogs – the Dawn is not that sort of car.
So, while there is no lack of power from the familiar 6.6-litre, V12 up front, the engine is in a lighter state of tune from the version in Wraith, putting this car squarely as a boulevard cruiser. That is all relative, though: 100kmh comes up in five seconds flat – impressive for an object that is all of 2.5 tonnes.
That weight becomes more apparent as we pull off the highway and onto the Hakone Turnpike, a 13km-long mountain road nicknamed the mini-Nordschleife, in tribute to the number of corners it offers. Beyond doubt, when pushed, the car makes rapid progress here, so quick that one gentleman on a sport bike courteously pulls over to let me pass. But it will not egg one into chucking it into a bend: Considerable roll, the large rimmed steering and lack of gear override see to that. Instead, the car reminds me of its purpose, that it is better to put that compliant suspension to its intended use, wafting over potholes while taking in the panoramic views of Mount Fuji.
Lunch is at the charming five-star Gora Kadan, a Hakone ryokan. The town is one of several hishochi – it literally means “place to escape heat”. This particular outfit used to be the pre-war summer retreat for a prince from the Imperial family. His bust, boasting an impressive moustache and decked out in full military honours, sits at the entrance.
The meal is prepared in an exquisite way, with lacquered trays opening in layers to reveal the best seasonal harvest. If you seek a general introduction to the culture of Japan, you could do worse than exploring its food. Later that night, I find myself meeting a second- generation sushi chef. Serving up moreish tuna morsels in ascending degrees of fattiness, deftly brushed with soya sauce, Daisuke Shimazaki may have been at the helm for 20 years but, in the preceding five, all his dad made him do was to clean the kitchen and clear the garbage. Today, Jessica Alba and Lady Gaga are regulars at his tiny Sushi Yuu restaurant in a backstreet in Nishi-Azabu.
We visit Kirin’s Fuji Gotemba distillery on the way back to the city. The owners have imported the best practices in whisky- making from both the Scots and the Americans and painstakingly worked on perfection for decades. Now, one of its 25-year-old tipples has been named World’s Best Grain Whisky, pipping those from the West.
In many ways, this stickler for details and pride for craft remain with modern Rolls- Royce. It takes 60 pairs of hands and up to two months to build each one. Why is it so labour-intensive? Just take a gander at the book-matched wood that mirrors its grain across the entire interior of the car. On the Dawn, the effect is seen most delightfully in the “waterfall”, a piece of veneer between the rear seats boasting a V-shaped pattern, like a river flowing off a cliff. Over the entire car, up to 42 pieces of wood are used; the entire set takes 30 days to make, two of which is spent simply waiting for the wood to absorb moisture to render it supple enough to work on. Needless to say, the inside of the Dawn is a very special place to be in.
There is no doubt that in its quest to attract a new type of UHNWI, Rolls-Royce remains set in its roots. Its CEO once said the future for his cars rests in demand. The Dawn is certainly proof – there is nothing else quite like it, regardless of how much money you’re willing to pay.
Meet the Rolls-Royce alter-ego.
Making its Asian debut in Tokyo, the Wraith Black Badge was revealed at the Illuminate Your Senses customer exhibition in May. Catering to a generation of self-assured rule- breakers unafraid of modifying their cars, Black Badge offers from the factory darkened chrome work, such as on the radiator grille and Spirit of Ecstasy mascot. The wheels gain a new carbon fibre treatment – possibly the first such offering from a manufacturer.
(RELATED: The Wraith now has a matching luggage line.)
Inside, wood is replaced with aluminium-threaded carbon fibre composite. Even the signature starlight headliner does not escape treatment. Underpinning the aesthetic changes are engineering ones: a bonus 70Nm of torque, a completely redesigned air- suspension set-up, new drive shafts and an uprated transmission.
Although not previewed here, the Ghost will also be offered in Black Badge spec. But not the Dawn, although product manager Sven Grunwald says that it will, at some point, make sense for the company to look into the model.