Rolls-Royce Phantom Series II and Lange & Söhne
by Bruno Stuermer
The taxi driver took us to Thomas Exclusive Cars in Radebeul, which is a bit to Dresden what Long Island is to New York – the more beautiful and serene suburb for the more beautiful and discrete living. In the middle of town, a series of elegant pavilions is huddled in a small, park-like patch of forest – each styled to the exact corporate design of one venerable luxury brand, combining Ferrari, Aston Martin, Maserati, Bentley, and Rolls Royce in an admirable line-up. Sibylle Thomas-Göbelbecker, the owner and manager of the venue, had inherited the dealership in its humble beginnings from her late husband, and has lead it to its impressive statue today. Not to forget – up to 1989, a meek 25 years ago – Dresden was in the derelict backlands of the socialist German Democratic Republic (DDR), and any such luxury was not only deemed frivolous and criminal, but outrightly impossible.
We were greeted by elegant welcoming staff, and ushered into the still-dark Rolls-Royce pavilion – a lofty cube with glass walls and a darkish corner with a round table, surrounded by displays of shining cars and drawers of colors and materials for the onerous task of selecting the potential buyer’s exact specifications. The much wider area of the pavilion was parked with Rolls-Royce cars of different sizes and colors – not only did one wonder how the humungous cars ever got in there, but also how they were parked so tight that it was hard to walk between them, let alone behold their impressive features. The lights were turned on, coffee was served – my Russian girlfriend smiled.
Oliver, the brand manager responsible for Rolls Royce, entered the pavilion, looking a bit tired – but explained that he had just come from a client event in the Czech Republic, and had driven a Phantom back through the night before. He gave some insight into the life of the rich and very rich in the wider vicinity of Dresden, reaching deep into former socialist territory, but apparently a good breeding ground for entrepreneurs and some Russian oligarchs, who have rediscovered their liking for the elegant spa towns of Marienbad and Karlsbad, as well as their casinos. While chatting, Oliver miraculously re-arranged the cars in the pavilion, and freed the sight on a beautiful, black Phantom Series II with Art-Déco ornaments – only 5 of these were ever built as a special series, and it was to be ours for the rest of day. My Russian girlfried set her eyes on the car and smiled.
The Art Déco ornaments on the outside of the car were held in a light green color, and combined with a full double coach line in white and lime green. Also, the Emily figure on the top of the massive, temple-shaped front grille was in glass, and discreetly lit from inside in the same light-green tone. The inside of the car combined black surfaces with smashing-white seats and armrests, and a playful display of Art Déco ornaments – in the same light green as on the outside, as well as in the liners of the seat covers. As usual, the rear door opened in their unusual “portal” (others say “suicide”) fashion, opening the entry to a darkish, plush, and very spacious rear sofa with a small bar and refrigerator. My Russian girlfriend climbed in the back, relaxed into the cushions, stretched her long legs over the temple-high carpet – and smiled.
After some further instructions on the handling of the controls – nothing that a long-year BMW driver would not recognize – we set off to our next appointment. We were expected at the most admired German watch maker, A. Lange & Söhne in Glashütte, about 45 minutes’ drive south Dresden, in the middle of the hills and forests. The driver’s seat is clearly not the place to be in a Rolls-Royce Phantom – the seating position is steep and cramped, the accelerator and break pedal too light and soft, the array of sticks and levers behind the steering wheel simply confusing – let alone the clunky fold-out pedestal of BMW’s ominous turn-and-click vehicle controller. Still, the dials are clear and informative, the fuel consumption indicator small enough to ignore, and the place of the engine revolutions indicator is taken by a typical dial showing the amount of power remaining – it is actually very hard to push that gauge over the 1-quarter mark. After some adjusting of the incredibly impractical seat controls, we both settled into a rather elevated, upright position and took the massive car out onto the narrow and crowded roads of Radebeul. While the engine hood of the car seems elongated when looked at from the outside, it is sheer endless when seen through the windshield, and offers a ship-like feeling for manoeuvring the car – corresponding very well to the feeble, steep and much-to-big steering wheel: the Phantom is no meant to be a car, but it is a yacht on wheels, and requires to be handled as such. This understood, the driver adopts a relaxed, rhythmic, and harmonious way of driving, steering more with a view towards the stars and the horizon, rather than the next curve or corner, perfect for the German autobahn. My Russian girlfriend clenched her handbag and smiled.
On the Autobahn, the Phantom showed unexpected agility, due to its sheer unlimited power, which it delivers with a surprisingly high, almost aggressive engine sound; wind noise does come to play above 180 kilometres per hour, but the car easily goes beyond 210 km/h – making the speedometer the most important instrument for keeping the driving within legal limits. Fortunately, the navigation system was equipped with a speed limit warning, so my Russian girlfriend did not have to take the blame for limiting my enthusiasm. After twenty minutes, overtaking about 250 trucks and a short acceleration match with a Range Rover, we took the turn off the Autobahn, to follow the small and winding roads to Glashütte. The combination of light steering, over-sized car, and over-abundant power makes for an interesting combination on a road that is small, tight, whet, and full of traffic that is totally unapprehensive of a Phantom type of car. After some turns, my Russian girlfriend decided that the front seat was too strenuous for her nerves, and took to the back bench where she started to fix her make-up. From the depth of the cushioned department she reported that the car felt totally different there – much more quiet and relaxed, that the turns and curves were almost unfelt, and that the suspension appeared much smoother. Then my Russian girlfriend leaned back and smiled.
Arriving in Glashütte, a new challenge appeared – how to parc a car with a truck-like footprint elegantly in the visitor’s yard of a mid-size factory? The exceptionally friendly reception staff at A. Lange und Söhne stepped out onto the street to welcome the huge car, and offered to parc where a Rolls-Royce stands best – in the middle of the courtyard, just in front of the main entrance and visitor hall. As we entered the humble factory building, we were met with a warm welcome and joined our visitor group which was made up of a handful of watch enthusiast from different European countries – and a couple of managers of the Automotive Industry. As we learned, A. Lange und Söhne was originally founded in 1845 as a maker of pocket watches. Its post-socialist history began in 1990, when the great-grandson of the founder re-started the business; in 1994, the first collection of fully hand-made watches was presented, comprising the Saxonia, the tourbillon watch “Pour le Merite” – named after the order of the Prussian kings – the Arkade, and the legendary Lange 1. These watches today range between 15,000 Euros for the entry Saxonia, and over 189,000 Euro for the “Pour Le Merite” with tourbillion and a platinum casing. My Russian girlfriend nodded to the group and smiled.
The tour of the factory building was oriented along the path of the production process, and started rather unconvincingly with a cellar full of boxy machines that were quietly cutting smallest pieces of metal behind unyielding covers; but as the watch movement grew more complete, the fascination of the assembled watch enthusiast grew, peaking in fine-adjusting a watch under the microscope, together with one of the shop’s masters. All of A. Lange’s efforts are focused on producing the finest, most finely decorated and most precise movements; the outside – and most visible parts - of the watches such as indicators, casings, watchstraps are all bought from other (mostly German) suppliers. The only visible part of the watch that A. Lange produces is the finely decorated dial plate. In a way, this approach compares to the beginnings of Rolls-Royce: of the first cars, Messrs Rolls, Meyer and Royce only built the engines, transmissions, chassis, and underframes, while dedicated coachbuilders would furnish them with a bodies and interiors – i.e. all visible parts. After walking through the watch factory, the most delightful bit was certainly to indulge in the sight, material and weight of the completed watches in the elegant and roomy display room. My Russian girlfriend instinctively favoured the most expensive one and smiled.
After receiving a full bag of documentation and catalogues, together with a beautifully wrapped notebook and a pencil by Graf von Faber-Castell – another world-leading Luxury brand from the eastern edge of Germany, namely Nürnberg – we relaxed back into the sumptuous comfort of our rolling castle. In a country restaurant a few miles further, we found a well-prepared traditional German meal with game hunted by the owner, rewarding us well for the early start and patient listening. By now, we had come quite accustomed to the easiness and unobtrusiveness of our stately car, and engaged more in friendly conversation than in driving as we took our way back to Dresden, where we had reserved tickets for “La Bohème” in the famous Semper Opera house. Of course, the Phantom required a filling of its tank before we had made our way back to Dresden. The Phantom II eased its way back to Dresden, the navigation system entirely lost its way in the small back streets of Radebeul, but ultimately we discovered the shining pavilions of Thomas Exclusive Cars and returned the car safely back to its guardian. Oliver showed quite some interest in our journey and admitted he had never been to Glashütte – but fully appreciated the beauty of combining the best of car building with the best of watchmaking in a truly memorable day.
Rolls-Royce Motor Cars Limited
Lange Uhren GmbH