N WAR-darkened towns across England they toiled, men and women shoulder to shoulder amid the stink and sweat of foundries, the skinslashing metal shavings, the silent precision of engine assembly. With the words of Winston Churchill in their ears and the pride of Rolls-Royce in their hearts, they cast, machined, polished and tested the legendary V12 Merlin – the aero engine that was to have such a decisive influence on the Battle of Britain.
The 60-degree, 48-valve, 27-litre Merlin had its star turn in the Supermarine Spitfire, poster-boy of World War II aircraft, and the even more effective Hawker Hurricane. Achieving, in some guises, the holy grail of one horsepower for each of its 1375 pounds in weight, the supercharged Merlin was deserving of its status.
Britain may have won the war, but the engineers and workers who strove so hard were not rewarded with enduring success. And so, in 1990, former aviation archfoes BMW and Rolls-Royce shook hands on a joint venture to produce jet engines. Thirteen years later, BMW took control of Rolls-Royce.
The most powerful engine ever fitted to a production Rolls-Royce motor car is the one beneath the bonnet of the latest Wraith. The outward aggression of this $645,000 two-door fastback suggests that the Spitfire spirit lives within.
And for our mission, no lesser car will do. We are delivering life-renewing components to one of the Wraith’s forebears, currently residing at the Royal Australian Navy’s large and modern Fleet Air Arm Museum near Nowra, 160km south of Sydney.
In Sydney, we take delivery of a precious cargo. The alloy casting, measuring 1.3m long, looks like a small pig-feeding trough. It once fed half a dozen six-inch snouts that comprised one bank of a 37-litre Rolls- Royce Griffon, from which we also have the camshaft.
The contents of three small, genuine Rolls-Royce spare parts boxes, ingrained with dust from their time on the shelves at the Navy’s Sydney storehouse, have not been revealed.
The Wraith’s BMW-based 6.6-litre direct-injection quad-cam V12 configuration owes more than a nod to
its distant forebears: 60-degree banks, four valves per cylinder and forced induction, here via twin turbos.
Rolls-Royce Motors famously never quoted power outputs (remember “adequate, plus 50 percent” for the turbo Flying Spur?), but the Wraith openly boasts its 465kW at 5600rpm, and 800Nm from 1500-5500rpm.
That helps the 2350kg Wraith in its sprint from 0-100km/h in 4.6sec; as does the eight-speed ZF transmission, which on the road overlays driving style with GPS information to anticipate hills, corners and motorway entrances. The driver need (and can) do nothing beyond selecting Drive, Park or Reverse.
Same goes for the eerily effective, almost other-worldly air suspension, which allows the driver to select high and low ride heights at low speed, but has magic-carpet microchippery to continually control body movement in response to driving style and road conditions.
At 5269mm from bumper to bumper, it’s 70mm longer than a long-wheelbase Range Rover. The fastback body still strikes an odd note, though there’s enough pillarless cool of 1960s Talladega that I like it.
But photographer Wielecki was disappointed that the body’s pinlines were masked, not painted freehand.
The whole point of the Wraith is to get onto the shopping lists of, well, not journalists, but younger, enthusiast drivers. Two years ago, there wasn’t a Rolls you’d line up against a Merc S63 AMG, Aston Vanquish or Bentley Conti GT Speed. Now there is. And with perhaps 1500 being built annually, you’ll probably never line up next to a similar one.
That hand-crafted exclusivity is evident in the interior, accessed easily in even tight spaces thanks to the rear-hinged doors (with electric closing). Inside, classic R-R cues like chromed organ-stops and eyeball vents share space with BMW’s artfully submerged driver-assist technology.
It’s about the appearance of grand, effortless motion.
Instrumentation is kept elegant and simple, and includes an aero-throwback ‘Power Reserve’ in lieu of a tachometer. The head-up display ignites with a Rolls-Royce logo that looks like liquid sterling silver.
The extensive (and welcomed) parking-assist systems include a bird’s-eye view of the car and adjacent objects. The seats are both plush and supportive.
All of this comes at a price. The white leather is a $10,700 option, polished door sill plates $3300, 18-speaker sound system $11,900. The crowning achievement is probably the Starlight roof, comprising more than 1300 hand-inserted optic fibres. That’s $19,400.
So exquisite is the interior, I feel guilty farting in it. But then I don’t, because it has ventilated seats ($3700).
Our car’s optional 21-inch wheels, with ContiSport Contact5 rubber (255/40 front, 285/35 rear) add $19,500.
And our Spirit of Ecstasy has a ghostly luminescence, being lit from beneath when at standstill. I presumed it to be Lalique crystal, but it’s not. At $10,700, let’s call it a space-age polymer resin.
But our car’s driveaway price of $764,653.30 has to be seen in the context of spending the extra 18 percent to get the glass infinity option for the pool at home. It’s the logical thing to do.
From the wheel, the Wraith seems to be scaled at 120 percent. The driving position feels normal, but for the height above neighbouring drivers. The view rearwards is much better than anticipated, given the buttress-like C-pillars and tall rear bulkhead.
It’s a gentle ride for the first hour or so. I seem to recall having prodded the Wraith’s throttle when I departed my driveway. Many kilometres later, I begin to contemplate a second, light application. The Power Reserve gauge seems to momentarily yawn.
It feels like we’re permanently in a 40 zone. The Wraith’s root chakra is at 180km/h on the Brenner Pass, not on an over-policed Australian freeway.
Through the Southern Highlands of NSW, rows of onlookers’ heads turn like laughing clowns at a sideshow. People gawk, because anybody in a Rolls is almost certainly somebody.
Through the twisting, hilly roads of Kangaroo Valley, the Wraith is no less amazing from the inside.
The steering is truly involving, perhaps because it’s
driven by an old-fashioned hydraulic pump. The ride is probably the best I’ve experienced; deeply imbued with what Rolls calls “waftability”, informed by a measure of welcome feedback from the low-profile Contis.
The body control seamlessly sharpens when Sir sinks the slipper into those 12 cylinders. There are different kinds of thrust: big-bore Detroit V8s with grunt everywhere, rev-hungry European sixes, the mid-range urge of turbos, Italian V12s with operatic top ends. The Wraith is all of the above, served deliciously through eight thinly-sliced gears.
In every aspect of the Wraith’s dynamic performance lies the aroma of an uncompromising approach to the quality of components, countless hours of developing and refining, and millions of continuous microprocesses making everything just... work. The Wraith does nothing beyond the realm of the earthly. But it does everything supernaturally well.
Except the clock, which isn’t working.
The Fleet Air Arm Museum, located within the RAN’s HMAS Albatross, houses more than 30 aircraft and hundreds of artefacts. All have been crucial in supporting a fleet dating back to World War I. But it’s far from a dusty dormitory of ghosts and aero-geeks.
Terry Hetherington, the museum’s manager, is an aeronautical engineer and 44-year RAN veteran. He joined the service in 1966, aged 17 years and 17 days.
Hetherington points to a large model of the HMAS Sydney III. Models of aircraft carriers are displayed in front of the aircraft that operated from them. “I did my first trip at sea in this thing,” he says.
The Sydney was decommissioned in 1975 and sold to Korea for scrap. “She’s probably Hyundais now.”
I’m gawking at a Douglas A-4 Skyhawk, a jet with wings so stubby (for parking on a carrier) that it just
IT’S still the fastest form of motor racing on earth – or, frighteningly, only 15 metres above it. And yet in the 800km/h-plus Unlimited class of aircraft “pylon racing”, a 70-year-old Rolls-Royce Merlin or Griffon V12, some pushing out 3000kW, is still the engine of choice.
Modified “warbirds” like the P-51 Mustang feature clipped wings, streamlined fuselages and reinforced airframes to cope with the massive g-loadings of the nine-pylon course. Lap averages exceed 800km/h amid half a dozen other racers only a wingspan away.
In the mid-1980s, specialist air-racing engine builders snaffled up batches of the last operating Griffon 58s from the South African Air Force. The air-racing Griffons are a Frankenstein of the best bits – type 64 crank, type 57 conrods – combined with modern components to help sustain up to five-bar of supercharger boost.
With speed a formula of power and aerodynamics, many still prefer the more compact Merlin. The 11-time US champion P-51 Strega makes 2850kW; Griffons go beyond 3000.
“When they stopped building those in the late-1940s, everything went to gas turbine for aviation,” Terry Hetherington says. “There’s nothing that has come along that’s better.”
OUR thanks go to Terry Hetherington, not only for his invaluable help with this story, but for a truly memorable day at the Fleet Air Arm Museum.
The RAN Fleet Air Arm Museum is located at HMAS Albatross, 489A Albatross Rd, Nowra, NSW. It’s open seven days a week from 10am to 4pm. Admission is $10 for adults.
Children under 16 are free. Phone (02) 4424 1920.
Web: www.navy. gov.au/fleet-airarm- museum
oozes sheer grunt. Hetherington watched one go under the HMAS Melbourne (II) in the South China Sea in 1972, after a “cold shot” from the catapult.
This is where I learn that carrier pilots’ oxygen masks and ejection seats aren’t just for altitude, but underwater. And why fighter jocks loved butt-ugly sea-rescue choppers like the Westland Wessex, Sea King and other trusty workhorses.
It was ever thus. A model of HMAS Sydney (the first, 1913-1928) shows how the ship carried a single Sopwith Pup, which would take off from a three-metre wooden ramp above the forward gun. The landing plan, if it could be called such a thing, was to crash into the water alongside the ship.
Then there’s the Merlin. The FAAM has a sectioned example of the engine, exposing one bank of the massive 5.4-inch pistons. At the rear of the mighty V12 is a gargantuan, twin-choke updraft SU carburettor feeding into the supercharger.
But we’d come to see a Griffon. Hetherington leads me to the Fairey Firefly, a 1940s single-engine fighter he describes as “a Spitfire on steroids.” Its handsome silhouette includes a greenhouse-style canopy for the second crewman. Within its proud nose is a Rolls-Royce Griffon 74. The engine has design similarities to a Merlin but is bulkier, and displaces 37 litres courtesy of six-inch bores. But the Griffon made almost double the power, upwards of 2350bhp (1752kW), and about 6375Nm torque from its two major advances, fuel injection and a two-stage supercharger.
Our spare parts had come from a Griffon 58, a simpler variant from the Avro Shackleton bomber and renowned for its bigger bearings, thicker billet cams and better valvetrain lubrication.
Hetherington takes the three small, unopened parts boxes from the Wraith’s boot. One bears the date of May 1953. Inside, he tells me, are simple tab washers, spring washers and a water pipe fitting. All, Hetherington explains, are in “tropical packaging.”
At the Rolls-Royce factory, workers individually oiled each washer, packed them in grease and wrapped them in lots of 10 with wax paper. Then they sealed them inside the small cardboard box and dispatched them to the far side of the world.
It’s near midnight. Driving home through the pitch dark and eerie stillness of the Royal National Park, I’m somehow connected to those Rolls-Royce workers of more than half a century ago. I imagine their care as they handle those prosaic parts, ever mindful that lives might well depend on them.
The words that would have echoed in their ears might have been Henry Royce’s: “Whatever is rightly done, however humble, is noble.”
I have the same confidence in the Wraith, that the boys would brook no compromise in their contribution to a safe return from the mission.
ROBERT Alexander Little was Australia’s greatest World War I fighter ace. He claimed 47 German aircraft before 27 May, 1918, when his Sopwith Camel was brought down in northern France.
Shot through both thighs, Little survived the crash landing with a broken skull, but bled to death overnight in a field.
Just one of hundreds of the treasures at the FAAM is a weatherbeaten brown leather Gladstone bag.
It had been found by a farmer at a rubbish tip in Texas, Queensland, in 2013. Inside, beneath a family of mice nesting in a tweed jacket, were Robert Little’s neatly folded waistcoat, tie and flying helmet, into which was sewn a photograph of his infant son.
Any debate as to why we have museums, and dedicated enthusiasts like Terry Hetherington, ends here.