2016 saw us behind the wheel of a lot of great cars, in a lot of great locations. There was the JCW MINI Cooper from Oxford to Henley-on-Thames. The Nissan Titan XD to Northern Wisconsin. The Chevy Volt to the EAA Airshow. The BMW R1200 RS to Bozeman, Montana. But there was none more epic, none more luxurious, none more memorable than driving the 2016 Rolls-Royce Dawn from Sheridan to Jackson, Wyoming.
If you’ve come here looking for a technical review of the Rolls-Royce Dawn, a recitation of its endless list of features, a look into its myriad of options, an analysis of the craftsmanship of its hand-stitched leather interior, a design critique of the modern interpretation of classic Rolls-Royce styling, forget it. Yes, this car is all that and a bowl of caviar, but you already knew that. You’ve read about its 563 horsepower V12 engine and how, thanks to its perfect pairing with an eight-speed, satellite-aided transmission, it delivers the power so smoothly, so effortlessly that one only has to think about accelerating up that mountain pass and it’s done. You’ve no doubt seen a YouTube video or two of some automotive wag going on about the independent air suspension that smooths out the bumps and keeps the 5,750 pound drophead from listing wildly through high-speed turns without compromising its legendary magic carpet ride. No, I’m not really here to talk about how the new Rolls-Royce Dawn drives. That’s been done to death. This story is more how driving a Rolls-Royce Dawn might just change your outlook on life.
I’ll not mince words here. The Rolls-Royce Dawn is terrific. It is the best four-seat convertible ever made and if you have the four-hundred or so thousand dollars required to buy one, do it. You won’t be disappointed. I know this because I spent roughly 500 miles either behind the wheel or in the passenger seat of a Dawn, all tarted up in a look-at-me Tuscan Sun exterior paint scheme with a subtle Sea Shell grey top and leather interior with the aforementioned Tuscan Sun contrasting stitches and piping. Along with the accents of gleaming chrome, the dash and doors were finished with warm, hand-rubbed, open pore, book matched veneer so perfectly finished that it would make the Keno brothers squeal with glee were they to see it on a turn-of-the-century chifforobe on Antiques Roadshow.
Dawn is more than just a little bit all right.
Let me start out by saying that I don’t live in the same zip code as people who can afford this car. So, the good folks from Goodwood – actually Rolls-Royce North America’s corporate office in Woodcliff Lake, New Jersey – invited me to join them on a three-day experience across Wyoming where I would evaluate the car while enjoying the requisite gastronomic excesses and stellar accommodations that those who will buy this car are likely to treat themselves to. Added to the mix were all the ingredients from a Zane Gray novel including cowboys, indians, buffalo, elk, geysers, guns, bonfires and a night sky so full of stars I expected Neil deGrasse Tyson to step out from behind the wooden walls of Fort Phil Kearny and lead a lecture on the Milky Way, Polaris and the Pleiades. There was also an adult beverage or three consumed from time to time – only after the cars were put away for the night of course. And, even though paying for this trip was clearly an attempt to influence yours truly, I can say that I remained strong. Thus every single word on this page is my own, and the opinions expressed here are as honest as a good quarter horse.
Why Wyoming, you ask? Isn’t the natural habitat of this car more likely to be Malibu, Miami, or Monaco?
Clearly, you’ve never driven through Wyoming. The roads are fantastic. The scenery is spectacular. The speed limit on the interstate is a glorious 80 miles per hour. That hardly matters, however, because one is just about as likely to come across a trooper or sheriff on the roads as you are a Jackalope. Additionally, if you know where to stop – which our hosts did – the food and lodging are as good as anywhere in the world.
We landed in Sheridan and were met curbside by a fleet of Rolls-Royces that were waiting to whisk us away to our first stop, the Brinton Museum, for lunch and an briefing on the cars and our three day adventure. The museum is fascinating, the Mars building gets its name not from the planet, but from Forrest E. Mars, Jr. whose grandfather made a few dollars transforming high-fructose corn syrup into all manner of devilishly delicious treats including M&Ms, Snickers, Twixt and Milky Way candies. Walk through and you’ll find works by both Native American and Western American artists. A few prized possessions of the museum include works by Frederick Remington, Thomas Moran, and the world’s largest collection of Hans Kleiber paintings.
Sheridan was our jumping off point and where we spent our first evening in the Equality State, so named thanks to it having been the first state to allow women the right to vote and to elect a female governor. With a population of just under 30,000 people, it’s an unassuming town that still proudly wears its cowboy roots as comfortably as an old pair of Levis. So you can imagine the hubbub a caravan of cars with the Spirit of Ecstasy over a parthenon grill caused when we pulled up in front of the historic Sheridan Inn. Not that they’re aren’t wealthy people in Sheridan. There were actually a few Rolls-Royce owners who got wind we were coming and drove their cars into town to join the party. Let’s just say that most of the ranchers spend more time in their pickups than their Phantoms, Ghosts, and Wraiths.
Located in the center of town, the Sheridan Inn was built in 1893 and for the first decade or so of its life was home to Buffalo Bill Cody, who used its expansive front lawn as an audition stage for anyone wanting to join his Wild West Show. Originally a 64-room hotel with one bathroom at the end of each floor, the Inn was remodeled in 2015, reducing the number of rooms to 22, and adding a luxury bathroom to each. Each room is dedicated to a character of western history. Mine was named for “Texas Jack” Omohundro, a Virginian who fought for General Lee and emigrated to Texas after the war to learn the cowboy trade. During his travels he met Buffalo Bill and became a scout for his 5th Cavalry. Eventually he became a performer in the Wild West Show, traveling the world with the troupe.
Having tossed my bag in the room and cleaned up from my travel, I met the rest of our group out front of the inn for our first organized activity, a Crow nation powwow. It included pulsing drums, spirited dancing and soaring singing. Originally inhabitants of the Yellowstone River Valley and the surrounding area, the Crow were bitter enemies of the Cheyenne and Sioux, and generally more friendly with the white settlers than other natives. Dressed in authentic regalia, the tribesmen, women and children put on a hour-long performance that was as much spiritual as it was historic. When we got up to join them for the last dance of the evening and pound our feet to the ground in time with the drums, you could almost feel the energy rising from the earth, uniting everyone in the circle.
Watching these people celebrate for us, I couldn’t help but feel a twinge of guilt. I worried that the Crow, though rich in heritage and culture, might resent the fact that we were here driving six cars that all told had a value of more than two million dollars. It may have had something to do with Sheridan’s egalitarian culture or just the fact that it’s pretty cool to see a Rolls up close, but my sensitivities were misplaced and rather than being resentful, they were as drawn to the new Dawn as everyone else. So, at the conclusion of the show, we had to return the favor and share a bit of British culture with them, taking pictures of several people as they posed next to and in the cars.
That’s the thing that surprised me most about Dawn. Yes, it’s a Rolls-Royce, but its smaller size and graceful lines make it less intimidating and more approachable than Rolls-Royce’s previous convertible, the Phantom Drophead. As you wait for the light to change behind the wheel of a Dawn, you’re more likely to get a smile or a wave than the finger from pedestrians in the crosswalk. Executives from Rolls-Royce like to call Dawn the sexiest car they’ve ever made. I wouldn’t go that far. Dawn is handsome, but for pure sex appeal in the pantheon of Rolls-Royce cars, it’s hard to beat the 1949 Silver Dawn after which this new car was named.
After the powwow and a quick dinner at the inn, we slipped into the cars and were driven south of town to Fort Phil Kearny for a bonfire, history lesson and Wyoming wine tasting. If you live in a city like New York or LA, it’s easy to think you’re living at the center of the universe because the stars are obscured by millions of watts of light pumped out by the city’s street lamps from dusk until dawn. Get out here and you suddenly feel small under the galaxy of a billion or so stars that arch overhead. It’s so clear here, we were able to see satellites sweep from one horizon to the other as they orbited the earth. I think they brought us out there to make the point that a starlight headliner may be an expensive option in Ghost, Wrath and Phantom but it comes standard in Dawn. All you have to do is lower the top.
The next day found us pairing up and climbing into the Dawns at the very civilized hour of 8:30 A.M. for a full day’s drive over the Bighorn mountains, through Yellowstone National Park, and then south past the Grand Tetons into the upscale resort town of Jackson, Wyoming. I won’t drone on about the details of the drive which included climbing steep and twisting mountain roads, long, straight stretches of two-lane highway, and the obligatory stop to take pictures of buffalo grazing at the side of the road. I will, however, share this one story to demonstrate just how capable a grand tourer Dawn is.
My drive partner was the irrepressible Nigel Moll, an eloquent Englishman and aviation/automotive writer who has a gift for storytelling and a talent for driving like a bat out of hell at the same time. I had been taking pictures from the passenger seat while listening to one of his tales of derring do in the cockpit of an airplane. I had put my head down to edit a few of the photos on my phone as we came onto a long straight section of road that disappeared over the horizon seven or so miles ahead of us. With my eyes fixed on my phone, Nigel stopped talking and I heard the wind rushing faster over the car’s open top. I looked up to see Nigel grinning from ear to ear and noticed the speedometer was reading well more than double the posted speed limit (the actual number I will leave to your imagination). What was remarkable was the the engine hardly strained and the car still wafted comfortably over every dip and bump on the rural pavement. The point here is whether you’re cruising around town at 25 or blasting down the backroads at speeds that will land you in jail, Dawn never loses its composure.
Yellowstone is a national treasure and sticking to its main roads as we did, doesn’t do it justice. Plus, June through August it’s quite crowded. That did, however, lead to one of the more enjoyable encounters we had on the trip. We pulled into one of the park’s rest areas for a driver change by the lake and were met by three buses full of Chinese tourists. That resulted in 20 minutes of us taking pictures of people with our cars, showing them how the top operated, communicating with each other mostly with hand gestures, nods and the occasional thank you. Finally, we had to excuse ourselves and move on so we could make it to our hotel in Jackson in time to clean up for dinner.
I’ve done this drive a few times before (most recently in a 2016 Chevrolet Camaro RS) and always marvel at the scenery. It’s just one stunning landscape after the next. Snow capped mountains, crystal blue lakes, dramatic waterfalls, lush green high meadows, thickly wooded forests. You have to fight the urge to stop every five minutes or you’ll never get anywhere. It’s a bucket list drive and I recommend doing it when you can spend a few days instead of a few hours, but even if that’s all you have, you’ll know why Teddy Roosevelt and others felt it was so important to protect this land from development, preserving it for eternity as our first National Park.
We rolled into Jackson just after four o’clock and made our way up the hill to our hotel, the Amangani Resort and Spa at Jackson Hole. What’s the difference between Jackson and Jackson Hole, you ask? (I know you’re asking because I had to as well.) Jackson is the town on the east side of Jackson Hole, a large valley that is surrounded on all four sides by mountains. It’s so named because the valley is literally a hole between the ranges with the Snake River winding down the middle out of Jackson Lake to the north.
I knew I was going to be in for a treat having read some reviews online, but stepping through the entryway, into the lobby and seeing the valley stretch out below through three expansive stories of glass with the Tetons lit up by the afternoon sun across the way, makes you stop dead in your tracks. The hotel is designed to fit nicely into the area, with liberal uses of wood and stone. It’s western. It’s natural. It’s spectacular.
The rooms follow a native American theme using artwork and hand woven textiles from the area. My room had a secluded balcony that was the perfect place to unwind after seven hours in a car. It didn’t hurt that my refrigerator was stocked with an assortment of local microbrews, one of which was a very credible I.P.A. Secluded is the theme here and that even applies to the washrooms, which feature full-length windows overlooking the valley from the tub, shower stall, and the loo. It’s a little unsettling at first, but knowing no one is going to walk by, I pulled the wooden blinds up and let the sun pour into my black granite shower room as I washed away the day. It’s the next best thing to showering outdoors, maybe even better because you don’t have to worry about mosquitos.
Dressed and ready for dinner, I met up with our group at the bar just off the lobby for a pregame cocktail while we talked about some of the highlights of the day. Our small group of eight consisted of a wide variety of writers from automotive specialists like myself, to aviation writers, travel journalists and general lifestyle writers. It’s always interesting for me to hear non-car people talk about their experiences behind the wheel. They don’t necessarily have experience in a wide range of cars, but let’s face it, we all drive and we all know what we like in a car. So while they may not be able to talk about the whys and wherefores, or compare the virtues of Dawn to its competitors, they can talk about what they like and don’t. And there wasn’t a lot of the latter. Most people commented on the interior details; the quality of the leather, wood, craftsmanship and of course the inch-thick lambswool floor mats. There wasn’t a person in our group who didn’t take their shoes off and let their piggies luxuriate in ovine opulence that lay underfoot. The bespoke audio system also got high marks, providing plenty of power to kick out the jams even with the top wide open and the speedo needle hovering around triple digits. This is a car that likes to cruise fast but isn’t afraid of the corners. Even in the hairier sections of the Bighorns where hairpin turns were bordered by 250 foot drop offs, the Rolls glided effortlessly around bends and up the grades without elevating anyone’s pulse or eliciting a drop of sweat.
The real demonstration of Dawn’s purpose came an hour later when our posse pulled up in front of the Million Dollar Cowboy Bar in downtown Jackson for dinner. The crowds and cameras appeared out of nowhere. Maybe they thought all these beautiful (okay, mildly attractive) people were “somebody.” Or maybe they just liked the car. Either way, our arrival did not go unnoticed, especially when our driver, the town’s off-duty fire marshall, walked around the car to open the doors as any trained chauffeur would do. The fact that his crispy pressed suit sported western piping and he was wearing a Stetson only added to the effect.
And that’s the beauty of Dawn.
It’s a car that’s equally at home with its owner behind the wheel as it is with him or her in the back seat. And, there’s plenty of room in that back seat as I found out later that evening on the 15-minute ride back to the Amangani. Comfortably ensconced in its acres of leather, it seemed the perfect place to unwind after gorging myself on a ranch-sized ribeye, an assortment of sides that included grilled Brussels sprouts with sea salt, lobster mac and cheese and smoked garlic mashed potatoes, washed down with a few glasses of wine and capped off with their Twix/Snix pie: pretzel crust, caramel, whipped cream and peanuts. Oh sure, I could have shown some restraint, but that’s not what a restaurant like this is all about. This night was one of those that Julia Child referenced years ago when she said, “Everything in moderation, including moderation.”
The next day was fairly open. We could drive if we wanted, take advantage of the spa or just explore the area. Even though I said I wasn’t going to talk specifically about how the Dawn drives, this is my work and I don’t get to drive a Rolls-Royce convertible every day, so I felt obligated to take a few hours to shoot a quick video of a drive over Teton Pass in the Dawn.
My work done for the day, I circled back to town to meet the rest of the group for lunch at Bin 22, a wine store, grocery and Italian small plates restaurant a block or two off the town square. I arrived a little early and had a chance to wander around the place to get a feeling for what owner and sommelier, Gavin Fine, was going for with his establishment. Founded in 2012 after being inspired by a trip to Tuscany and visiting with Mario Batali and Joe Bastianich at Eataly, Fine was convinced that a small, specialty grocery, well curated wine shop with an attached bistro would do very well with both the residents and visitors to Jackson. From the looks of our meal there, I’d have to agree. We ordered a wide selection of small plates for the table, but I didn’t partake in any wine as the next event on my schedule would involve blasting round clay discs out of the air – but the beauty of Bin 22 is that you can order a bottle of any of the over 100 varieties of wine they have in the store with your meal without paying a corkage fee. The food was both authentic and tasty and the atmosphere on their deck on this picture perfect day was relaxing. Under the shade of their red umbrellas we enjoyed bacon wrapped dates, goat cheese crostini, house-pulled mozzarella, duck rille, lamb skewers, charred octopus, and their house meatball which was served with San Marzano marinara sauce and fresh basil. Excellent choices all and a stop I highly recommend.
When visiting Wyoming, I think it’s a state law that one must shoot at least a few rounds through a shotgun or rifle at a target, clay pigeon or live game (assuming it’s in season). I, along with a few others in our group decided to spend an afternoon at the Jackson Hole Gun Club sharpening our sporting clay skills. The club, which is anything but opulent, focuses on helping its members improve their shooting skills with great instructors and state-of-the-art equipment. Their sporting clays range is still a work in progress, but that didn’t stop Nigel, me and two others in our group from going through about four boxes of shells each as we shot at clays from a number of angles at their five position range. It turns out I wasn’t the only experienced shooter in the bunch and the four of us fairly hammered the targets, busting well over 60% of the clays that were thrown. The event got competitive when we started playing a game of knockout, where if a shooter missed and the next person in line hit the target before it hit the ground, the first shooter was out. We left the range with sore shoulders and big smiles thanks to the excellent staff of the club.
For our final evening, we celebrated the end of a successful trip – defined as no one got hurt, no cars got damaged, and no one ended up behind bars – with a six course dinner at the resort. It was another masterpiece of a meal, with a menu specially prepared by Executive Chef Evan Parker from sustainably sourced local ingredients paired with wines from France, California and New Zealand for each course. In talking to him, he told me he really enjoyed catering small dinner parties like this as it gave him the opportunity to experiment with new ideas and develop new dishes he could add to the menu.
This dinner was a great time to reflect on the the entire trip and come to some conclusions about the car and how well it fit into this wild west landscape. Dawn really proved to be a different kind of Rolls. It still delivers on the promise of uncompromising luxury, but does so with a more relaxed style and more approachable personality. It is excellence without attitude.
The next morning the Dawns were loaded onto the transporters and shipped to their next event. My sadness in seeing those trucks drive out of sight was ameliorated by the vehicle they left behind for me. A 2016 BMW R1200 RS, which I hopped on later that morning and rode to Montana. But, that’s another story for another day.
While Rolls-Royce provided the vehicle and paid all expenses on this trip, the opinions expressed in this article are ours alone.