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Rolls-Royce vs. the sleeper train: a race from London to Edinburgh

Motoring Research logo Motoring Research 28/05/2022 Gavin Braithwaite-Smith
WraithTheTrain © Provided by Motoring Research WraithTheTrain

The Caledonian Sleeper is a reminder of the golden age of long-distance travel. A time before cheap flights and high-speed rail lines, when the journey was almost as important as the destination.

It all sounds so delightful, with the operator promising a nightcap in the onboard bar, a menu filled with fine Scottish produce, a cosy cabin and breakfast in bed as the sun rises over the Scottish countryside.

We arrived at the less evocative Euston Station and made our way to the platform where the train was ready for its 23:50 departure. Only we weren’t there to board the train, we were there to race it.

The challenge: to arrive at Edinburgh’s Waverley Station before the Caledonian Sleeper rolled into the platform. Sounds simple, but the photo finish highlights that it was anything but.

The most powerful Rolls-Royce in history

Our choice of wheels for this unlikely race was a Rolls-Royce Wraith, the most powerful Roller in history. We can think of few cars that offer such an enticing blend of pace, comfort and presence. It also meant that we could offer no excuses if we lost. We had the reputation of the motor car in our hands.

Whichever way you look at it, the Rolls-Royce Wraith is a formidable car. It arrived in a sealed lorry in factory-fresh condition, as befits a car with a mere 830 miles on the clock. After a brief handover and introduction to some of the controls, we were left in charge of this £306,438 behemoth.

Yes, that’s right, including taxes and options, this Wraith had a price tag north of £300k. By a considerable margin, this was the most expensive car I had ever driven on a public road. No pressure, then.

Suddenly the thought of weaving this 5,269mm-long sports coupe through London looked like a daunting prospect. I didn’t want to hear what kerbing a 21-inch alloy wheel sounds like. Or the thwack of a Rolls-Royce door mirror on the side of a London bus. Maybe a Volkswagen Up would have been a better option?

Who am I trying to kid? This was to be an epic adventure and I was intent of enjoying every single minute of my time in the Wraith. Opportunities like this don’t come along that often.

Rolls-Royce Wraith at Euston © Provided by Motoring Research Rolls-Royce Wraith at Euston

Parking restrictions around Euston Station meant that we had to leave the Wraith around the corner and coordinate our departure time accordingly. Having synchronised our watches to match the time of the station clock, we sat waiting in a backroad, engine running, adrenaline pumping.

Seriously, this mattered. We wanted to make this sleepless night count. We simply had to beat the train.

London to Northampton

It’s at this point that we should provide some context. The Caledonian Sleeper would go via Watford, Carlisle and Carstairs, before arriving in Edinburgh at 07:22. That’s a journey time of seven hours and 32 minutes. By mimicking the route of the train, which essentially meant taking the M1, M6, A74 and A702, we could – theoretically – arrive at Waverley Station at 06:53.

Easy victory for the car, then? Throw into the equation a number of stops for coffee, fuel and driver changes, along with the inevitable roadworks and average speed cameras and things start to get more interesting. Throughout the journey, the excellent sat nav predicted an arrival time around the 07:00 mark.

To give us the best chance possible, we brimmed the tank before leaving Euston and loaded the car with snacks and supplies. We knew we couldn’t beat the train to Watford, but we hoped to be in Carlisle by 05:15, the time the train was set to arrive.

Within a couple of miles of departure, we were faced with a road closure and lost time. Even at midnight, London is bustling with people and traffic, making progress slow and frustrating. That said, we considered the 20 minutes it took to reach the M1 to be a minor victory, even if we were 20 miles behind the train.

Worse was to come, as a series of roadworks made for slow progress up the M1. To compound the misery, the sat nav and overhead gantries warned of road closures on the M6 and M42. Having a 6.6-litre V12 producing 623hp at your disposal is pretty pointless when you have the adaptive cruise control set to 50mph, or you’re stuck following a lorry through a diversion.

Never mind, all we could do was enjoy some Haribos under the cover of our optional Starlight headliner.

Rolls-Royce Wraith on M6 © Provided by Motoring Research Rolls-Royce Wraith on M6

Northampton to Tebay

At 1am we did our first driver-change at a near-empty Northampton Services, at which point it started raining. An hour later we hit the M6 Toll, still faced with warnings about road closures and diversions. Credit to the BMW-sourced sat nav system, which includes real-time traffic information. On both the journey north and the return leg, it did a brilliant job of predicting congestion and suggesting alternative routes. When a time-saving diversion wasn’t available, it would report that taking an alternative route wasn’t recommended. To say the system would make a difference between success or failure would be to overplay things, but it certainly helped matters.

It felt like we had been travelling at a steady 50mph since Luton, but even after a slow and unexpected crawl along the A5 towards Telford, we had somehow managed to emerge with an ETA of 06:47, around 30 minutes ahead of the train. Curiously, by the time we reached Lancaster Services at 04:15, that arrival time had slipped to 07:02. We didn’t think 20 minutes was sufficient wiggle time to allow for further delays and a struggle to get into Edinburgh.

We reached Cumbria at 04:28, still with some 153 miles to go. Ten miles later, the Rolls-Royce Connect app was displaying a fuel range of 156 miles, presenting us with our first real choice of the night. Do we go for broke and risk not filling up before Edinburgh, or play it safe and give the Wraith a much-needed drink?

Perhaps fearing the embarrassment of breaking down on the outskirts of the city, we opted for the latter and filled up with super unleaded at Tebay Services. The time was 04:50.

Rolls-Royce Wraith at Tebay © Provided by Motoring Research Rolls-Royce Wraith at Tebay

Carlisle and the A74(M)

By now it was just starting to get light and by 05:13 we were skirting around Carlisle. About the same time the train, which we had left behind in London, would be preparing to leave the station, before making one last stop at Carstairs. Here it would split in two, one part heading to Glasgow, the other part continuing to Edinburgh, where it would taste victory or suffer defeat. We had hoped to have been further ahead of the train, but everything was now pointing towards a photo finish.

At precisely 05:22 we crossed the border into Scotland and were presented with a glorious and awe-inspiring sunrise. A thin veil of mist sat like a carpet of cotton wool over the lowlands, while the hills and mountains were draped in a sky of pink and orange. We commented that some people would get up very early to witness such a spectacle. Others wouldn’t even go to bed…

This was now the most enjoyable and exciting leg of the journey. Fuelled by caffeine and sugary sweets, the tiredness and fatigue of a few hours earlier had made way for a determination to get the job done. If England’s motorway network had done its level best to give the train an easy victory, Scotland was clearly taking the side of the car. The A74(M) must surely be one of the most remarkable stretches of motorway in the UK, a stark contrast to the misery of the M6 and M1.

Rolls-Royce Wraith on A74(M) © Provided by Motoring Research Rolls-Royce Wraith on A74(M)

We were enjoying playing sling-shot with the Wraith’s comically quick pace, as highlighted by its 0-60mph time of 4.4 seconds. You’d expect a V12 supercar to behave in such a way, but nothing can prepare you for the experience of accelerating in a 2.3-tonne Roller.

As befits a Rolls-Royce, the soundtrack is more muted than other V12s, but there’s enough of a burble to add to the theatre. Assuming you can live with the inevitable impact it has on the fuel economy (and if you’ve paid £300k for the car, you probably can), you’ll never tire of going quickly in a Wraith. It’s nothing short of sensational.

Abington to Edinburgh

Our final driver-change took place at the Abington Services, conveniently positioned at the junction with the A702, our route into the city. After a quick stop and having made the decision not to order one last coffee, we ventured back into the car park to see the Caledonian Sleeper thundering past on its way to Carstairs. If we needed any further motivation to press on, this was it. For the first time we broke into a fast walk and jumped aboard the Wraith. This was going to the wire.

Not that performing a swift launch procedure in the Wraith is particularly easy. We never really came to terms with the huge ’suicide’ doors, as they are too showy for our tastes. A two-tone Wraith is hardly discreet, but opening the doors simply smacks of showing off, especially if you take advantage of the electric door closing. The Wraith won’t move until you’ve put your seat belt on and reversing remains a game of chance, even with the optional camera system.

The A702 presents a delightfully twisty and smooth route into Edinburgh. For the first time on the journey, we were asking the Wraith to break into a sweat. We were still expected to win by around 20 minutes, but the sat nav was warning of roadworks and delays heading into the city. And by now, Scotland was beginning to wake up, meaning we no longer had the roads all to ourselves.

The pair of us were properly fired up now, greeting every 30mph and slow-moving vehicle with disdain. We weren’t about to be beaten on the final 40-mile stretch.

Rolls-Royce Wraith in Scotland © Provided by Motoring Research Rolls-Royce Wraith in Scotland

A local bus and a delivery truck were dispatched with consummate ease and fears that the Wraith would be too big to chuck around the bends of the A702 were soon dispelled. The air suspension is little sort of a revelation, seamlessly morphing between supreme motorway comfort and tight cornering prowess. There’s barely a hint of body-roll as you take the bends at some unlikely speeds.

The Wraith also manages to disguise its pace with alarming ease, making it all too easy to enter a corner at a stupid speed. Keeping an eye on your speed using the optional head-up display is highly recommended, if you want to maintain a clean licence.

We’d also prefer to make use of a pair of paddle-shifters, which aren’t available on the Wraith. Given the Wraith is supposed to be the most driver-focused Rolls-Royce in the range, having a greater level of interaction with the overall experience wouldn’t be a bad thing. On a number of occasions we found ourselves reaching for a non-existent left paddle, hoping to use some engine braking before entering a corner.

Rolls-Royce Wraith sat nav © Provided by Motoring Research Rolls-Royce Wraith sat nav

Of course, Rolls-Royce will point to the Wraith’s ability to use GPS to select the ideal gear in which to be in for each corner and motorway slip road. Truly impressive technology, but it only serves to remove the feeling of control. That said, for the most part you’re unlikely to know which gear you’re in, such is the efficiency of the eight-speed transmission. Up and down changes are – for the most part – impossible to detect.

The A702 was brilliant. A well-driven Seat Mii and the quickest cherry picker in the world worked like a pair of pilot boats, guiding the good ship Wraith into port. Thanks to them, we hit the outskirts of Edinburgh at 06:49 and had a full 30 minutes at our disposal. With just 2.5 miles to go, victory was within our grasp.

Rolls-Royce Wraith and cherry picker © Provided by Motoring Research Rolls-Royce Wraith and cherry picker

But then it struck me. What if the train arrived early? For the entire night, we had been racing the invisible enemy, keeping one eye on the Wraith’s glorious analogue clock and the other on the sat nav’s ETA. But we weren’t racing against the clock, we were racing against the train. I

t would be a hollow victory to arrive before 07:22, only to see the train already sat by the platform. In fact, we couldn’t even class it as a victory. Our stress levels were rising.

Into Edinburgh…

Stress then made way for mild panic as the sat nav led us to the wrong destination. Whether by an input error or by using the wrong information, we were left around a mile from Waverley Station. How on earth would we explain defeat?

Thanks to a passer-by, we were pointed in the general direction of the station, so we set off once again. The relief associated with seeing the station for the first time was palpable, but there was nowhere to park. We had prepared for such a scenario, agreeing that one of us would stay with the car while the other would make a run for it. Apologies to the people of Edinburgh who had to witness the sight of a sleep-deprived zombie frantically searching for the right platform.

My heart sank when a station porter told me the train was already in and sat on platform two. I made a run for it, knowing there were still six minutes before the train was expected to arrive. Panicking, I asked a second porter, who pointed me towards the other end of the station, but did raise my spirits by telling me the train hadn’t arrived yet. By now it was 07:18 and I was running like a madman across the station…

I arrived at the platform out of breath but hopefully not out of luck. I frantically looked around for clues, feeling a tad dazed and confused. Then I looked behind me, to see a train coming into view. Could it be the Caledonian Sleeper? Could it really have been that close?

Caledonian Sleeper © Provided by Motoring Research Caledonian Sleeper

You bet it was. We had only gone and done it. Even taking into account the train’s early arrival time, we had beaten the train by a matter of seconds. The 413 miles and a night without sleep had been worth it. Rolls-Royce Wraith: one, Caledonian Sleeper: nil.

Victory could have gone either way. Had we ordered a coffee at Abington, we would have lost. Had we been delayed by the blanket of fog we encountered on the journey home, we would have lost. Had we not followed the world’s fastest cherry picker into Edinburgh, we would have lost. Had I not asked the second porter, we would have lost. It was nip and tuck stuff. All of our overnight decisions, no matter how small, had made a difference.

A perfect blend of performance and luxury?

The journey home was a less frantic and in many ways a more enjoyable experience. Free of clock-watching, we were able to revel in the supreme majesty of the Rolls-Royce Wraith.

Sure, for the best part of £235,000 before options, you’d have every right to expect the Wraith to be brilliant, but for the way in which it blends performance with luxury, this thing has no peers. That such a large and heavy thing can be so rewarding to drive on a twisty road is nothing short of a miracle.

Rolls-Royce Wraith on the road © Provided by Motoring Research Rolls-Royce Wraith on the road

The steering is wonderfully accurate, the ride is exceptional and the pace is intoxicating. Rolls-Royce has also done a brilliant job of disguising the inevitable requirements of a digital age in such an analogue and old-school cabin. There’s more than a hint of BMW ownership, notably the iDrive infotainment screen and safety ‘chimes’, but this feels every inch a Rolls-Royce, right down to the thin-rimmed steering wheel, soft leather, proper wood and dashboard dials.

We even managed to achieve a combined 22.2mpg over 1,400 miles of driving, which – while not exactly frugal – is perfectly respectable for a V12-engined car so adept at racing trains across the country.

Rolls-Royce Wraith in Edinburgh © Provided by Motoring Research Rolls-Royce Wraith in Edinburgh

As for the reaction of other motorists, it was universally positive. People would wander up, ready to congratulate us on such a fine purchase. No fewer than three people described the Wraith as ‘gorgeous’ and, perhaps surprisingly, everyone gave the Starlight roof lining the thumbs up.

Finding faults is an exercise in nitpicking, although a constant door issue, with a rather alarming message advising ’doors not secured against opening whilst the vehicle is in motion’, was a little disappointing, not least because it was accompanied by a sound not too dissimilar to sniper rifle each time we moved off from a standstill.

Smooth braking can be a bit hit and miss, too, making the entry to roundabouts a tad frustrating. It’s also relatively hard to drive slowly, with the throttle seemingly set to nothing…nothing…everything. You need to have your wits about you when tackling tight streets and parking spaces. Thank goodness for parking sensors and 360-degree cameras.

But for pure theatre and a sense of occasion, the Rolls-Royce Wraith nails it. Thanks to its devastating pace and ability to find the quickest route through the Midlands, the reputation of the car is intact.

For all kinds of reasons, this had been a drive to remember. Personally, it was my first drive in a Rolls-Royce and I’ve emerged with a huge amount of admiration for the Wraith, not least because it was the real star of the #WraithTheTrain adventure. Sure, we could have achieved the same result in any car, but few would have done it with such an overwhelming sense of occasion and style.

Epic night, epic drive, epic car. And sleep is so overrated.


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