Is somebody put a gun to your head and said you have to drive a car but
you can have any one you want, this might be a good choice:
Ask why the new Phantom Drophead Coupe uses a cloth rather than
retractable metal roof, as is the modern custom, and design director
Ian Cameron will give a typically Rolls-Royce answer. "There's
something romantic about raindrops falling on a fabric roof."
Ah, the r word-romance. How often do you hear that in motoring these
days? You hear plenty of the other r word-rational. But romance? Never.
Yet there's something intrinsically romantic about this big, graceful,
bluff-nosed, long-hooded, majestic statue of a car, more of a 1920s or
1930s luxury roadster than a machine from this century.
And although the people at Rolls-Royce hate the other r word-retro (how
can it be retro when it's peppered with such high tech?)-they'll
happily concede that the inspiration for this car came from the last
century not from this one.
"It's like a car from the 1920s-long and graceful, big powerful engine,
perfect for easily effortless drives in the sun in beautiful
locations," says Cameron. "It's an indulgent car. It's all about
enjoyment, of giving yourself a treat."
And what a treat: When it hits the showrooms this summer, after it made
its debut at the Detroit auto show, it'll cost near enough to $400,000,
the world's most expensive convertible. It's also the world's longest.
The first rear-hinged front doors in living history and another
throwback to the 1920s and 1930s, they provide superb entry and exit to
the front seats.It's rejuvenated BMW-owned Rolls-Royce's second model,
following the Phantom sedan-now the world's best-selling super-luxury
car (though annual volumes of under 800 hardly constitute volume
production). While every panel is new, the Drophead Coupe has
similarities with the sedan. The handmade aluminum spaceframe chassis
is based closely on the Phantom's. It has beefier sills, and on the
Drophead they're proper sills rather than the flat-floor of the
Phantom. The Drophead's chassis also is just under 10 inches shorter,
reflecting the reduced wheelbase.
Apart from that, they have much in common, not least that they're
handbuilt on the same "production line" in Rolls's new home in
Goodwood, England. Though Rolls would never refer to it as such, you
can sense the beginning of a common platform strategy here, especially
if the fixed-head-coupe model follows, as expected, in a couple years.
The engine, that big and silent-smooth direct-injection 6.7-liter,
453-horsepower V-12, is identical to the Phantom's and so is the
six-speed ZF autobox. Of paddle shifts and sports modes, there's no
sign. Instead, as in the Phantom, you get a delicate column-mounted
wand, offering the refreshingly simple choice of forward, backward, or
neutral. Just about the only manual adjustment to confuse the driver is
the provision to raise the car's ride height, the better to clamber up
uneven grassy mounds at a horse race or picnic.
The hydropneumatic suspension also is Phantom-based, though there are
geometry and tuning changes.
The styling, of course, is new. The biggest departure from the
Rolls-Royce norm is the vast Greek temple-style grille. It gives the
Drophead Coupe a sportier mien, which is commensurate with the lower
and more hunkered-down stance. The body is all aluminum, unlike the
Phantom sedan that has composite front fenders. The optional
brushed-stainless-steel hood and windscreen surround are borrowed from
the 100EX convertible and 101EX coupe concept cars. Rolls expects a
majority of buyers to opt for this, although a body-color aluminum hood
and windscreen surround are standard.
Just as distinctive are those vast rear-hinged "coach" doors, opened by
lovely chromed art-deco-like strakes (and closed, once seated,
electronically by push buttons).
The roof is cloth, lined inside with a cashmere mix. Not only does it
faithfully relay the romantic pat-ata-pat of raindrops, it rises and
folds automatically and is stowed under the teak rear decking. The teak
is an overt maritime touch. Oiling of the wood is part of the car's
service routine. It reflects Cameron's desire to give the Drophead
Coupe "a nautical theme." Early in the car's conception, Cameron and
his design team went to the Pendennis shipyard in Falmouth, England,
where the wooden J-class boat, Shamrock V-built for tea magnate Sir
Thomas Lipton's fifth and last America's Cup challenge in 1930-was
undergoing a refit.
"J-class boats are the most beautiful of all racing yachts," says
Cameron. "This is an all-weather car, so we tried to replicate many of
the features of the classic J-class." The teak is a feature of the
yacht's decking and is sturdy and long-lasting.
Carpets aren't wool, which absorbs moisture and can smell like a wet
dog after heavy rain. Instead, they're a soft, sumptuous type of nylon
that's able to withstand a good soaking.
The cabin is another departure from the Phantom sedan. The shorter
wheelbase reduces rear legroom, of course. Yet the twin rear seats have
ample legroom for tall men, while the curved bench seat isn't as wide
or as luxuriantly spacious as in the Phantom. It's more intimate, in
keeping with this car's romantic character. Rear legroom is helped by
the thinner and smaller front bucket seats, no longer the lounge chairs
of the Phantom.
Instruments are Phantom carryover and minimalist and eccentric,
including the tach-replacing "power reserve gauge" that indicates how
much of the formidable V-12 isn't utilized. The upper part of the dash
is aluminum, true to the car's sportier bent. Elsewhere beautifully
crafted wood, mahogany on our photo car, trims the dashboard, center
console, and doors.
The trunk, too, is pleasingly oddball. The lower part of the trunklid
opens down, like a pickup's tailgate, to provide picnic seating or a
step from which to watch one's horse race or the polo match.
The Spirit of Ecstacy hood ornament sports more detail than ever, glows
like flowing mercury, and recesses into the grill lest she be stolen by
wanton passersby.But who exactly is going to spend the best part of
$400,000 on a convertible? Rolls-Royce already knows. Though deliveries
are still more than six months away, more than 300 cars already have
been sold, almost a full year's production. And that's before the car
has been shown publicly.
The worldwide traveling roadshows for the 100EX and 101EX concepts,
where the cars were shown to prospective customers, are responsible.
"Rolls-Royce is not your normal car company," says Cameron. "We know
many of our customers personally." As with the Phantom, America will be
the biggest market, and Beverly Hills the biggest single sales region.
While the Phantom sedan is a car for everyday use and more formal
occasions, the Drophead Coupe is for leisure. It's a sociable vehicle,
a car to enjoy with friends. A car for dreamers and romantics who
admire the panache and glamour of the Gatsby years but are doing just
fine in the 21st century, thank you very much.