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Wheels: Drophead Gorgeous

Paul Dean

Nearly a decade has passed since BMW paid £40 million (about $65 million) for the rights to the Rolls-Royce name, a silver hood ornament of a

gossamer-clad lady (commonly referred to as Nellie in Her Nightie), and a

radiator shell shaped like the west end of the Parthenon. “Plus 100 years of

history,” remembers Ian Robertson, a former BMW executive who is now the chief

executive of Rolls-Royce Motor Cars. “But that’s about all. We didn’t have a

workforce, we didn’t have a factory, and we didn’t have a car.”

 

Nevertheless, adds Robertson, “I think we have, as we say in England, done

rather well.”

Indeed, they have. Annual sales of Rolls-Royce cars are expected to nudge four

figures, which would be the brand’s best performance in its 100-year history.

The inventory is hale and includes the very large, outlandish, but curiously

acceptable Phantom saloon, plus an extended-wheelbase version for those long of

leg, and an armored version for those short on tolerances for risk.

 

All rise now for the Rolls-Royce Drophead Coupé, which is British autospeak for

convertible. It is an amazing vehicle, a triumph of power over weight, a victory

for the oft-questioned purpose of ultraluxury-class sedans, and a vote for

elitism and defiance as the mainstream veers sensibly toward hybrids and

subcompacts.

“This is not a car for a person who wants to hide success,” Robertson says of

the $412,000 convertible. “It is a car for a person who wants to show their

success.” Yet the CEO seems to contradict himself when he adds that the Drophead

Coupé was designed “to broaden our footprint, to widen the pool, to attract new

customers with a car that is less formal, more relaxed, and a little less of a

statement.”

In truth, the Drophead Coupé, which weighs nearly 3 tons and stretches some 15

inches farther than a Mercedes-Benz S-Class, leaves a footprint that would give

bigfoot cause to peer into the shadows.

The car is set on a wheelbase that is 10 inches shorter than the Phantom’s, but

its engineering, technology, width, height, bulk, heft, appointments,

brightwork, and mechanicals are cloned from its haughtier sister. Its shorter

wheelbase notwithstanding, the Drophead Coupé still is huge. Yet it is easy to

handle.

Rolls-Royce—certainly with mischievous intent and to prove a point about the

car’s performance—chose the narrow, mildly unkempt vineyard roads of Tuscany as

the test route for the Drophead Coupé’s media overture in May. Oncoming trucks

slogging from Chianti country to Rome were constant, but the Drophead tracked

straight and precise, and it may well have been the big Volvo FMs that, despite

their superior width and weight, flinched toward the soft shoulders.

Alas, if only the Rolls’ steering wheel were smaller and thicker and its wheels

were not a clumsy 21 inches. If only 5,776 pounds did not push into understeer

quite as hard whenever the road started wriggling. The source of another regret

was the 6-speed automatic transmission, which was sluggish on downshifts and

reluctant to provide the instant surge of a Bentley Arnage. Without it, we spent

too many kilometers behind other Volvos, breathing more hydrocarbons than you

would on a Friday night in a Neapolitan tavern.

However, if the Drophead Coupé offered perceptible gearshifts, it would not be a

Rolls-Royce; it could not claim to possess waftability, a quality coined by an

automotive writer and adapted by Rolls-Royce engineers in 1907 to describe their

cars’ effortless and near-silent acceleration, which is the by-product of

smooth, low-end torque. This car is so quiet that it is likely that the first

pedestrian to make contact with a Drophead Coupé will never hear what hit him.

Credit for that silence goes to the buxom convertible’s engine: a V-12 from

BMW’s 760Li, but one with significantly more might, at 453 hp, and even greater

torque, at 531 ft lbs. Bereft of supercharger or turbocharger, the car still

storms from rest to 60 mph in 5.7 seconds (or as quickly as a Jaguar XK) and

achieves an electronically governed top speed of 149 mph.

Maybe more important than the engine is the superb technology that Rolls-Royce

has inherited from BMW: anti-dive and -lift systems, dynamic stability controls,

ceramic core wheels for reducing unsprung weight. This equipment transforms the

car from a decadent, wobbling museum piece into a cool, cutting-edge streak of

secure handling. In short, as they say in England, it has become a bloody

brilliant motor.

It goes without saying that the interior of a Drophead contains only the finest

hides and woods, and that it is assembled with about as much patience and

handcraftsmanship as is a Patek Philippe. The 15-speaker sound system will bring

Miles Davis back to life—even with the top down. The rear-hinged coach doors—in

the colonies they are known as suicide doors—yawn so wide that, if necessary,

you can close them by pushing a button. The chrome on the interior handles and

knobs is so thick you would think it had been applied with a trowel. Umbrellas

are stored in the doors, and the floor mats are made of sisal that wears like

barbed wire.

The Drophead’s grille is not as fearsome as the Phantom’s, which has been

compared to the front end of a Peterbilt. The convertible’s grille is lower and

not quite as broad as the Phantom’s, and, for the first time on any Rolls, the

Grecian temple radiator shell has a slight lean to the rear.

Another first is an optional, unpainted, stainless steel hood, priced at $9,750.

(Please instruct your man not to clean it with Formula 409.) Other delightful

frippery includes an optional rear tonneau ($8,500) made from 30 oiled and

caulked teak planks. Picture the deck of a well-sailed Grand Banks trawler or—as

a Rolls-Royce team viewed at the Southampton Docks—the woodwork of a J-Class

yacht from America’s Cup racing of the 1930s. The fresh, sanded, unprocessed

appearance of the teak, explains chief interior designer Alan Sheppard, was

intentional because “we wanted it to look as if it had been cut and finished 10

minutes ago."

If these features sound like quirks designed primarily to create conversation,

that is perfectly OK with CEO Robertson. “You don’t always buy something because

it is expensive, or the most luxurious, or even the best,” he believes. “But you

have all these little subtleties, all these stories to tell. And when you look

at any successful brand, it is really nothing but a succession of little

stories.”

So have you heard the one about the Rolls-Royce owner who wanted to modify his

1950 Silver Wraith? He decided the best way to go about it would be to organize

a séance and conjure the spirit of Sir Henry Royce.

A dour, low British voice from the beyond had this advice: “Consult your

authorized dealer.” 

 

Rolls-Royce Motor Cars, www­.rolls-roycemotorcars.com

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