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Wheels: The Phantom of the Auction

Christian Gulliksen

Denise Cobb, cofounder of the Naples Winter Wine Festival, knew that the Rolls-Royce Phantom built specifically for her annual charity auction would attract an eager pool of bidders. “The fact is that this was number one of one,” she recalls. “It’s the only car of its kind, and with a wine cellar in the trunk and a humidor in the glove box, it was obviously going to appeal to everyone at the auction.” When the Phantom rolled up to the block on the second day of the event, Cobb’s confidence proved justified. “People fought over it,” she says.

Although it debuted just five years ago, the Naples Winter Wine Festival, held every February in Naples, Fla., raises more money for charity than any other wine auction in the world. Among the lots at this year’s event, which benefited the local Boys and Girls Club and a host of other Collier County children’s charities, were a 12-vintage flight of Screaming Eagle Cabernet Sauvignon, a 5.5-carat yellow diamond ring from Martin Katz (with a first-class trip to Beverly Hills to pick up the jewelry), and a megayacht cruise in the Mediterranean. However, the bidding reached its peak when the custom Rolls-Royce Phantom, dubbed the “wine car,” came up for sale.

Bob Austin, communications director for Rolls-Royce Motor Cars North America, selected the car’s specifications especially for the auction. “We put a lot of work into that Phantom,” he says. “It’s the most bespoke car we have ever built for North America, an opportunity for us to see if the system for personalization works here.” In addition to a wine cellar and humidor, Austin envisioned a cluster-of-grapes design motif for the automobile. The theme, which an artisan at Rolls-Royce’s Goodwood factory helped develop and execute, appears throughout the car: painted at the terminus of twin coach lines, inlaid in silver on the capping strip of each door, embroidered on headrests, and etched on mirrors mounted to the C-pillars in the backseat. “Whether inside or outside, everyone knows this is the wine car,” says Austin.

Other extras on the Naples Phantom include a leather bag for carrying wine from the trunk to a restaurant and an audio system that rivals the sound quality of a home theater. The car represents the extremes to which Rolls-Royce customers can transform their vehicles through the company’s personalization program.

According to Austin, Rolls-Royce offers three levels of personalization: choices, options, and bespoke touches. Choices encompass no-cost specifications such as exterior and interior color schemes, and wood-veneer styles that range from a pale hue to a pianolike black finish. “The jet black veneer can look almost like a plastic,” says Austin, “but many customers really like it, and no one has ever accused a Steinway of being plastic.” Options on a Phantom come at additional cost and include sunroofs and cross-banded wood interiors with contrasting patterns and finishes. For customers who want even more input on their car’s final form, Rolls-Royce offers bespoke upgrades and additions. “Something bespoke is simply an option that isn’t in the book,” explains Austin.

The bespoke process begins at the dealership when a customer makes a request. The dealer contacts Rolls-Royce Motor Cars, which consults with a specialist at Goodwood to determine the request’s feasibility. All the while, the dealer remains in constant communication with the customer. “I might ask for a beautiful woman and you might ask for a beautiful woman, but we might have a very different idea of what a beautiful woman is,” says Austin. “We need to make sure that we have a common vocabulary for what the customer wants.”
 
Austin claims that more than half of the cars Rolls-Royce sold worldwide last year included at least one bespoke feature. “A lot of people want monograms, woods other than the standard veneers, or color matches,” says Austin. “We even built one car with a vintage-looking vinyl Everflex roof.” Occasionally, a frequently requested bespoke item will become a standard choice or option for future cars. In the first Phantoms, for instance, aluminum surrounded several of the car’s instruments. “People said it was too much metal for a Rolls-Royce. Now the right side of the panel can be covered in wood or leather—what started as bespoke worked its way to a choice.”

While Rolls-Royce can fulfill most requests for accoutrements, such as the wine cellar and entertainment center on the Naples Phantom, more elaborate adjustments—a major reworking of sheet metal, for instance—are not always possible. With the recent introduction of its longer-wheelbase Phantom (10 additional inches), Rolls-Royce expects to field more personalization requests and plans to expand its capabilities for bespoke operations. However, the company may face an unenthusiastic market in the United States. Many American buyers balk at the idea of waiting four or five months for a Phantom with options, or as many as six months for a bespoke car. “In Europe, much of the joy people derive comes from the ordering and the waiting,” says Austin. “In America, the nature of the buyer is to want a car now or in a week.”

Austin says that it is not uncommon for Rolls-Royce’s U.S. customers who want a Phantom in one color to purchase a car in a different color simply because it is what the dealer has in stock. Such impatience is exacerbated by the reality that Rolls-Royce dealerships rarely house more than two cars at a time—partly because limited stocks make financial sense but also because Rolls-Royce has an image to consider. “We would always like to see Rolls-Royce cars seem scarce,” explains Austin. Phantom owners in the United States no doubt appreciate that their cars will not be as prevalent as previous Rolls-Royce models, but it remains to be seen whether these owners will embrace the opportunity to make their cars one-of-a-kind. (Click image to enlarge)

among the friendly combatants vying for the one-of-a-kind Rolls at the Naples Winter Wine auction was Frederick Furth, an attorney and the owner of Sonoma County’s Chalk Hill winery. Furth had piloted his Citation X to Florida with plans to support the auction generously. When he saw the Phantom, he turned to his wife and said, “Now there is something I could bid on.”

Furth fixed his top bid for the car at $1 million and then analyzed the competition. “I thought that at $500,000 there would be three other bidders left, and that at $600,000 there would be only one,” he says. Bidding started at a paltry $20,000, and then doubled to $40,000, but Furth wanted to get things moving. “I called out 100,” he says. Vigorous paddle waving followed, elevating the bids into the hundreds of thousands of dollars. As he expected, at the $600,000 mark, Furth found himself with a single competitor: actress and children’s advocate Jane Seymour. “It was exciting,” he recalls. “When I bid, the crowd was calling, ‘Fred! Fred! Fred!’ and when Jane was bidding they were calling, ‘Jane! Jane! Jane!’ ” In the end, Furth emerged victorious with an $800,000 bid—approximately twice the Phantom’s retail value and a sizable portion of the auction’s $12 million take.
 
As a vintner, Furth, whose last Rolls-Royce was a Silver Seraph of late 1990s vintage, appreciates the Phantom’s bacchanalian motif. Appropriately, he uses his new car to tour his 1,200-acre Sonoma County estate with his constant companion, a Great Dane named Brandenburg, riding shotgun. “The car is incredible,” Furth exclaims. “The finest in the world, bar none—the power and beauty of it all. I’ll never sell it.”

 

Naples Winter Wine Festival, www.napleswinefestival.com;
Rolls-Royce Motor Cars, www.rolls-roycemotorcars.com

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