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