““[Bill Gates] has been historically one of my best supporters…One of my favorite e-mails he ever sent me…I proposed this crazy project. And he sent back this two-line response: ‘This has got to be the craziest thing you’ve ever suggested. Please proceed.’” ”
Rolls-Royce Phantom Drophead Coupe
Of all the cars that say "poverty does not become me," the soft-top Roller is among the more eloquent. Remember Caddyshack, when Rodney Dangerfield drove the Mulliner Park Ward Silver Cloud III "Chinese Eye" red drophead onto Bushwood, novelty horn blaring "The Colonel Bogey March," before unloading his golf bag (complete with beer keg, audiovisual system and laser-guided putter) and getting crasser with every frame? Well, yes, it was a display of nouveau riche excess that the current custodians of the Flying Lady would likely prefer to forget...
More befitting the image Rolls-Royce seeks to promote is the lady in a town near this magazine's offices who motors down to the shops on Main Street to pick up a few odds and ends in her Corniche. In so doing, she makes a statement with a timbre nothing else with wheels can quite muster. Plenty of people with the means to make this statement have no desire to do so, and-quite apart from the $400,000 price tag-probably no more than a couple of hundred examples of the Phantom Drophead Coup? will be born into this world each year. For the people who do choose to buy one, this only adds to the exclusivity.
It seems fitting to address the image statement up front when examining this automobile, because nobody actually needs a four-seat convertible weighing three tons, propelled by a 453-hp V12 and costing not too far south of half a million dollars. One look at the car might suggest, unfairly as it turns out, that it will be bought not for its motoring prowess but for its boulevard braggadocio.
Like the Phantom sedan (see cover story in February/ March 2007 BJT), the Phantom Drophead Coupe has good bones. Its aluminum space-frame skeleton is a hidden masterpiece of load paths, bracing and welds supporting shapely body panels that are more cosmetic than structural.
For the convertible, this construction method is especially functional because it lends rigidity to a structure that has to cope with gaping holes in its top and, with two rear-hinged, forward-latching "suicide" doors for access, in its port and starboard sides. The man from Rolls-Royce encouraged those of us invited to San Diego to drive the car to push our fingertips into the narrow gaps and note the absence of any movement in the transitions where sidewall meets facia and door meets sidewall (separate components that in the latter pairing are held secure not by hinges but by only the door latch and the car's rigidity). There was the tiniest sensation of jiggle there but, as I noted once back home, no more than in the same spots on my hard-roofed, forward-hinged and drum-tight sedan.
The convertible as rattle trap appears to be a thing of the past, as evidenced by our evaluations of not only the Phantom Drophead Coupe but also the BMW M6 (June/July 2006 issue), the Porsche 911 Turbo Cabriolet (to be covered in
a future issue) and even the chump-change Mini Cooper S.
No question, the Phantom Drophead, which its builder describes as a "less formal interpretation of classic Rolls-Royce design," scores big on boulevard presence, but how does it rate as a driving experience?
Just like the Phantom sedan, this big car isolates its occupants from the coarse texture of the earth's crust, riding utterly unruffled on pliant and supportive air suspension and 21-inch wheels. This, at least, was the ride as I headed out of downtown San Diego and took 35 miles of Interstate leading to the scenic part of the day's 200-mile drive, in the desert and mountains to the northeast. The trouble with isolated, silky-smooth cars is that while they impress in a straight line, they can disappoint in the turns. Renowned for not tolerating such behavior, parent company BMW ensured that the engineers sprinkled the Phantom Drophead with enough Bavarian dust to bring a smile to the helmsman.
Propelled by the same hugely torquey V12 as the Phantom sedan, the Drophead Coup? reaches 60 mph in 5.7 seconds, but the more telling test of the car's worthiness comes when turns beckon, as they did on the swooping and curving road between I-8 and the coffee and apple pie at Apple Alley Bakery in Julian, Calif.
At one point on this largely deserted route, I pushed the Phantom Drophead up to 120 mph on a long wide-open empty stretch, and even with the roof down my passenger and I were able to converse at normal levels-no mean feat in aerodynamics by the car's designers-while enjoying a ride that was as smooth and stable as ever.
In the curves that followed, the sophistication of the suspension broke through. As lateral G forces build in a turn, the car tenses its muscles, replacing the hovercraft-like smoothness of the straightaways with some surprising athleticism. This is by no means a sports car, but it knows when to bypass the silk route and transfer its attention to maintaining its foothold. The suspension keeps the car level and, combined with good steering feel, tackles curves with a predictability and sureness that one would not expect from a three-ton luxury vehicle. By contrast, the rather flat front seat cushions, while comfortable for cruising and evocative of 1960s Rollers, lack this ability to adapt in the turns and do little to cradle the occupants against lateral Gs.
The woodwork, deep chrome, leather upholstery and stitching are flawless, of course. Rolls decided to go with a fully automated folding fabric top with glass rear window rather than jump on the stowable-hardtop bandwagon. "There is nothing more romantic than driving a convertible in the rain at night and hearing the drops hit the roof," observed Rolls-Royce Motor Cars chief designer Ian Cameron. The result of that belief is a substantial five-layer thatch that keeps out not only the weather but also much of the noise. As on most convertibles, the fabric in the area where there would be a C pillar impedes visibility to the rear, but so does the Phantom sedan's large, privacy-inspired metal C pillar.
When the Drophead's top is stowed for open-air motoring, it disappears beneath a cover that with the optional teak finish is reminiscent of the decking on a fine yacht, and in stark counterpoint to the optional brushed stainless-steel bonnet and A pillar that recall the Phantoms of the 1920s and 1930s. Amid all this opulence, Rolls does emphasize that the solid wood and wood veneer used in its cars come from sustainable sources. In the case of the teak rear decking, Rolls uses 30 pieces of the prized timber in each finished lid and applies a process that preserves the look of freshly cut and hand-finished wood. Perhaps the business jet completions industry might consider presenting wood as wood rather than a surface so highly polished and lacquered that it can end up looking like plastic.
Picnic for Two
Once arrived at, say, Pebble Beach, the occupants can flip down the vertical part of the trunk lid to serve as picnic seating for two (provided they don't exceed the hinges' 330-pound weight limit). Whether the top is raised or lowered, the trunk provides 11.1 cubic feet of stowage, enough to haul three sets of golf clubs to Bushwood.
The old Rolls-Royce Motor Cars coasted on its reputation for a decade or two, turning out stately but increasingly anachronistic Rollers and Bentleys from an antiquated factory in Crewe, in the northwest of England, until parent Vickers in the late 1990s found buyers for both brands. Rolls-Royce now designs and builds cars in a new factory on the south downs of England under the exacting and well-funded parenting of BMW. (Volkswagen got the Bentley winged badge and, grounded firmly in the heyday of the British Empire, the Crewe factory.)
The Phantom Drophead Coupe masterfully blends old-world wood and leather craftsmanship with modern engineering, quite likely the sort of car the Crewe crew knew it needed to build but couldn't, unable to pry loose the necessary money from Vickers. Thanks to BMW, Rolls-Royce is back in business, and the Drophead Coup? is the perfect complement to the sedan. We're told a Phantom Fixed-head Coupe is next in line to further solidify the triumphant return of what is arguably the most famous car brand in the world.