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Thursday, August 28, 2008

The Chismillionaire Convertible

For one week in August, Pebble Beach, California, is the toughest destination in the country to arrive at with a sense of presence. A red Ferrari F430 turns transparent, inspiring rare demonstrations of rich-guy unity as they team up to form more intimidating packs of Ferraris, making Blue Angels-style formations on the local highway. Bentley Continentals may as well be Honda Civics as the world's wealthiest pour into town for the Concour d'Elegance. But as I watch the eyes of bystanders drift past a Gallardo Spyder, then stop and lock on to my hood ornament, I, the only broke guy on the Monterey Peninsula, am suddenly feeling the onset of my Cinderella moment. That's because I've arrived in a Rolls-Royce Phantom Drophead Coupe.



The Drophead defines presence, especially considering that few of this year's 200 examples have been delivered thus far in the States. Just think, a brand new car that's more exclusive than the Packards or V-16 Cadillacs fighting for Pebble's "Best of Show" award. Despite this Roller's two doors, it's only 1.6 inches shorter than a Suburban but loses out on trunk space to a Hyundai Elantra. By a lot. At 5776 pounds it also weighs the same as two of those little Koreans, yet it'll beat a Volkswagen GTI to 60 mph with over a second to spare. The Spirit of Ecstasy — the greatest name ever given to a car part — can be retracted at will, but even when left up it can sense just a few degrees of lateral pull and duck for cover beneath the brushed metal hood.

A Drophead's life begins at BMW's "Centre for Aluminum Competence" in Dingolfing, Germany,where a team of efficient workers in white coats precision-weld the aluminum spaceframe by hand. It's then checked by a computer to ensure all tolerances are within one tenth of a millimeter.

From there the process slows, with most of the 350 man-hours (not including engine assembly or tea breaks) invested in each car happening at Rolls-Royce's Goodwood factory in Jolly Old. Compared to a Phantom sedan, the Drophead uses larger individual pieces of leather, so even more care must be taken to not let imperfections show. And the 30-piece, J-class yacht-inspired teak deck that hides the withdrawn cloth roof is color- and grain-matched just as the interior wood pieces are — a process that can take as much as a month. Same goes for the brushed steel of the grille, hood, and A-pillars. All three are hand-polished together to achieve a uniform grain. The brushed-steel-and-teak deck, by the way, is a $17,550 option.

I start my day with the top up because I can't get over how romantically traditional it looks. Some critics have complained that the Drophead doesn't use a more 21st century-friendly retractable hard top, but I think that would've been a mistake for this company so in tune with its motoring heritage. Ian Cameron, the car's chief designer, explains it even better: "There's nothing more romantic than driving a convertible in the rain at night and hearing the drops hit the roof." Plus, this is the largest convertible top currently on the market. The logistics of cramming a stack of metal pancakes under the rear deck would've been a nightmare.

For being a soft top, ruffling wind noise is noticeably absent. Then again, what should we expect from a Rolls? The inside liner, made from a blend of cashmere, strengthens the car's case as a romantic getaway. That feeling is diminished only by the fact that everyone walking along the road beside me is squinting to catch a glimpse of the car's fortunate pilot.

The Drophead experience is completely different once the, er, head is dropped. Instead of a cloaked mobile getaway for the ultra-rich, it's more like a throne suspended on Goodyears. Its tires — 255/50R21 up front and 285/55R21 at the tail — tower vertically from the ground like something from the 1940s, only with more wheel and less rubber. A crease along the car's flank adds more visual height, as does the squared off fender, which still sits a few inches lower than the hood. The A-framed windshield surround forms the car's peak at 62.2 inches. And that's about where the average driver's head sits, too. You don't sit in this car as with most convertibles, but on it, able to govern the long expanses of the metal and wood kingdom stretching fore and aft. You're out there for everyone to see and for children to point at: "Look daddy, that man's driving a boat on the street. How silly!"


Acceleration from a stop might be described as boat-like, too. Get intimate with the right pedal and the car doesn't jump forward with the urgency you'd expect from 453 hp and, more importantly, 531 lb-ft of torque. Instead, the needle of the "Power Reserve" meter starts its trip counter-clockwise and the weight transfer sags the rear end slightly. The car creeps up on plane and charges forward before settling back into its near 50/50 weight balance. The faint V-12 murmur never changes much and gearshifts are almost imperceptible; the trip up to 60 mph in under six seconds is decidedly un-newsworthy, despite the fact that it'd beat many exotics from fifteen years ago.


At speed, driving the Drophead is rather paradoxical. It looks big, it feels big, and if something could smell or taste big, this Roller would bewilder those senses too. But it's surprisingly nimble and incredibly easy to maneuver down the narrow coastal roads of the Monterey Peninsula. Yes, it's soft, but in a sharp and composed way that one would expect from a car with BMW influence and an almost half-million-dollar price tag. It sails over rises and sinks in dips but there's never a feeling that the tires are operating independently from the body. The ultra-light steering feedback is projected through a wide-diameter, thin-rimmed steering wheel that's prohibitive of the traditional ten-and-two grasp. Instead, I'm wielding almost three tons of iron, tree, and cow with a delicate fingertip massage of the wheel. Everything about it feels right, other than my lack of a tobacco pipe.


Slower traffic heading back into Pebble Beach gives me an opportunity to really take in the old-world interior. What isn't real chrome is soft leather, and what isn't either is solid walnut. Any extraneous electronics — namely the iDrive screen and controller — tuck away out of site when not in use, that screen spinning away behind an analog clock as though Rolls-Royce has hired Q as an interior designer. Other hidden electronics also do magic tricks: a button in the glove box controls the hood ornament while another in the A-pillar quarter-window operates the power-closing suicide doors. At the end of my drive, I open and shut it a few more times just for fun, then pull the umbrella from the door jamb and swing it around like Gene Kelly, savoring my last moments of living on the finest fringe of society.


Then I walk away, thinking about my drive. Wait, was I driving? The Phantom Drophead Coupe makes such a non-event of covering long distances that I feel confused about the satisfaction it brought me. It wasn't involving like a sports car, but it wasn't a complete Camry–esque bore. It's like if some random stranger handed me a $100 bill and thanked me for my fine work. What the hell did I just do?

In that way, it's the perfect car for those with the means. Every time you get in, the Drophead congratulates you for your hard work, then says, "Sit back and rest. Let me take it from here." It makes sports cars seem so, well, childish. And for some reason, brandy sounds delicious for the first time ever. God, what's wrong with me?