Can the new Drophead Coupé – a convertible Phantom in all but name – be likened to such illustrious progenitors as the Silver Ghost? The R-R genes are safe in BMW’s hands, it seems
I’m not proud of it, but I lied through my teeth to get into motoring journalism. I’d had dead-end City jobs, been turned down by the fee-paying University of Buckingham and gone home to watch daytime telly until I was swallowed up by the abyss. Only through the purest good fortune – and no small amount of desperate mendacity on my part – was I pulled back from the edge with an offer of work from Autocar. Unknown to them, it was a magazine I’d never read and, as for writing for it, I had not the slightest idea even how to type.
And it would have gone the same way as all the other jobs I’d done had it not been for a chance encounter with a Rolls-Royce. Then, as now, Autocar had little space on its pages for historical ephemera but when Rolls-Royce decided that the Silver Ghost, AX201 no less, would be driven from John O’Groats to Land’s End and there was an opportunity for a hack to drive it for one of the legs, even Autocar’s ears pricked up a little. It was, after all, reputed to be the most valuable and famous car in the world.
How I got to be the one behind the wheel I can no longer remember – I suspect a wave of bubonic plague ruled out those better qualified – but drive it I did, all the way from Finchley to Swiss Cottage. Not a glorious leg I’ll admit, but I cared not at all. I’d driven the Ghost and if they fired me that afternoon, they could take the job but not the memory.
But they didn’t fire me. One thing I could honestly claim was a passion for old cars in general and that car in particular. If pushed, I could even have produced my own AX201 which, with my Kirk F White-sponsored Ferrari 512M, was my favourite childhood toy. But I didn’t need to, for some of that enthusiasm somehow found its way onto the page and the result was a story even my editor managed to say something nice about, no easy task for the man in question. And in that instant something sparked within me. Hemingway I was not, nor would I ever be, but this was something I could do. And I have been doing it ever since.
The Silver Ghost was the car that put Rolls-Royce on the map. And the reason it did was down to neither Rolls nor Royce, but Claude Johnson, the man known to this day as the hyphen between the two. His publicity-seeking endurance stunts, which saw the Ghost break all existing reliability records by driving 15,000 almost non-stop miles in 1907, created the reputation for quality, prestige and engineering excellence the company – or BMW-owned brand, I should say – enjoys to this day.
I always think of the Ghost on those rare occasions I drive a Rolls these days. When Bentley and Rolls-Royce went their separate ways in 1998, what BMW bought was not a car company but simply the right to call an all-new product a Rolls-Royce. So, somewhat oddly, the Ghost remains owned by Bentley Motors. But, sportingly, Rolls-Royce still has access to it and Ian Robertson, the Rolls chair and CEO, was enjoying its company only recently.
And now, exactly a century after the Ghost made it and its creators’ names, there’s a new four-seat open Rolls. Called the Drophead Coupé and styled like something out of Gotham City, it is the next stage in revival of the Rolls brand which, until BMW got its mitts on it, had been in decline since the early ’80s. Next year there will be a coupé version and the year after that an all-new breed of ‘small’ Rolls-Royce that will still retail for something north of £150,000.
This, however, is small change by Phantom Drophead standards. Although its nominal list price is £260,000, Robertson told me the average transaction price – once teak decking, a stainless steel bonnet and one or two other juicy extras have been taken up – is more than £300,000. And the waiting list already stretches towards the back end of this year.
Of course it is a convertible Phantom in all but name, sitting on a slightly abbreviated (by 25cm) chassis and using the same 6.75-litre V12 motor. Its 453bhp doesn’t make the Drophead quick, because it has 2620kg of car to haul (its power to weight ratio is markedly inferior to that of a diesel BMW 3-series estate), but it is smooth and, at idle, near enough silent, which is perhaps more important for a Rolls.
Nor will you be surprised that it’s not conventionally fun to drive. Yes, there’s a certain novelty factor in seeing how fast something this big can be hustled from one place to the next, but it’s not long before you tire of the protests of tortured rubber and revert to its preferred wafting gait.
This it does mightily well. I’ve never been in an open car with a ride quality like it. I deliberately drove it over the worst surfaces I could find – if there was any scuttle shake, I could not detect it.
Like all the best Rolls, it is also beautifully detailed, from the boot with its fold-down picnic table to the umbrellas housed in front wings that are designed to collapse in a heavy frontal impact. The quality of the hides, the wood and the chrome appear unsurpassed by any other road car.
Can it be likened in any relevant way to the Ghost, beyond the fairly obvious fact that they’re open four-seaters with the same emblem on the radiator? Insofar as the Drophead holds true today to the values the Ghost established then, I think it can. I found much not to my liking – the surprisingly poor wind management, a lack of room in the back and the sluggish performance of the engine and gearbox, but not once did I think it undeserving of the name. As VW has nursed Bentley back to rude health, so it seems that BMW is doing the same for Rolls-Royce. Long may it continue.