It’s still the ultimate

I’ve NEVER BEEN much of a car person. At 15 I was a typical kid – practically foaming at the mouth for a chance to get behind the wheel, but that quickly wore off. I practiced driving in an old Willys Jeep that my father restored. Every Sunday for about two months before my 16th birthday, Dad took me to a peaceful, hilly old cemetery and let me polish my skills for the driver’s test. His teaching methodology was classic. He chose the location for two reasons: (1) The hills provided an excellent course for learning to drive a standard transmission car and (2) I couldn’t hurt anyone in a cemetery. He chose the Jeep so as not to spoil me.

It worked.

I now drive a ’69 VW. To me, it’s comfortable and functional. To passengers, I suppose it’s a heap. The window on the passenger side won’t roll down – it hasn’t for two years. The heater is permanently stuck ON, blasting just enough hot air to convert my car into a steam bath on particularly hot days in Dallas. At one point, it had no running boards, no defroster, no turn indicators, no paint on the left rear fender, no windshield wiper on the passenger side, no left taillight and no oil (I always forget to check that). It has always run, though, and for me, that’s enough.

I’m a bit less enamored with my car right now. I’ve been spoiled. On a sweltering day this summer, someone made me an offer I couldn’t refuse. For three days, I traded my shabby Bug for an ice-green, fully equipped Rolls Royce.

Bill Ferris, owner of the Rolls Royce dealership in Dallas, loaned me the car. He must have nerves of steel. I drove a Silver Spur, a middle-of-the-road Rolls, which means it’s classier than any other luxury car, but still not Rolls’ finest.

Before Bill turned the keys over to me, his assistant showed me a few features of the Rolls. I wasn’t nervous about driving the car until I looked at the price tag-$120,000. Before driving the Rolls off the lot, I only had one question: “Are you absolutely sure this car is insured?” “Yes, Aimée,” Bill replied. “But for goodness’ sake, if you’re going to wreck it, make sure it’s totaled. No one wants to buy a wrecked Rolls Royce.” “That’s comforting,” I muttered, as I drove off into the sunset, hands clutched tightly on the steering wheel.

Once I calmed down and was able to function in the driver’s seat, I began to appreciate, then relish, the creature comforts afforded Rolls owners. The interior is utterly lush. The control panel and interior trim are made of hand-cut burr walnut veneer polished to a sleek luster. The seats and other upholstery are made of glove-soft leather (velour is optional), and the carpeting is of fluffy wool. (The very-British brochure that accompanies the Rolls Royce explains that the wool is from “particularly hardy sheep.” Harrumph.)

The gadgetry on a Rolls gives the driver complete control, but it is not overdone – somewhere between a ’69 VW and a Lear jet. The engine starts without the driver having to pump the accelerator. The touch-control electric gear selector eliminates the somewhat violent thrust of the gearshift. The control panel reports the time, the outside temperature and the journey time. It not only warns if the gas supply is low or the engine is overheated or the brake fluid is low, it also alerts the driver if there is ice on the road. Between the two front seats, there is the eight-position “joystick,” which electronically adjusts the seat up, down, forward, backward and in several degrees of tilt. The mirrors, locks and windows are also electronically controlled. The windshield wipers sweep a large rectangular area rather than the conventional half-moon. The air-conditioning system is bilevel and automatically adjusts to a ther-mostatic setting. Some Rolls models come with crystal decanters and glasses tucked in a hidden compartment in the front seat.

The outside of the car is designed with equal care. Seventy pounds of anti-drumming compound (to eliminate squeaks and rattles) is applied to the corrosion-vulnerable underside of the car. Many parts are protected with zinc-coated steel. The body surface is prepared with 11 coats of primer after the surface is cleaned five times. As many as 10 coats of paint are applied, then the car is pinstriped by hand. It takes five to eight months to build one Rolls Royce.

The accoutrements found in a Rolls are awesome, but they aren’t completely unmatched. Several luxury cars offer many of the conveniences found in a Rolls Royce. So why do people pay $ 120,000 to $ 165,000 for a Rolls? Because of the rarity, the history and the elegant lady on the hood.

Only 2,500 Rolls Royces are made each year. Of these, only 1,000 are shipped to the United States and Canada. There are approximately 700 Rolls Royces in Dallas – far more than in most other major American cities. In accordance with the laws of supply and demand, the rarer the model, the more expensive it is: The Rolls limousine costs $300,000; about 12 are produced each year. Along with the scarcity comes a collectible value. Rolls owners like to get together and compare notes on their treasures. In Texas, an annual get-together is held in May. Each year, one lucky person leaves with a $3 trophy signifying that he has the best little Rolls Royce in Texas.

The second factor so important to the owner of a Rolls is its history. On September 4, 1904, Charles Stewart Rolls and Frederick Henry Royce became business partners. Rolls was a young auto and motorcycle racer just graduated from Eaton University at Cambridge. Royce was an electrical engineer (a new field at the time) for the Great Northern Railway. He was in his mid-40s when he met young Rolls, and he spent the rest of his life engineering and perfecting the Rolls Royce engine. In 1905, two 20-hors’epower Rolls Royces were built for the Isle of Man Tourist Trophy race. One of them came in second. The other, driven by Rolls himself, had to drop out. Spurred by his defeat, Rolls entered the 1906 race and won by an amazing 27-minute margin.

Shortly after this triumph, the two men engineered the most famous Rolls Royce: the Silver Ghost. Since the beginning of RR Motors, new Rolls models have been designed only about every 15 years. The latest models, for example, were designed in 1981, and, therefore, aren’t due for a change until about 19%. Each sequence of cars has been given a name: the Silver Shadow series, the Phantom series, etc. Some people think Silver Ghost is the name of a series of Rolls Royces, but there is only one Silver Ghost. Built in 1907, all its exterior fittings are silver-plated. During that first year, it endured several rugged driving tests including a 2,000-mile course with overpasses, hairpin turns and an unsurpassed 15,000-mile trial. Just making it through this test might have been enough for the egos of ordinary car manufacturers of the time, but not for Rolls and Royce. Once the 15,000-mile trial was completed (with only a few pit stops along the way), the car was taken apart to see what repairs were needed to “render it equal to new.” The results showed no wear to the engine transmission, brakes or steering wheel. Only a few minor repairs were necessary. The Silver Ghost is still around today. It now tours the world accompanied by a full-time British guard.

But -history and comfort aside -the most important reason some people are willing to pay more for a Rolls than most people pay for a house is that they covet that incomparable silver hood ornament called the Spirit of Ecstasy – and all that it implies. The Spirit of Ecstasy sets Rolls owners apart from other drivers. The female statuette was designed by Charles Sykes, who, after riding in one of the earliest models of Rolls Royce, created the ornament. When conceived, the RR mascot stood more upright than it does today because the Victorian influence, still prevalent in England at the time, would not allow for too much breast exposure. Since then, the statuette, supposedly a replica of a British woman mysteriously drowned in a shipwreck, has gone from a kneeling position to varying degrees of crouch.

DURING MY fleeting three-day affair with the car, I learned the ins and outs of Rolls Royce etiquette. You don’t pump your own gas if you drive a Rolls -not even at the self-service island. And when you’re only getting 10 to 15 miles per gallon, you don’t bother shopping for competitive gas prices, either.

You do, however, park wherever and whenever you like in a Rolls. I parked in the driveway in front of Neiman-Marcus at NorthPark, where I was clearly in violation. After shopping for an hour, I returned to the car. No ticket, no tow truck in sight. I also parked in the circle drive at the Hvatt Regency. This time, the car was directly in front of a No Parking sign. My companion and I had a round of cocktails at Reunion Tower, and still the car was untouched by law enforcement hands. Merchants, apparently, have the Spirit of Ecstasy, too.

When I was driving downtown during rush-hour traffic one evening, two usually gruff traffic cops not only waved me on through traffic, but also tipped their hats as I drove by. A chauffeur driving a Lincoln limousine pulled up next to me at a stop sign and handed me his calling card, instructing me to please keep him in mind whenever I needed a limo. Odd, that never happened before.

Being conspicuous has its ups and downs, though. While I was driving downtown on Ross Avenue, a man in a fairly new, very impressive Cadillac kept tail-gating me. Finally, when I stopped at a red light, he squeezed into the parking lane next to my Rolls with a this-road-ain’t-big-enough-for-the-both-of-us look on his face. He then threw open his car door, hitting the side of the Rolls quite hard, fiddled with the Cadillac’s windshield wiper for a second (no rain in sight) and got back in his car. With a victorious look, he drove on, obviously feeling much better.

Another unpleasant incident occurred the last day I drove the car. I was sitting at a stoplight enjoying the stereo system and the air conditioner when I glanced at the car beside me. There was a man and a woman in a pickup truck with several children in the back. They all looked hot and irritable and very disgusted with the blatant display of extravagance next to them. I nervously toyed with some dials on the control panel trying very hard to avoid eye contact. The man yelled something, and as a reflex, I looked up. He angrily thumbed his nose at me and mouthed something I’m glad I couldn’t understand.

Driving a Rolls is an experience. It trulyis the utmost in elegance. It’s luxurious,quiet, oh so comfortable and very veryshowy. If you’re considering buying aRolls but feel the need to finance a housefirst, look at it this way; you can live inyour car, but you can’t drive a house.Maybe the 1996 model will even come withplumbing.


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