Wednesday, September 1, 2010


I never go into the Rolls Royce/ Bentley booth for a number of reasons. First of all, the whole thing is cordoned off with velvet rope like a hot new Hollywood nightclub. I always felt like I'd need to have on a custom-made Stetson, Rolex, turban, three-piece suit, or some combination of the above for them to even unlatch it for me. It hardly seemed worth the bother since you can more or less see their offerings without going inside.

Secondly, they're just too exclusive. Few people will ever come into personal contact with these machines. It's as if that makes them a less than ideal topic for a blog with a tone like this one. Of course we see them on the street from time to time, but it's one of the things that makes automobiles a very peculiar area of design.

I touched on this a bit in a previous post, but while the car exterior is one of the most public expressions of ourselves by way of a consumer object, the interior is one of most intimate and private. Even a living room or dining room is likely to see guests, on occasion large numbers of them, even people we've never met before. As far as the people who will see the inside of our cars, it's pretty much the same people who we'd allow to see the inside of our bedrooms. Limousine's don't count, that's more like a ballroom, or if rented, a catering hall.

It's not even that we consider it a private realm, although we do to a degree subconsciously. Consciously I suspect most people consider themselves to be in the public eye when in their cars, unless they have windows tinted to an illegal darkness. It's more the size of it.

We used to pack sixteen teenagers into a Toyota like it was a clown car when I was in school--I'm sure other generations of kids did the same. Hey, if you need a ride and only a couple people have their license and a car, you get in whatever car you can. I remember having my face plastered up against the hatchback window. But under normal circumstances, we don't usually squeeze more than four or five people into the car. So of the many people we might choose to offer a ride, who will those three or four others be? Family and close friends, of course. Anyone who's not close would ride with someone else. It means, then, that a smaller number of people can potentially experience these cars than practically any other art form.

It's true that very few of us can afford to purchase a David Smith or a Damien Hirst to enjoy in our own homes, but these objects are so regularly and frequently shown in museums that it hardly matters. They become public, in a way.

Now, the same issue with Rollses and Bentleys can most certainly be said about the top-of-the-line sports cars, which I do often discuss despite their exclusivity. The difference with the sports cars, though, is that the whole point of the industrial design of them is to push the very limits of style and technology. Rolls and Bentley, on the other hand, although consistently handsome, are desperately conservative. In a way, they have to be, because they're so expensive. Because of the kind of cars they are, and have always been, their customer base also tends to be decidedly older and less interested in the cutting-edge.

And that brings me to my last reason for not taking more interest in them: their design. It's never really struck me as being particularly interesting. On the contrary, I've found it to be quite stodgy in recent decades. With so much else to look at and absorb at the auto show, I felt no burning desire to waste time on them.

Having said all that, this time, on a deafeningly quiet press day, there was little reason not to take a closer look. The velvet ropes were just open. I do need to say that the mind-boggling high quality of these vehicles is immediately obvious with one glance. The materials, the craftsmanship, the detailing, it's all exquisite, which should come as a surprise to no one. For this post, I wanted to talk about Rolls Royce's new Ghost, which is a beautiful car without question.

The Ghost goes back a very, very long time. Here's the original Silver Ghost from 1907:

--Photo courtesy Retro Cars in Belarus.
When I was a young lad, I actually had a very accurate model of this car from the Franklin Mint. I collect Franklin Mint! I don't think I have it anymore, but it was beautiful.

One small feature perfectly sums up everything you might expect to get by spending this outrageous amount of money on a vehicle (it goes for around $250,000), and I think it needs no explanation:

Click that if you can't tell what it is.

Anyway, here's the Ghost, designed by Ian Cameron:

It's very smooth and has a wonderfully heavy stance that plants it firmly on the ground. I also think rejecting the Parthenon grille was a wise move in this case. On top of everything, its V12 engine provides 500 horsepower, which is insane. The suicide doors are also quite cool, but the center pillar seems to kind of defeat the purpose of suicide doors in the first place.

The really cool thing about the 1961 Lincoln Continental was that, when you opened the windows or the doors, the entire side of the car was completely opened up to the outside. I believe its door pillar was half-height. I can't help feeling that Rolls could have derived structural integrity from elsewhere, and they might even have figured out a way to latch the doors safely to the floor and ceiling and remove the pillar entirely.

The main problem I have is that the Ghost is not all that terribly distinct from the Chrysler 300
or the Dodge Charger. And it should be. It should be significantly different. Obviously the 300 isn't built as well as this and doesn't have anywhere near the power.

But you really should not be able to get a Chrysler loaded with every possible luxury extra and add-on for a third of the price and have something even remotely close to a Rolls Royce. On the one hand, the price of a Rolls should buy you not only impeccable workmanship, but also distinctiveness of style. On the other hand, looking too much like a Chrysler makes its exorbitant price-tag seem even more outrageous.

Don't misunderstand me; this is a gorgeous automobile. I actually think it's a bit of a leap forward for Rolls. If you want to buy me one as a present, I encourage you to please go right ahead.

©2010, Ryan Witte

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