Two-Day Tour Provides Time and a Ghost, a Phantom, and a Wraith
The 55-year-old man stood next to me at a gas station along U.S. Route 101 in California as I sipped a Snapple and listened to him talk about his detailing business. I needed a pit stop somewhere between Gilroy and Salinas and didn’t want to spill my drink in the test car, so I stood there and listened.
When the man squinted, deep creases cut across his leathery face like a well-worn baseball glove, the lasting effect of a lifetime under the San Joaquin Valley sun.
“Is that a Rolls?” he asked, squinting harder at the silver and blue Phantom Drophead Coupe in the parking lot. In the 103-degree heat, the car shimmered like a mirage parked between two farm trucks.
“Yeah, yeah, it is a Rolls,” he continued. “Why is that here?”
“Got me,” I answered, taking another sip of my iced tea.
We chatted for a few more minutes and then exchanged goodbyes. As I walked up to the Rolls, I looked back at my five-minute friend and saw him laughing.
“I knew it was yours,” he said. “Your shoes are too nice for here.”
To real Rolls-Royce owners, I doubt my pair of Salomon hiking boots really cut the Grey Poupon for ownership authenticity, but they were clean, looked new, and stood out like an avocado in a bowl of tomatoes. No, I was not a Rolls owner, but I was on my way to Monterey to drive a mile or two in a Rolls-Royce owner’s shoes — or Italian leather loafers, I assume.
No car brand says old money more than Rolls-Royce. I know Rolls-Royce doesn’t really care if your money is old or new, but there’s something staid and elegant and just a touch stuffy about any Rolls-Royce. It’s for people who don’t even know how much money they have, much less how much something costs. Owners are more likely to wear an ascot than driving gloves. Their expectation of luxury is far beyond anything I can even imagine. Rolls-Royce promised to show me what that might feel like.
First, all three cars that make up Rolls-Royce’s lineup (seven total variations) are incredible vehicles. (Read about the newly debuted Dawn model here.) They are that heavy luxury soaked in wood and polished steel. Their lines are eternal and smooth and define wealth like nothing else on the road. The Spirit of Ecstasy is more than a hood ornament; it’s a badge owners carry the way students carry book bags. Rolls-Royce does not make aspirational vehicles. People don’t strive for them; they either have them, or they don’t. Rolls-Royce is certainty.
When I first sat in the Phantom Drophead Coupe, a $553,000 USD convertible, I felt uncomfortable. The switches and buttons were out of place, I couldn’t find the controls for the radio, and I didn’t know how to start it. There was a twinge of panic. I didn’t belong. I didn’t even have proper cigars to put into the $4,500 USD humidor in the glove box that I can remove and take with me. The shame was nearly unbearable.
But it’s a fleeting fear, like the moment after realizing it was just a bad dream. It washes away faster than a mimosa goes to your head. Revving the 6.75-liter V-12 reminds you that you’re at the helm of a magnificent machine that demands your attention. The smell of leather, the superbly crafted cabin that demonstrates everything can be perfectly built with wood, chrome, heavy switches, and buttons. The 531 lb-ft of torque push you into your seat with authority and confidence.
The Phantom Drophead launches like an unwieldy rocket. The body rolls and sways under that much thrust, and it takes a moment to understand the controls and rein it in. That soft and compliant ride, nearly silent with the cloth top up, glides over bumps. On the highway, the Phantom Drophead Coupe is pure pleasure. The miles pass by without even a memory. The convertible coddles you in every conceivable way.
Some people may recognize the conservative but regal car as it passes. Most do not. It doesn’t matter. What other people think when you’re driving this car is inconsequential. I do not need anyone else’s approval or dismissal.
As I made my way toward The Inn at Spanish Bay, another old but luxurious item, the Phantom became much less friendly. The tight curvy roads were not this car’s best friend. The relatively numb steering made it difficult to hold a line through a corner, and none of my speeds were approaching blistering.
But again, it didn’t matter. By then, the top was down, the wind blowing in my face. Around Monterey, people merely assumed it was mine. Good enough for me.
The valet knew where to grab the door handle (something I often forgot, approaching the car as if had normal doors with handles located to the rear, not the front) and let me out. Well-versed in high-end vehicles, he knew exactly what I was driving, though he might be disappointed to learn that I rarely tip like many of the real owners staying at The Inn.
The following morning, a small group of journalists made their way from Monterey to the Napa Valley along the 101. I suppose many real owners have taken similar drives, stopping for a late lunch at the Ritz-Carlton Half Moon Bay. (The free-range, grass-fed short rib sliders at The Ocean Terrace were to die for.)
My morning coach was the Wraith. My favorite Rolls in the group. It’s the newest Rolls in the lineup and feels pleasantly updated while remaining steeped in traditional luxury.
The 6.6-liter — nearly 200 horses more than the Phantom — creates 624 horsepower and 590 lb-ft of torque from its direct-injection V-12. The ride is equally quiet and smooth, but there’s tightness in the suspension that lets it hold corners better than the bigger Phantom or Ghost. The eight-speed automatic transmission never lurches or bumps. It glides through the gears.
The 600-watt, 16-speaker audio system plays music so loud you can get the rearview mirror to shake, shake, shake, should you secretly have Taylor Swift on your Bluetooth-connected iPhone.
During part of the drive, the fog got thick enough on the 101 that I was able to turn on the night vision device and peer farther down the road on the 10.25-inch display screen that can be hidden inside the dash when it’s not in use. Push a single button, and it disappears.
Driving these cars along the coast is a magnificent experience. There was never the urge to slam down the accelerator or even pass a slow truck. There is a calmness that comes with this car. There’s no rush, no angst, no desire to go fast.
Part of that Zen feeling might be because the car’s quiet and smooth ride combined with a massive engine means your desire to go fast is tempered by the understanding that you’re actually doing 90 mph (145 km/h) with an incomprehensible ease.
After lunch, I drove a second Wraith — combining the three cars’ price tags topped a hedonistic $1.2 million USD — to Napa. The traffic around San Francisco is more bearable when wrapped in this bespoke cocoon of opulence.
The following day, Rolls-Royce decided to give our small group the complete experience. Apparently, if you own a Rolls-Royce Ghost Series II, you likely have a driver, too. The big back seat makes it easy to comfortably read as the driver makes his way down the road.
We were chauffeured to the Nickel & Nickel winery for a tasting of some of their finest single-vineyard cabernets and meticulously paired cheeses. From there, we went to the Far Niente estate where the proprietor, Beth Nickel, shared with us her late husband, Gil’s, car collection and fascinating stories about the winery.
Nickel symbolizes Rolls-Royce to me. She is confident without arrogance, personable without being familiar. She’s timeless with respect for the past but with her feet firmly planted in the here and now. Perhaps it was the second glass of Dolce going to my head or the seductive program Rolls-Royce created, but she was simply the best person I have ever met in Napa Valley.
Of course, I was living the pretend Rolls-Royce life, trying it on like a shirt a half size too small. I never got too comfortable but tried to appreciate it for what it was: a glimpse through a second-row window where the sun always shines and wine is properly chilled. Living that life for real is likely better.
For richer or poorer, though, Rolls-Royce certainly has its cars moving in the right direction, especially when they are carrying me.