The trouble with ultra-luxury cars in this town is that their prestige expires faster than raw milk. The first guy in Holmby Hills who bought a $400,000 Maybach 62 was Master of the Universe. The second guy? A schlemiel.
This year, if you simply must put the prestige smackdown on friends and neighbors, there is only one car to get: the 2008 Rolls-Royce Phantom Drophead Coupe. A spectacular 3-ton, 12-cylinder, four-seat mega-convertible, the Drophead is the sportier, younger version of the Phantom sedan. And, unlike the Phantom sedan, in the Drophead you are out there for all the world to see, envy, admire and photograph. It's like lunch alfresco at the Ivy, only on wheels. That makes the Drophead Hollywood's latest image-making It car.
Never heard of the Drophead Coupe? Oh, I'm sorry. You're too late.
The line for this car started forming three years ago, when Rolls-Royce unveiled the EX100 show car at the 2004 Geneva Auto Expo. The EX100 demonstrated an eerie power over the minds of rich people. Before the Geneva show was over, Rolls-Royce had 250 orders for a car they had not even decided to build.
The designers took inspiration from the useful elegance of an America's Cup sailing yacht, and, sure enough, the Drophead is a boat to sail the seas of extreme liquidity. The target market is people worth in excess of $30 million. The $412,000 base price -- including a $3,000 gas-guzzler tax -- is merely a starting point. Fully personalized, the Drophead could easily run close to half a million dollars.
Even at that price, Rolls-Royce could likely sell twice the 300 cars the company plans to import in the U.S. each year. "We have to strike a delicate balance," says J.C. Galant of O'Gara Coach Co., the Rolls-Royce dealership in Beverly Hills. "We want the cars to be very exclusive, but at the same time our customers are accustomed to getting what they want, when they want it. They don't like to wait."
The exclusivity issue is acute in Beverly Hills, which is Rolls-Royce's No. 1 market. It's far more likely that a Drophead owner might meet himself or herself coming down the street here, so to speak, than in, say, Omaha. Because the cachet of these cars is bound up in their extreme rarity, Rolls-Royce has to restrain production. "One too many is an infinite supply," says company spokesman Bob Austin.
What's it like to drive? Big, audacious, gloriously smooth and effortlessly powerful. And veddy, veddy British. It's been decades since anyone built a convertible with coach doors -- these open and close at the touch of a button so that passengers don't have to exert themselves. The rear bulkhead of the boot -- what we Yanks would call the trunk -- folds down to form a carpeted picnic bench, a place from which to watch the polo ponies play (see video at latimes.com). Though other luxury car companies have gone to retractable hardtops, the Drophead Coupe's designers preferred the romance of a conventional, cashmere-lined fabric top.
Mostly, however, the car's Imperial longing is felt in its rich, expressive materiality -- the lustrous chrome controls, the hundreds of pieces of perfectly matched hand-stitched leather, the highly figured lacquered wood. It takes about 350 man-hours to hand assemble a Drophead Coupe.
And so, the long wait. A customer walking into a dealership and ordering a car today, says Austin, could expect delivery in late 2008 or early 2009.
Yes, even you, Britney.