For ’90s and 2000s Rolls-Royces this January, “convertible” was the magic word
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The gradual come-up of certain 1980s and 1990s Rolls-Royce and Bentleys is one of the collector-car market’s subtlest shifts. Though “serious” collectors have long dismissed these models as uptight, soporific behemoths best left to return to the earth, we’re noticing an increasing number of clean Continentals and Corniches infiltrating the sales dockets of major auction houses.
This year’s roster of Scottsdale sales was no different. All three of the major sales—RM Sotheby’s, Bonhams, and Barrett-Jackson—had at least two noteworthy 1990s- or 2000s-era Rolls-Royce and/or Bentley droptops, each hammering for a sum greater than you might expect for a deprecated, ultra-luxe sled considered too stuffy for an enthusiast and too unfashionably dated for the wealthy socialite.
Old Rolls-Royce saloons trading hands for used Camry money isn’t anything new or noteworthy—and neither are the routine, five-figure maintenance maladies that follow these “cheap” Rolls like a cloud of oil smoke. Between lengthy, numerous, and exorbitantly priced service sessions—and parts availability that would make an old Lancia blush—these Brits are often not worth the financial burden.
But an old Rolls droptop? That’s a different animal entirely. Chopping the rear doors and peeling off the roof turns a stodgy, smoking-room armchair into a leather-wrapped Adirondack lounge on the deck of a super-yacht. With the wind in your expensively coiffed hair, surrounded by enough hides and mahogany to choke a gentleman’s club—we’re talking Savile, not strip—you’re not just motoring, you’re touring.
At the moment, we don’t track any of these late-model soft-tops in the Hagerty Price Guide, but it’s worth comparing by generation. Let’s see what vehicular gentry wafted through Scottsdale.
2000–2002 Rolls-Royce Corniche V
Even in wealthier parts of town, you never, ever see early 2000s Corniches—and for good reason, as Rolls-Royce only built between 372 and 384 examples, depending on whom you ask. Constructed on the bones of the 1995–2003 Bentley Azure—we’ll get to that beauty later—these were ruinously expensive cars with a $359,000 price tag in their first model year. That’s $630,000, in 2023 bucks.
These cars occupy a weird place in the Rolls timeline. The Corniche V—the unofficial denominator, as it’s the fifth Rolls to wear the Corniche name—is the first and only Rolls engineered and developed during the marque’s brief tenure under Volkswagen. After just two years, VW ceded rights to Rolls’ stylistic intellectual properties after an infamous corporate tussle with BMW, who separately acquired the right to sell cars under the Rolls-Royce nameplate from the extant Rolls-Royce aerospace corporation. Amid this kerfuffle, the Corniche V emerged as the final, elegant product of “old” Rolls-Royce, with BMW’s ground-up revamp of the RR image arriving soon after for the 2003 model year.
It’s a transitional model, a product of a time when Rolls and Bentley were absolutely inseparable. The 6.75-liter—say it with me, six-and-three-quarter-liter—V-8, much of the switchgear, the chassis, and portions of the rear fascia are all shared with the contemporary Bentley, making it ostensibly the first Rolls to ever descend from the Flying B, instead of the other way around.
Once an extravagant status symbol, its clear aesthetic separation from BMW’s modern Rolls renders the Corniche V a bit of a curio. It’s the type of car favored primarily by the Rolls-Royce enthusiast, rather than by the casual consumer.
“They made very, very few [Corniche Vs], and it was quite a step forward [in style] as it looked very little like the preceding Corniches,” explains Hagerty Price Guide publisher and Bentley/Rolls aficionado Dave Kinney.
“I think both the Phantom and Corniche [V] are aging gracefully, but they’re all from a different design period. [Rolls-Royce] went from a more organic design to Bauhaus with the Phantom.”
These cars are magnificently hand-built with incredible road presence, particularly with the top down. You can have them for a pittance compared to a 2023 Rolls-Royce Dawn, a car that curiously carries an identical MSRP of $359,000: RM Sotheby’s 9300-mile Magnolia White 2002 Corniche sold for a “mere” $128,800 final price. Condition is king on these cars, as evidenced from RM’s other Magnolia White 2000 Corniche V that sold at last year’s Open Roads online auction. 38,000 miles on its odometer, and a-bit-more-than-expected wear and tear, cut it down to a $99,000 final sale.
Bonhams’ black 2001 Corniche was less enticing. After exiting long-term, 14,500-mile ownership under the original buyer, subsequent owners added just over 4000 miles until 2010, when it sat essentially unused in storage until its time in the Scottsdale sun. A visibly sagging rear suspension implied further maintenance was necessary; Bonhams apparently agreed, admitting “it is recommended that the Corniche is serviced prior to any wafting about.” Still, it matched RM’s 2021 sale with a $98,560 final price.
2007–16 Rolls-Royce Phantom Drophead Coupe
“The Corniche looks like old money wherever it goes,” says Kinney. “To me, the Phantom says ‘I’m in Miami, I’m in Los Angeles,’ and it still looks like a car that could still be in production today to most non-car people.”
Walk around RM’s black-over-cream example, and there’s a very real sense that BMW’s Phantom and its inimitable Drophead Coupe variant was deliberately designed to withstand the test of time. Regardless of its aesthetic relation to the current production Phantom, this one’s replete with subtle and deliberate details that might just render it timeless.
Take note of the brushed windshield surround that wraps its way around the wing windows, and the teak decking on the rear tonneau (oiling this wood is part of the Drophead’s regular service regimen). Inside, the glossy wood surfacing and trim are refreshingly devoid of screens and digital displays which, ironically, make other luxury cars from this era look more dated today.
As Kinney said, even 15 years on, this 18-foot ocean liner still looks like pure money, even to the uninformed. “The car is nothing but in-your-face presence. A lot of people want that in a Rolls-Royce, and it has that in spades,” Kinney muses.
It’s this captive modernity, more advanced technology, and surprisingly lower running costs that has kept the Phantom Drophead Coupe ahead of its pre-BMW progenitors in the market.
RM Sotheby’s beautiful Drophead carried just 8620 miles and $18,000 in receipts from a recent service. $201,600 took it home to a very excited winning bidder; a colleague caught who we presume to be her friends and family singing her happy birthday in the lot outside RM’s host hotel.
Even rattier Phantoms carry cachet the Corniche can’t match. Barrett-Jackson’s 2009 white-over-black Drophead had minor-but-noticeable interior wear from its 29,291 miles, along with two incidents of repaired sideswipe collision damage in 2017 and 2021. Still, the $159,500 final price makes it the fourth most expensive Rolls sold out of the 18 offered during 2023’s Arizona auction week.
1995–2003 Bentley Azure
Spirit of Ecstasy too ostentatious for ya? Try the Bentley Azure, two of which were on the ground in Scottsdale. Based on the popular and very expensive Bentley Continental R, the Azure is a more sporting alternative to the cushy, cloudy Corniche. The 5700-pound bruiser is hardly a Spec Miata, but the Bentley is 300 pounds lighter, more powerful (385 hp versus 320), quicker, and not insignificantly sharper than the Rolls.
The Bentley is no less costly to keep alive than its ritzier sibling—but it’s getting better. “I really like the Azure,” says Kinney. “The [convertible] top mechanism is its Achilles heel, but people are figuring out how to fix them. For the longest time, you’d get the car for $25,000 and then spend another $25,000 on the top alone.”
Not anymore. A car this elegant and hand-finished couldn’t stay incongruously cheap forever, and prices appear to be on the rise. Bonhams’ impeccable one-owner, 14,000-mile 1996 Azure changed hands for $67,200. Yes, that’s less than half the price of RM’s Corniche, but there are more than three times as many Azures than the Rolls.
“Lovely colors, very reasonable miles, and I think it went for right where it should have,” observes Kinney. “Everyone should be happy on that deal. I’ve seen these cars sell for $25,000 and $30,000, and now they’re finally coming into their own.”
Barrett-Jackson’s $84,500 2003 Bentley Azure Mulliner Final Edition has to be one of the best buys of the week. This is one of the highly personalized examples of the top-shelf Mulliner trim offered from 1999 through the end of production in 2009, and the listing states an original bill-of-sale topping $500,000 ($795,000, when adjusted for inflation). It also claims the original buyer—get this—sold his Corniche to make room for the Azure.
It’s clean, it’s rare, it’s handbuilt, it’s extraordinarily luxurious—and its metallic yellow over royal blue upholstery is one of the most gauche colorways we’ve ever seen on a Bentley, no doubt culling a few grand from the final price. No matter—you won’t see your reflection out in the rolling countryside, where the Azure is best enjoyed. Kinney sums it up best:
“Bentley for the drive, and the Rolls for showing up.”
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I’m looking for a 2013 Rolls-Royce and it was in turquoise inside and out Enterprise range about $80,000