Avoidable Contact #73: Who cares about Rolls-Royce, anyway?

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AC_Thumb_Rolls Royce Ghost

“My name’s Harv Bannister, I work for Tipsy McStagger’s Good Time Drinking and Eating Emporium.” – Harv Bannister

“Oh, yeah? Hey, what’s Mr. McStagger really like?” – Moe

“Actually there is no Tipsy McStagger, he’s just a composite of other successful logos.” – Harv Bannister

“Well, you tell him from me that he makes one great mozzarella stick.” – Moe

“Yes, fine, I will.” – Harv Bannister — The Simpsons Episode 045, “Flaming Moe’s”

Unlike Tipsy McStagger, Charles Rolls and Henry Royce were very real — but they are long gone. Charles Rolls died in a plane crash one hundred and ten years ago; Henry Royce succumbed to health issues twenty-three years later. There are no living human beings who can remember a meeting with either of them. In the nine decades since the death of Henry Royce, the firm bearing his name was alternately split, bankrupted, placed under government protection, privatized, and torn asunder in an internecine squabble between German megacorporations. What we think of as “Rolls-Royce” today is actually a clean-sheet venture undertaken by BMW at the turn of the century; the firm’s production facilities at Crewe were retained by Volkswagen for its Bentley sub-brand. Not that Henry Royce ever turned a wrench at Crewe, mind you.

In other words, it’s more than a little justified to dismiss Rolls-Royce as nothing but a brand. The modern idea of a brand is substantially younger than the jet plane or the digital computer. The purpose of a brand is to erase meaning via the pretense of creating it. The automakers talk about “brand DNA” which is, of course, a ridiculous idea. It’s all a shell game designed to help you define yourself via your consumption of products which are nearly identical to, but labeled differently from, the products consumed by others.

The advent of globalization made brands very important, particularly luxury brands. There are a lot of rich people out there — about fifty million people with a million dollars or more, and more than two thousand people with a billion dollars or more. Many of them are quite recently arrived to wealth, and most of them are eager to signify their status to their peers and to those below them. Subtlety is out of the question, for the same reason that playing an un-amplified upright bass at Madison Square Garden is out of the question: among a crowd that large, it takes major wattage to be heard.

Prior to the BMW/Volkswagen kerfluffle, Rolls-Royce wasn’t a brand so much as it was an actual company of actual human beings. This company frequently struggled to make payroll. Heartbreaking economies were taken in the design and testing of Rolls-Royce vehicles; the engineers wore thick sweaters to avoid the cost of fitting pre-production cars with heaters. Having read several full-length books about the development of the Silver Shadow and its successors, I cannot recall ever reading a budget figure above five million dollars for any vehicle or variant. Compare that to the six billion dollars spent on the development of the Ford Contour. Rolls-Royce made cars for the rich and famous, but it operated on a shoestring. Much like a Savile Row tailor, the R-R engineers were given plenty of leeway to use expensive materials but no room whatsoever to be wasteful in that usage.

The threadbare nature of Rolls-Royce engineering was often more obvious than one would prefer. Car and Driver once wrote that “A mid-’80s Rolls-Royce Silver Spirit could best be described as a really bad Lincoln Town Car with great paint and gorgeous upholstery.” The last models to be designed entirely under British ownership, the circa-1995 MkIV variants of the Silver Spur, Silver Dawn, and Bentley Turbo, were lightly-facelifted takes on a heavily-facelifted take on a 1963 design. They felt like vintage cars even as they arrived in showrooms. A W140 Benz or a Lexus LS430 bore the same resemblance to a Silver Spur that an iPhone 11 does to the Bakelite rotaries of my earliest memories.

Much of this was beside the point — or perhaps it was the point. The shabby-genteel nature of Rolls-Royce as a firm simply served to accentuate the sprezzatura of its customers. Imagine being gauche enough to obsess over the reliability of one’s automobile, the way a Lexus LS400 owner might! An undue emphasis on reliability suggests that one might be at someone else’s beck and call, and that one would need a perfectly reliable vehicle with which to be perfectly subservient. Should the typical Shadow owner experience a “failure to proceed”, by contrast, he could just send his man, meaning his valet, to handle the business for him.

Rolls-Royce in the late Twentieth Century was never quite as handmade as its advertisements suggested — the welded unibody of the Shadows and Spurs was handled by the same subcontractor that made Austins and Rovers — but it was still a far more personal, and personalized, item than any mainline Mercedes or Jaguar. Each and every car to leave Crewe before the German takeover was as individual as a thumbprint. A good friend of mine spends a lot of time working on Bentley Turbos and he tells me that no two examples have the wiring done in exactly the same way. This is, as you can imagine, a bit of a hassle when it’s time to fix the car. So be it. If you want machine-made perfection, buy a Camry.

For these reasons, and for many others, I am unashamedly part of the Rolls-Royce fanbase. Someday I’d like to be an owner, and I know the car I want: a 1995 Flying Spur. In a pinch I’ll take a late Silver Spur. The Everflex vinyl roof is a non-negotiable demand. I can be more flexible on color and interior trim, if necessary. I know it’s a “bad Town Car”, which is fine. I’m sure that my Richard Anderson sportcoats look fairly shabby and antiquated to the Patagonia-vest crowd, and that my Edward Green spectator shoes absolutely confuse the athleisure set with their lack of water-resistance and Allbirds-style breathability. That’s not the point. The point is to own something that reflects the humanity of its makers, rather than the precision of a CNC machine.

Rolls-Royce the modern brand, the division of BMW, builds some astounding automobiles. They are light-years beyond the Silver Spur and they are fully competitive with any luxury vehicle one could mention. The Phantom, Ghost, Wraith, and Cullinan require no excuses whatsoever. To operate one of them is to exist in the Platonic ideal of a Rolls-Royce. Every button and surface is of impeccable quality. Happily, the brand continues to respect the Shadow-era virtues of fingertip-light operation and comprehensible controls. The same climate-control computer that BMW owners command via iDrive or gleaming LED displays is here operated by turning simple knobs. The old Ghost and Wraith didn’t perfectly hide the hard points of the BMW 7-Series within but there’s precedent for this; Turnbull&Asser uses the same fabrics that many other shirtmakers do. The difference is in the execution, here and there.

The styling of the current cars is more of an acquired taste. Only in retrospect do we see how tasteful the Shadow and Spur were in their tidy proportions and elegant, fuss-free detailing. The 1999 Silver Seraph, designed by Graham Hull and executed using German money, appears almost willfully humble when parked next to a Phantom or Ghost. The new cars are a bit shouty. They have to be. Their owners expect it.

It’s hard to imagine the 2003 Phantoms and its successors following in the used-car footsteps of the Shadow and Spur. Those older “Royces” are often lovingly maintained and operated by middle-class people who wouldn’t dream of buying a new Lexus but who are emotionally involved with the idea of a handmade British car from another era. When the RROC (Rolls-Royce Owners Club) took its first halting steps online in the Nineties via USENET and America Online, it was noted that schoolteachers comprised an unusual percentage of Silver Shadow owners, often doing their own maintenance in home garages. Will this hold true a decade from now? Will tomorrow’s teachers work on Phantoms and Cullinans in the evenings, after signing off their Zoom classes?

The complete divorce from Crewe, the clean-sheet nature of the Phantom, the somewhat terrifying size and weight of all the current models, the lingering sensation that the whole thing amounts to nothing more than an exercise of raw budgetary and technological prowess on the part of the Bavarian Motor folks — all of this goes a long way to diminish the romance of Rolls-Royce ownership, at least for proles like me. And yet it’s impossible to drive one of the new cars and not fall in love. They’re executed to a peerless standard. In that regard, at least, they hew much closer to Henry Royce’s original vision than the Shadow and Spur ever did. They are shameless statements of engineering excellence. Utterly separated from the Rolls-Royce of 1995, they sometimes feel very close to the Rolls-Royce of 1925. Would it be more honest for them to wear some other name, perhaps the Rapp-Motorenwerke of BMW’s earliest history? Possibly. In the end, it doesn’t matter. These vehicles are writing their own story. I can’t help but care about them, no matter what name they have on the grille. Tipsy McStagger, like him or loathe him, makes a great mozzarella stick.

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