As clues go, it was a big one. Revealed with much pomp and ceremony at the Geneva motor show in 2004, Rolls-Royceâ€™s spectacular 100EX concept car was created to celebrate the famed British car makerâ€™s centenary.Â That was the official line, at least. When probed, the only thing officials would reveal was that there were considerations to building the big convertibleâ€”with the quick caveat that nothing was certain.
With the unveiling of the Phantom Drophead Coupe at the North American International Auto Show, it is now clear that, even then, plans were clearer than anyone was led to believe. You donâ€™t bring a car as technically advanced as this to market in less than three years without having a strong direction from the start. As a statement of intent, the concept was on the money, for thereâ€™s little to separate the 100EX from its production sibling.
Still, you canâ€™t blame Rolls-Royce for playing its cards close to its chest. Competition in the upper echelons of the luxury car market has become particularly fierce in recent years, as evidenced by Mercedes-Benzâ€™s bold attempt to deflect attention from the new Rolls-Royce with the Detroit show unveiling of its similarly conceived four-door drop-top Concept Ocean Drive.
The new carâ€™s official title, Phantom Drophead Coupe, draws heavily on the long British tradition of referring to convertibles as Dropheads. But why not Corniche, as was rumored? In addition to paving the way for calling the hardtop version of the new car Phantom Coupe, it seems Rolls-Royce has other ideas for the Corniche moniker. If whispers are true, Chairman Ian Robertson is toying with endowing the companyâ€™s coming entry modelâ€”announced at the Paris motor show last Septemberâ€”with the evocative Corniche badge.
This Drophead Coupe is the second Rolls-Royce model to see production since BMW took the company reins in 1998. Adhering closely to the formula used by the four-year-old Phantom sedan, the chassis is built on a stiff extruded aluminum space-frame. Modifications to the existing structure make the windshield an integral part of the roll protection and also ensure the new car is even stiffer than its four-door sibling.
Rolls-Royce claims the new car will be the most rigid convertible in the world. Considering how big the car is, this was a tremendous engineering task. Call it a confident car in its stature: The Drophead Coupe stretches to 220.8 inches long, just 9.8 inches shorter than the mammoth Phantom sedan. A good part of this is concentrated within wheelbase, which extends to 130.7 inches to provide the Drophead Coupe with a roomy four-seat interior; rear occupants are accommodated on a classic bench seatâ€”or as Rolls-Royce describes it, a rear lounge.
Despite sharing the same basic exterior theme established on the Phantom four-door, Rolls-Royceâ€™s chief designer Ian Cameron sees the Drophead Coupe as a different car than the flagship sedan.
â€œSimply removing the Phantomâ€™s roof could have made a great convertible but it wouldnâ€™t have made a perfect one,â€ says Cameron. â€œWith the Drophead Coupe we had the chance to think about the very nature of convertible motoring and, in particular, what it means to Rolls-Royce.â€
Clearly it means a less formal shape, as the Drophead Coupe is more streamlined than any production Rolls-Royce in recent memory. All of the panels are unique, part of what is described as a total of 1300 new parts to give the car its own distinct identity.
It starts at the grille, which is smaller and more raked than on the Phantom. This grille imparts a more casual air while retaining the famed British marqueâ€™s bold face. Finished in stainless steel, the vertical center strakes are polished to a high gloss while the surround is brushed to match the finish of the optional stainless steel hood, a design feature brought directly from the 100EX show car and something we can expect to appear on more future Rolls-Royce models. Rolls-Royce says it used a 20-year-old DeLorean as a case study on the long-term durability of the metal and its finish.
Next, the suicide doorsâ€”or as Rolls-Royce prefers to describe them, coach doors. This is a unique feature among convertibles and makes the rear of the Drophead Coupe a cinch to enter. You open the door via a lovely chromed handle underneath the A-pillar, step up, swivel around and slide onto the bench. As with the Phantom sedan, Rolls-Royce has received special exemption from various authorities to place the doors into production. One youâ€™re seated, just press a button and the door automatically closes.
The roof, meanwhile, is the largest of any modern day convertible. With myriad electric motors, it automatically retracts into a copious stowage compartment behind the rear seats. Developed in partnership with German specialist Edschaâ€”the same firm credited with the new BMW 3 Series convertibleâ€™s hardtop roofâ€”the vast fabric structure boasts no less than five layers of insulation, including one that uses a mixture of cashmere. Expensive? If you have to askâ€¦.
Cameron reveals there were early considerations to giving the Drophead Coupe a more contemporary folding hardtop roof, but that was fleeting.
â€œThereâ€™s nothing more romantic than driving a convertible in the rain at night and hearing the drops hit the roof,â€ he says.
Such romanticism aside, it has also enabled Cameron to fit a classically styled trunk without having to worry about where to store large roof sections or to compromise the design. Rolls-Royce describes it as a â€œpicnic trunk,â€ owing to its unusual tailgate design which enables easy access to luggage as well as providing a perch for two adults. Precisely what one needs for a day at the polo fieldsâ€¦.
Inside are some truly magnificent materials: soft leather, shiny chrome, teak panels and sisal mats. Itâ€™s traditional Rolls-Royce, but with a modern twist that feels gleefully exclusive. Rather than take inspiration from other automakers, Cameronâ€™s design team sought inspiration from 1930s Americaâ€™s Cup J-class yachts.
â€œWe didnâ€™t want owners to feel as if they had to pull over at the first spot of rain,â€ he says.
The Drophead Coupe doesnâ€™t lack for performance. Sitting up front under its majestic hood is the same silky smooth turbocharged 6.8-liter V12 engine used in the larger and heavier Phantom sedan. With direct injection and a fully variable inlet manifold, the four-valve-per-cylinder unit musters an impressive 453 hp at 5350 rpm along with 531-lb-ft of torque at 3500rpm. Drive is delivered to the rear wheels via a six-speed automatic gearbox.
If you have any hope to own one of these, you had better hurry as assembly of about 100 Drophead Coupes per year will be alongside the Phantom sedan at the Rolls-Royce factory in Goodwood, England. The car goes on sale in the U.S. in mid 2007.
Ostensibly a cruiser, few potential customers are likely to be too interested in the $350,000 Dropheadâ€™s performance numbers. For what itâ€™s worth, the official 0-60-mph time is 5.7 seconds, which is impressive given the carâ€™s portly 5776-pound curb weight. Top speed is 149 mph, for those who for some unexplained reason feel a pressing need to get to their destination rather than enjoying the ride. [autoweek]