Jude Law drove Gwyneth Paltrow across Capri in an Alfa Romeo in The Talented Mr Ripley. Gregory Peck rode a Vespa on his Roman Holiday. For Audrey Hepburn, only a classic Fiat would do. In Italy no self-respecting follower of brio and la bella figura sets out without the right ride. That used to mean something Italian – the sensuous Pininfarina-sculpted swoops of a Ferrari, the stubby haunches of a Maserati or the wind-in-hair thrill of a Ducati. But there is a new capo on the piazza and he’s an Inglese.
I’m heading for the hills north of Milan to see this stylish newcomer. It’s no surprise to find il gentleman here. Well-to-do Britons have always loved this part of Italy. The Duke of Windsor and Mrs Simpson chose Lake Como to escape the scandal created by their romance. DH Lawrence described the Italian lakes as ‘the most beautiful place on earth’ and the mottled peaks and clear waters helped Winston Churchill to recover from the depression he called ‘a touch of the black dog’.
The newcomer is to be found at one of the of the few Grand Hotels worthy of the description. The Grand Hotel Villa d’Este in Cernobbio on the southwestern shore of Lake Como was built in the 16th Century by the Cardinal of Como as a palazzo retreat from the pressures of the town and was once Mark Twain’s private summer residence. When I arrive, smudgy lake mist still covers the terrace but the pale summer sun soon burns it off to reveal the Rolls-Royce Phantom Drophead Coupé.
The slitty LED headlamps come into focus first, followed by the steel bonnet brushed by craftsmen until it is thread-perfect. On top of the new laconic, swept-back grille, the new underlit Spirit of Ecstasy mascot glows in the gloom. It is so bleeding-edge modern that, at first sight, the Drophead Coupé look like a one-off, concept car designed for ‘show’, not for ‘go’. Indeed, when its prototype, Rolls-Royce 100EX, made its debut at the Geneva Motor Show four years ago, most observers assumed it was simply designed to wow the crowds before being pushed aside to make way for a more conventional-looking Corniche.
But ever since BMW bought the venerable British marque a decade ago, the men from Munich have been out to prove that, behind their uniform grey suits and rimless spectacles, they can be every bit as eccentric as their British forbears who made Rolls-Royce the ultimate luxury driving machine. First, they built the stately £260,000 Phantom, a car so vast it is bigger than most island nations. Now they have turned the wild 100EX concept into an even wilder reality.
In many ways, the Phantom Drophead Coupé makes no sense. It’s almost 19ft long and weighs 2.6 tonnes – 70kg more than the bigger, metal-roofed Phantom – but only seats two comfortably. The rear-hinged ‘coach’ doors open the wrong way. There’s so much teak decking and sisal matting in the interior that it looks more like a Riva speedboat than a car. Rolls has spent a small fortune on elements most owners will never see. The hexagonal-framed underside of the bonnet is machine-tooled to the last millimetre of symmetrical perfection and the largely-hidden chrome exhaust pipes are so sculptural that Ian Cameron, Rolls-Royce’s chief designer, uses one as a vase at home. The car costs £305,000 – before options – and fuel and depreciation will set you back £50,000 a year. Even its name is wrong. It may have two doors, but with no hard-top roof, a coupé is one thing it ain’t.
No, the Drophead makes no sense except for one thing: it’s the best convertible ever made.
Its exterior styling elegantly expresses its modernity and power. Rolls’ trademark ‘waftability’ undercut scoops low and hard into the flanks echoing the shut-line of the doors and creating a snarky profile. The two-tone bonnet and paint job could – should – be Jimmy Tarbuck-naff, but Rolls manages to make it look contemporary by using brushed steel, instead of a lighter paint colour on the bonnet, to offset the darker flanks. With its wrap-around steel windshield, the cockpit looks like the road-going cousin of another icon of British engineering, the Spitfire. The boot is so elegantly tapered and tailed down that, sitting on the banks of Lake Como, it seems to flow into the water.
The interior is pointedly modern – without losing any of the traditional Rolls-Royce craftsmanship. The classic cream calf-skin leather is offset with cheeky, blood-red inserts. The dashboard mixes mahogany and brushed metal. It is classically simple and elegant, but the driver still has all whizzy controls he needs to hand on the arm-rests and in the centre console. The steering wheel rim is slender – a Rolls-Royce trademark – but made of a modern, soft-touch calf-skin. The carpets are as soft as ever, but have been specially designed to reduce the build-up of humidity inside the car if they get wet in the rain. The kick plates are styled like old-fashioned running boards, but finished in matt metal.
There are none of the usual plutocrats’ perks – plasma TV screens, windows that change from see-through to opaque at the touch of a button. Instead, there’s an umbrella hidden in the driver’s door, a Krug fridge concealed in the boot and the Range-Rover-style split tailgate forms a cheeky picnic table for lazy, hazy days in an English country garden.
On the road, the Drophead is a gentlemen racer. Powered by a 6.75 litre V12 engine, which delivers almost 460bhp to the giant 21-inch wheels via a six-speed automatic gearbox, it charges to 60mph in 5.6 seconds. At 60mph, the needle on Rolls’ version of a rev counter, the power reserve gauge, hovers around 91. That’s means there is still a thrilling 91 per cent – roughly 420bhp – in reserve. The throttle feels like it is connected to some vast engine room deep within the curvaceous bodywork but the engine is whisper quiet. Rolls’ engineers have built in baffles and sound-deadening chambers to give it the softest voice possible. This is a car to be seen (in) but not heard.
Rolls-Royces have never been noted for their agility but the Drophead Coupé’s nimble handling on Italy’s mountain and valley roads belies its heft. Thanks to the super-stiff chassis which features wider sills, flared haunches and triangulated windscreen struts that anchor directly to the car’s floor-plan, there’s no scuttle shake. The car is so solid, it feels as if it is hewn out of marble. The steering will be a little light and the ride rather pillowy for those who want to harry the car through the esses. But, forget turn-in and steering feedback: this is not a car for rushing along and smoking the tyres. It is a car for drivers – give the chauffeur the day off – who can afford the ultimate luxury: time. Drophead Coupé drivers are connoisseurs of lazy days, sun and wind.
Small wonder that at Como practitioners of la passeggiata acclaimed it a very bella machina. Girls in Valentino and men in Armani pranced and preened, catching their reflections in the dark exterior. Sitting in the best of British luxury in a country which has cornered the market in style and charm, the possibilities seemed endless. Where should I go? What should I do? A holiday romance with a raven-haired Vespa vamp? A night at La Scala? A glass of Barolo?
I drove out past ranks of foreigners arriving in the latest ‘must-drive’ Italian cars. Ah, sweet, deluded fools! Don’t they know the old ones are still the best? Cento per cento. When it comes to romance, history, style and grandeur, the Brits always have done and, for my money, always will do it better. There may be cheaper four-seater sunloungers in the world but none as epically stylish and satisfying as the Phantom Drophead Coupé.