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Bentley v. Rolls-Royce: 2009 Phantom Coupe

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Twenty percent of new Rolls-Royce customers used to own a Crewe-built “Royce”. Since BMW bought Rolls-Royce and moved operations to Goodwood, many of the old guard have switched to Bentleys which are still hand made in Crewe. Automobiles De Luxe asked Bentley owners for their take on the new Rolls-Royce.

“EVERYTHING is attitude in life,” Frank G. Masek, affable, 73, explains with his light hearted New-Yawker accent. Frank recites what seems to be his own life’s maxim with a knowing glint in his astonished eye.

Seeming somewhat stunned, his focus turns to take in the interior of the 2009 Rolls-Royce Phantom Coupe, an exotic that feels a generation removed from the classic curves of his 2004 silver–over–grey Bentley Arnage.

“My Gawd, this is like a ship!” he nods to the massive arc of Zebrano paneling that seems wide enough to encompass the width of his Bentley.

It couldn’t, of course, but appearances speak volumes. His fingers lightly register the leather wrapped confidence of the large helm’s thin rim. To him, the two-suicide-door Phantom is so impressive – and – so different.

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From your innocent bystander’s standpoint, it might seem odd how a Bentley owner could be so in awe of a Rolls.

For half of the last century, Bentleys and Rolls-Royces were essentially the same cars with different badges. Today, both are still stupid expensive and ultra exclusive.

Both say, “I’ve got mine!”

In a strict sense, these observations are true.

But in the same vein, describing both the Chrysler Building and the Freedom Tower as two, really tall skyscrapers defines neither structure adequately. Each represents the culmination of human effort; achieved in different times with unique objectives. What unites both is that both teams endeavored to produce the best.

An idea strikes Frank and he invites me into his house to show me a new car he saw in the latest copy of the Flying Lady.

He thumbs past articles of the 200EX concept and the Continental Supersports to a story about a custom retro Bentley S3 redone slightly ghetto by the “Bentley Boys” out of San Antonio, TX. It’s the same car that appeared online earlier this year; a low slung, tall-rimmed, Bentley-badged, Silver Cloud-clone with aero mods and tinted windows.

Frank studies the shots for a second and looks up at me uncertainly.

“I don’t know about this. I like a little low key,” he says. “More low key than the Rolls.”

“ANOTHER LEVEL”

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“Isn’t this the most beautiful car?” Mrs. “A” asks. Her hand softly caresses the Phantom Coupe’s brushed stainless hood.

Mrs. A has a certain wry wit about her and she cuts a shapely forty-something figure. The successful Mr. “A” owns a late generation Bentley Azure convertible which rests beneath a heavy tan cover inside the garage a hundred feet from where we stand.

“But I couldn’t drive this, Gunnar,” she tells me, smiling resignedly at the Rolls. “I’d be ostracized! Could you imagine me driving this car in [small New England town]? I think in London this would work.”

I suggest that her husband’s two and half ton Azure is a pretty bold statement, in and of itself. “Not like this,” she says, the Rolls filling her view.

“This is another level.”

“UGLY CAR” | “WRONG PRICE”

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Mr. “J”, seventy-something, owned a ’76 Silver Shadow II until it died one night six years ago in a downpour on the side of I-95. He now rolls in a silver-on-grey Bentley Continental GTC. I ask him he’d care to drive the Phantom Coupe to see how it contrasts with his Audi-influenced Bentley.

“I’d never drive an ugly car,” he tells me summarily over the phone.

Waiting a silent moment, he then allows, “I understand that the new Phantoms drive beautifully.” But the new Rolls-Royce aesthetics are just too abrasive for his taste.

“I thought my Silver Shadow was a beautiful car. Of course it leaked oil and had technical problems. But it had some years on it.”

He passes on meeting the next day.

But I do meet with my friend Max, 80, who owns a Crewe-built ’88 Silver Spur; black Everflex roof with banker’s grey paint over black Connolly trimmed interior. Max let me showcase his Royce two years ago in two Automobiles De Luxe videos. He’s game about Rolls-Royce’s exuberant esprit de corps and welcomes the Phantom Coupe.

“The best feature on this car is the disappearing, reappearing hood ornament,” he says after a quick walk around. On reflection, he’s not keen about the new, inset grille, though.

Max drives a 2005 Mercedes-Benz S500 4-Matic as his every day car and uses his “Roller” for special occasions. Over the years, like the Queen with her prime ministers, his ceremonial Silver Spur has seen more than a few Sonderklassen come and go as the “every day car”.

Two decades ago, he bought the Silver Spur after the local Benz dealer tried to sell him another S-Class for more than $100,000.

“I told the guy,” Max stiffens his posture in a dramatic replay of himself formerly agitated, “if I’m gonna pay more than a hundred grand for a car, it’s gonna be a Rolls-Royce.” Down bangs the invisible phone.

He made good on his word.

Undaunted, Max gets behind the Phantom Coupe’s wheel for a quick spin. The coupe is a half a foot longer than his old four-door and much taller. Leaving iDrive alone, he adapts to the BMW sourced “intuitive” stalk controls without too much fuss and slowly finds parallels with his Roller; namely, the lofty ride height, air cushioned ride, and sense of occasion about it all.

“The steering’s more positive on this car,” he observes, dialing the coupe swiftly into a mild corner.

Max half-jokingly hints he’d be willing to trade in his car for the new Coupe if the price was right.

“What is it? A buck sixty?” He asks.

Four-hundred forty one thousand dollars, I say.

“Like I said, if the price was right.”

“THE POOR SISTER”

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Back in Frank’s kitchen, we’re seated next to a three by four print of the Rolling Stones logo, Frank tells me that he used to drive a ’94 Brooklands and a 1960-something Silver Shadow before that. He owned the Brooklands until Miller Motorcars wanted $17,000 for a valve job and another $40,000 for a routine service.

“At that price… “ he shakes his head, “I figured I should get another car. I drive my cars like I drive any of my trucks.” Frank was in the shipping business for decades.

Hence, the ‘04 Arnage, which he bought from Manhattan Motor Cars.

“I felt a little guilty in this economy. But I bought the Arnage because I’m 73, I’ve had two heart attacks and I’m going in for an operation, so I figured what the hell.”

Frank notes that it’s harder to get in and out of the Arnage than it was the Brooklands –or – the Phantom Coupe which waits for us outside.

“It’s less pretentious. And I feel like Bentley was always the poor sister to the Rolls,” the Red Sox fan from NYC tells me. Frank seems to have a soft spot for underdogs.

I invite him to join me for a photo shoot. He’s game.

“ONCE IN A LIFETIME”

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We drive a few blocks to the town dock to take a few shots. A dock worker from a few hundred yards away comments, “Oh, nice! That’s a Rolls-Royce!”

Onlookers seem to appear from nowhere to view the grand display of a Rolls-Royce Phantom Coupe and a Bentley Arnage. A jogger pauses to stare at the Rolls.

“It’s beautiful!” She announces between deep breaths. “That should be my car!”

She briefly acknowledges the Arnage and goes on her way.

A group of Texan tourists armed with mega-watt smiles and cameras besiege the Rolls next.

“I think that’s the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen,” one lady sighs in mild Texan. She looks toward the Bentley for a moment then returns to open mouthed gawking at the Phantom Coupe.

I see that one of the group is wearing a beaded baseball cap that’s shimmering in the sunshine which gives me cue to show off the Phantom Coupe’s LED starlit headliner.

They explode into delighted guffaws and gasps.

I squeeze in a few more pictures when a couple of guys, who work at a local restaurant pull up in a Volvo S70 and offer me free dinner if they can have their pictures taken next to Rolls. I decline the free din-din, but offer the photo op.

They get out of their Swedish sedan and stare. One of them looks to Frank and asks if that’s his Bentley. Frank’s been good humored all this time. The looming Rolls has been getting all the attention, including his own.

“Your Bentley’s beautiful,” The man assures Frank in an effort to comfort a possibly bruised ego, “but the Rolls…”

Eyes wide, he looks back at the Phantom Coupe…

“That’s once in a lifetime!”