A new Rolls-Royce -- the latest last word in luxury

Sam Kellner, a Florida home builder of a few years ago, once told me he was about to satisfy a lifetime ambition at last. He was going to buy a Roll-Royce motorcar.

Of course, at that time Sam paid a mere $25,000 for the privilege. When the brand-new Rolls-Royce Silver Spirit finally makes it to the US next spring, the price will be around $100,000, more or less -- a prestigious price for a very prestigious car.

The stylish new Spirit, which I drove through the hills of the Cote d'Azur of southern France not too long ago, is an impressive vehicle, perky, with a long pedigree of excellence and uncompromising quality.

It's a much more sporty vehicle than its predecessor, both in handling and appearance. In broad terms, it's much less boxy, and is slightly lower and wider than the 15-year-old Shadow -- up to now the longest lifespan of any Rolls-Royce car in history.

Too, the glass area is increased by 30 percent and curved side windows are introduced.

The Spirit has some 4,000 new parts out of a total of 80,000 in the car. A more convenv tional kind of car has 15,000 parts.

Also, the new Spirit soaks up the bumps and rumbles underwheel because of a brandnew, however complicated, rear suspension that works and works and works.

The long-wheelbase versin of the car is called the Silver Spur; an dthe Bentley model -- everyhing's thesame but the radiator -- is named the Mulsanne.

Somehow, the Rolls-Royce automobile and the Mediterranean coast of France go together.

Indeed, both suggest money -- and lots of it.

So when Britain's prestigious car builder, Rolls-Royce Motors, wanted a place to showcase its new automotive showpiece, what more appropriate place than the sparkling Riviera!

Indeed, the Rolls-Royce automobile continues to be a state of thought, a personal gratification, a statement of worth, to thousands of people around the world.

Certainly, a new model is an Eventm (with a capital E) to the people who build and sell the Rolls-Royce marque. AFter all, it hasm been 15 years since the Silver Shadow came onto the market and it may be as long again before a replacement for the Spirit hoves into view.

A company worker explains: "We can't do everything all at once, you know. It takes time to prepare the way for a new car; and if you try to rush ahead too fast, you miss the whole point of a Rolls-Royce motorcar."

Surprisingly, perhaps, a lot of people do notm miss the point of a Rolls even if the sagging world economy, plus the $50 million ($122 million) outlay on the new car, have had a sharp impact on the firm. To remedy the situation and bring Vickers, Ltd., the big British aircraft manufacturer.

Now, with a fresh inflow of cash, the company looks to the fortune with enthusiasm and revitalized vigor.

As for fuel economy under way, the new Rolls-Royce Spirit gets about 10 percent more than the car it replaces. The Shadow gets around 10 miles to a US gallon, which is hardly in stpe with the trend of the times. But you don't buy a 2 1/2-ton Rolls-Royce for its fuel mileage.

So a 10 percent improvement is a niggardly mile a gallon. In fact, because of its appetite for fuel, a US buyer now pays a "gas guzzler" tax of $550, which rises over the next few years to several thousand dollars at time of purchase.

But who wil carp over another $3,000 or $4,000 if the car itself costs $100, 000-plus?

In the future, however, some improvement in fuel mileage is assured.

The R-R engine now is 6.7 liters in size. This will be reduced to 5.3 liters within the next two or three years. Further, the car will lose a few hundred pounds in weight at the same time. Thus, the mpg figure is bound to go up, but not by very much.

Ultimately, the company will have a higher-compression engine which will be a lot more efficient and cn be expected to improve road mileage dramatically.

Why not simply downsize the car? "Because," asserts George R. Fenn, chief executive, "we have to meet the requirements of our market. A small Rolls-Royce simply would not be a Rolls-Royce motorcar."

Well, how about a diesel engine then? A diesel gets much better fuel economy than a gas engine.

Impossible, says John S. Hollings, director of engineering:

"AFter all," he responds, "Daimler-Benz doesn't put a diesel engine in its top-model crs." And he's right. Then he adds: "There still is a lot that can be done to an internal-combustion gasoline engine."

In a critical vein, it's hard to nitpick a Royce. But let me ask why, ina $ 100,000 (or whatever the price) automobile, the side window glass doesn't go all the way down into the doors? Maybe the curve in the glass has something to do with it.

Or this: It really doesn't make any difference, anyway, because you shouldn't want to lower the windows when you can relax in a thoroughly aloof, two-system, air-conditioned environment without the intrusion of outside noises or smells.

Meanwhile, the manufacturer expects to increase its output about 5 percent a year.

"We know we would be taking a risk by increasing our production too much," asserts Mr. Fenn.

However, he adds: "We don't feel we compete with any other car.

"What we do compete with is an alternative purchase, such as a boat or fishing skiff. But you can use a car for 12 months of the year but you can use a boat for only part of the year in most parts of the world?

What this good-crested British company is counting on is this: If 25 million new cars are sold in the world every year, and this is a fact, then 3,500 to 4, 000 of those prospective buyers will be willing to opt for a Royce.

And another fact is this: They do.

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