Buyers 'flocking' to Rolls-Royce with investment in mind

By , Automotive editor of The Christian Science Monitor

Who'd ever think of a Rolls-Royce automobile as a ''best seller,'' especially these days with so many car owners sitting out the '82-model year? Or a Christmas present parked in front of the house with the keys left under the tree?

Compare the statistics. Since the new Silver Spirit was introduced to the United States last March, sales are up some 40 percent, compared with the same time slot a year ago, and 10 percent over 1979, a really big year by Rolls-Royce standards.

Between April 1 and Oct. 24, Rolls-Royce Motors Inc. sold 894 cars in the US, compared with 628 a year ago.

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At the same time, other carmakers have watched their wheels dig deeper and deeper into the mud as car buyers stay out of the showrooms and the auto-market outlook remains cloudy at best.

In the case of Rolls-Royce, cost obviously is not an issue. The all-new Silver Spirit, the first new 4-door motorcar by the company in 15 years, goes for $109,000 (and discounting is almost unknown), while the long-wheelbase Silver Spur carries a tab of $117,000. A Corniche convertible tips the price scale at around $160,000.

Why spend so much money on an automobile? Probably for the same reason that some people climb mountains - because it's there. In the case of a Rolls-Royce, it's because the buyers have the money and, to them, the car represents good value. After all, people also buy Aston Martins at $100,000 and up.

Simply, you have to want a Rolls-Royce, or an Aston Martin, to lay that kind of money on the line. A Rolls-Royce certainly isn't the run-of-the-mill automobile.

''Every Rolls-Royce model has its own special following, but the Silver Spirit has exceptionally wide appeal,'' asserts George W. Lewis, president of Rolls-Royce Motors Inc., the US distributor.

As anyone might expect, the new Silver Spirit comes with almost anything you could want for mobility on the road. Handling, again expectably, is excellent, and the car does just about what you want it to do except pass by more gas stations without stopping. Heavy (nearly 5,000 pounds), with a wheelbase of 120. 5 inches, the car only gets 10 to 12 miles to a gallon of gas. Obviously, with a corporate average fuel economy (CAFE) figure of 24 for 1982, the federal government collects a gas-guzzler tax on every car sold.

But ''economy'' is not an issue, anyway. If it were, a person should not be driving one.

Along with the motorcar itself, the buyer gets a packet, 13/8 inches thick, including an owner's handbook which explains the operation of the car and tips on how best to maintain it; a thin folder, entitled Consumer Information, which gives vehicle stopping distances and tire loads; a supplement to the owner's handbook; a booklet that lists sales and service outlets all over the world; and a service manual that explains the required maintenance procedure for the car over the next eight years.

The sales and service handbook lists facilities all the way from San Jose, Calif., and Countryside, Ill., to Tauranga (that's in New Zealand) and Sri Lanka; from the Sultanate of Oman to Sapporo on the northern Japanese island of Hokkaido.

There are, in fact, two distributors in Japan and 28 dealers, including four in Tokyo alone, who sell and service the cars.

The key number card is imprinted in five languages, including Arabic, and says, in green letters on the back: ''Use only hydraulic system mineral oil.'' The car is a big seller in the Mideast.

Yet despite its reputation for craftsmanship and detail, a Rolls-Royce is still a car. And being a car, it has its problems and unhappy owners.

Newton Rosenzweig, a Phoenix, Ariz., businessman, for example, wrote a few months ago: ''With our first Silver Shadow, defective paint showed up a few months after purchase. (The car) went through several 'cut-rate' repaint jobs, but never measured up to the highly publicized '14 to 17 coat' factory work. (We) also experienced difficulties with the electrical system. (We) hoped to avoid a paint problem with our Silver Shadow II by choosing a different color, but we had much the same experience.''

Mr. Rosenzweig concludes: ''In many respects, the Rolls is a remarkable means of transportation, but in my opinion, the time has come to delve into the mystique that Messrs. Rolls and Royce have benefitted from, at least in the American press.''

Whether Mr. Rosenzweig will try out a new R-R Silver Spirit, we do not know. But in driving the car for a few days not long ago, as well as testing the Spirit at its world premiere around Nice and Cannes, France, in September 1980, we found the new Spirit does indeed exude a sense of luxurious well-being to the driver and perhaps a feeling that little can go wrong beneath the hood.

But when it does, expect to pay a hefty price for repairs. In a dealership back shop, the labor rate is sharply higher than for more plebeian cars, to be sure. Too, the parts are no bargain, either.

But with all that money on the line for the purchase, the upkeep shouldn't be much of an issue, anyway. Nor should the cost of fuel.

And when a Royce breaks down on the road or leaves even more to be desired in the serviceability of its appointments and finish, it only shows that a Rolls-Royce automobile is still an automobile.

Looking to 1982, the company expects to sell some 1,300 vehicles in the US. More Rollses, in fact, may be sold in North America next year than in the United Kingdom itself - a surprising statistic, indeed.

''We are pushing very hard for a bigger share of the spending money of people who appreciate fine-quality products and can afford them,'' George Fenn, R-R chief executive based at the home plant in Crewe, England, said at the launching of the new Silver Spirit and Silver Spur models in Washington, D.C., last spring.

The last four words tell it all: ''. . . and can afford them.''

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