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Collectors' Items the Moment They Hit the Pavement

October 29, 1998|PAUL DEAN

For every dream there is a machine, and every machine has its maker.

Rolls-Royce & Bentley Motor Cars Ltd. of Crewe, England, has been one such noble creator for three years short of a century. The company is also the single, signal source of twin automotive pedigrees that reach beyond obtainable dreams to barely attainable fantasies.

These great cars are the stuff of British queens and Saudi princes, old sultans and new dictators, lords of manors and bosses of drug cartels. Not exactly the folks who live next door in Irvine.

Rollers and Bentleys are so expensive, so impractical, so much the global symbol of ultimate wealth and power, that even billionaires have been unable to step from one without looking back at their dignified wheels. Which makes it appear they rented it from Budget.

Meanwhile, back in the 'burbs, we mortals must be satisfied with crumbs of cradle-to-grave coddling: arriving in a Rolls-Royce for a high school prom, leaving the church after your wedding, being on time for your own funeral.

Now all this fun and decadence seems threatened.

During the summer, German upstarts Volkswagen and BMW came bopping along and snagged Bentley and Rolls-Royce from beneath the elevated noses of romantics and loyalists whose opposition was less about money, more about foreigners mucking about with a British dowager older than the Queen Mum. Despite the upheaval--with contracts still crisp and smarter sales teams signing up for Berlitz German--Rolls and Bentley managed to make three new dream machines in the first seven months of this year.

And the $230,000 Rolls-Royce Silver Seraph, the $215,000 Bentley Arnage and, most recently, the $330,000 Bentley Continental SC actually transcend mere dream machines. These are the first and the last of the few.

Silver Seraph is the first Rolls-Royce to be fitted with a BMW engine. It's also the last of the Croesus cars to be built at Crewe before BMW moves production someplace else. Arnage is the first Bentley to be baptized with an engine from BMW. All three are the last sedans and coupes designed with Rolls and Bentley still beneath British ownership.

Add tiny production numbers to the mix, and you have a trio of collectible cars worthy of a place in your investment portfolio. Right next to the Pfizer Inc. stock you bought five years ago. Which might be needed if you plan on thumbing out $800K for three cars.

We--to apply the royal prerogative--have driven these ermine triplets. We--as Queen Victoria once sniffed--were not totally amused. And it has nothing to do with the GG factor, or the number of times you mumble "golly-gee" when reminded of the price. Because when deep pockets go in search of the finest that money can buy, obviously money isn't the issue.

Nor were we intimidated by all that luxury, only deeply appreciative of the painstaking care that speaks to hand-craftsmen still polishing woods and stitching rich leathers with the reverence of their fathers.

Truth is, we feel uncomfortable at the helm of anything weighing just under 3 tons and moving at 142 mph. Or, when surrounded by nervous traffic, wondering if your width will fit that space ahead. And, frankly, we've always been sensitive to sneers from folk in Saturns and Mazdas who view such chariots and presume your vulgarity.

The true wonder of a Rolls or a Bentley, however, is high-tolerance engineering producing mighty power that barely whispers. Despite their weight, a perfectly tuned chassis and precise suspension geometry keep these huge cars on even wheels, no matter the maneuvering.

Sure, they represent decadence within extravagance. But they also carry the legacies of Charles and Louis Tiffany, Thomas Chippendale, Abraham-Louis Breguet and three other blokes: Charles Rolls, Henry Royce and W.O. Bentley.

The Silver Seraph--a somewhat pretentious reference to a celestial being said to hover above God's throne--is powered by a 5.4-liter V-12 developing 322 horsepower. That muscle shoves this incredible hulk from zero to 60 mph in 6.8 seconds. Or as quick as a Jaguar XJ8 that weighs many hundredweights less.

The Seraph has been lightened by several hundred pounds and shortened by an inch. The traditional squared radiator has been softened and the famed Flying Lady shrunk. Styling is a design-in-the-round, which means eyes don't stumble over angles and edges but are coaxed around the corners by rounder ends, a rounder roof line and rounder headlights and taillights.

Add liberal use of chrome--even side mirrors have silvered backs--and the Seraph, certainly going away, looks very much like a Lincoln Town Car. Still, this remains a majestic and very exclusive environment that all should taste once before we shuffle off.

So, dream on.

Bentley's Arnage is a luscious overlay of the Seraph, especially the sheet metal, its dimensions, door count and interior appointments.

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