Going to all of these concours events I’ve had the privilege to see some of the most glorious prewar luxury cars imaginable. Packards, Duesenbergs, Delahayes, Bugattis, the list goes on and on. This got me thinking about how most of these wonderful cars haven’t survived the ages, and it begged the question, why?
Let’s start by looking at what made a car “luxurious” back in the early days of the automobile. In essence, it all had to do with having gratuitous space, and fine appointments throughout the car. Bigger and nicer meant heavier, so larger engines were developed to propel these posh behemoths. On a separate note, sports and racing cars came from automakers putting these larger engines in to much tinier cars, but that is a story for another day. Bigger engines and the desire for more space are what made these early luxury cars so enormous. Just look at the Bugatti Royale, that hood had to accommodate a massive 12.7L straight-8 engine.
These early luxury cars, with their large powerful motors, were quite adept at high speed cruising. In fact, cars like Duesenbergs still have no trouble performing to the speed standards of our modern highways — that is how solidly they were designed.
Nowadays the standard of luxury has greatly diversified, and there aren’t many of these old-style luxury cars left. In fact, I’d argue that the only ones remaining are the Rolls Royce Phantom and maybe the Bentley Mulsanne. We all know Mercedes had a go of it when they tried to reincarnate the Maybach brand, but they had to close their doors after selling only a handful of cars after a decade of production. In all honesty, this market segment seems all but dead, with Rolls Royce holding on to the minuscule market share that remains.
The luxury car market has dispersed downward over the years, and the level of “nice-ness” seems to plateau after a certain point. Objectively, there is nothing a Rolls Phantom will give you for $400-500k that a Rolls Royce Ghost won’t give you for $350k. Similarly, there isn’t anything that a Ghost will give you for $350k that a Bentley Flying Spurr won’t give you for $200k. Hell, while we’re at it, I’m even hard pressed to see what the Bentley gives you for 200k that an Audi S8 won’t give you for $130k. You can even go lower than that if you don’t want the same level of power and performance, but I think my point is clear.
Now, I’m not saying that a Roller has no appeal whatsoever because that would be a blatant lie. The image of a Rolls Royce is drastically different from that of an Audi or BMW, as is the build quality. That said, for all of the smart money out there, it is very hard to justify paying an extra $300,000 for a car that does the exact same job as an Audi or a Bimmer. Sure, maybe you can have your Rolls Royce’s interior finished with the wood from an ancient viking warship, or upholstered with the hide of one of the 40, or now 39, Amur Leopards that are left on the planet. That said, most sensible people tend to find that oak trim and cowhide work just as well.
Obviously money can buy anything, and you should never count out the whims of the ultra rich. It would be nice to see this segment make a comeback, especially in a world where Lamborghini can sell you a bodykit for $3.8 million. That said, it is hard to compare the hypercar market to the ultra-luxury market because supercars, like the new LaFerrari, offer a level of technology, performance, and an experience that cannot be matched for less money. A Rolls Royce, on the other hand, just isn’t “that much” more comfortable or luxurious than a Mercedes, Audi, or BMW. In fact, I feel the need to point out that even Hyundai’s Equus offers many of the same features found in a Phantom.
Like many car buyers, I love me a big comfy cruiser. But for half-a-million dollars, I’d rather have a big comfy Audi in one garage, with a small, not so comfy Ferrari beside it. That said, while modern luxury cars have certainly gotten smarter, there’s no denying that the level of glamour has fallen as much as the prices have.