Leagues Lost in Luxury

Rolls Royce Phantoms old and new
Rolls Royce Phantoms old and new

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?

1931 Bugatti Royale Kellner Coupe
1931 Bugatti Royale Kellner Coupe

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.

Maybach and Rolls Royce
Maybach and Rolls Royce. Photo credit: Germanexotics.com

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.

Audi S8
The Audi S8 is as much luxury as anyone needs. Anything further is just adding extra sauce.

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.

-Nick Walker

5 thoughts on “Leagues Lost in Luxury”

  1. The luxury cars of the past were status symbols for the big industrialists. I believe their survival was dependent on these very people and once World War Two came to a close, America was a different place. There was no longer a market and they became pieces of history to be enjoyed by today’s car collectors.

    The luxury cars of today are still status symbols of those wealthy enough to pay the price to say, “look at me”. I once pulled into a Target parking lot and found my Dodge Dakota truck parked next to a Bentley. While my wife and daughter went shopping, I looked over the Bentley and admired the craftsmanship and luxury. But in the end I decided my truck was far more useful than a Bentley. Two slobbering dogs in the back of the truck is better then on the leather back seat of the Bentley. Plus it cost me a lot less money to drive to a Target store in my Dodge when one considers the initial cost of the Bentley, insurance, maintenance, depreciation, etc. In my world, practicality out weighs “look at me”.


  2. Money no object ~ 1936 Cord Auburn Boat-tail speedster. Sadly I’ll have to stick with Lotus and Caterham.


  3. I once saw this beautiful white Jaguar XJL Supersport next to me at costco and I was in awe admiring the craftsmanship and beauty of the car i really feel its okay to spend 160k on a car that you enjoy.


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