There's probably no better visual metaphor for the class structure than the traditional Town Car. Driver exposed to the elements up front for all to see, the wealthy owner carefully installed in a cushioned jewel box in back. The Petersen has a great Town Car exhibit now, and, even better, they let me use one for an afternoon.
Town Cars are pretty fascinating cars to do an exhibit of because, out of almost every car design, they're the most obsolete and the least likely to be seen in any form today. The museum's blurb describes them like this:
From the early 1900s to the mid-1960s, the term "town car" referred to a body style distinguished by an open chauffeur's compartment and an enclosed passenger area. Elegant and dignified, they were originally intended for city use on formal occasions and were almost always the most expensive body style offered by a manufacturer.
Usually, the explanation for the exposed chauffeur's compartment is that the body designs were based on traditions set in the horse-and-carriage era, when the driver would be outside as a necessity of dealing with reins and horses and all those particulars of living-meat-based locomotion. When the automobile became the dominant mode of transport, there was no longer a reason to leave the driver outside and exposed — except for tradition.
As Leslie Kendall, the Petersen's curator, pointed out to me, the town car designs began to die out as the last generation of people likely to remember seeing wealthy people in horse-drawn carriages started to die out. From roughly the mid-'60s on, the fully-enclosed limo began to take over the wealthy-people-transport role, and sunburned, frost-bitten, and rain-soaked chauffeurs haven't looked back since.
The fact that they're such dinosaurs is what makes these cars so fascinating, so when Dick Messer, former executive director of the Petersen and all-round nice guy, agreed to let me have use of his 1926 Silver Ghost Salamanca Town Cabriolet (one of the ones made in Rolls-Royce's Springfield, MA factory), I absolutely leapt at the chance. Here's the official explanation of the name and car:
A fusion of two formal body styles, the Town Cabriolet has the open chauffeur's compartment of a town car and the convertible rear section of a landaulet with a permanently fixed roof portion in between. As the name implies, town cars (with or without a collapsible rear section) were intended for city use on formal occasions ... The coachwork of this car was named in honor of the Marquis de Salamanca, a Spanish nobleman with longstanding connections to Rolls-Royce. The sumptuously appointed vehicle was the second to last Silver Ghost built by Rolls-Royce of America at their Springfield, Massachusetts facility.
Right! THAT Marquis de Salamanca! Now it makes sense. It was just three weeks out of an exhaustive restoration, and the afternoon we spent tooling around in it around LA was probably the longest drive it's had in years. And it was amazing.
For most of the drive, John Da Luz, the man behind the restoration, was driving, and watching him deal with this elegant beast really gives you a sense of how difficult the job was of a '20s-era chauffeur. Getting the car started is a process in itself, from hand-pressurizing the fuel tank to making sure all the innumerable points that could get lubricated are lubricated, checking the tires, which back in the day were not reliable at all, and more. The amount of maintenance and upkeep it requires makes the car feel more like a small yacht than anything else.
Once started, driving it certainly isn't a picnic, either. Just getting it into a position where it could be readily driven out of the Petersen basement was an undertaking, as tight maneuvers aren't really the strong suit of these 20+ feet of lovely metal.
It's crammed full of amazing details: the engine has the twin-spark setup that distinguishes it from it's UK-built brothers, along with the loveliest, most steampunk-complicated-looking carburetor I've ever seen.
There's tiny fabric-covered wedges designed to fit in the slot the rear cabin's roll-down windscreen rolls into, to prevent rattles when it's up; there's an extendible cigar lighter, and the microphone to bark orders or cheerfully berate the driver. Even the sidelights have a subtle "RR" etched into them. Every little detail on this car has been considered, re-considered, and then engineered to the best standard possible at the time.
Riding in the rich-dowager section of the car is, absolutely, a decadent experience. You're basically in a wool-covered cube, lounging on a small couch/love seat everything you touch either upholstered or nickel-plated.
Oh, and since I just typed "nickel-plated," let me tell you what chauffers most likely thought of nickel plating: it can go fuck itself right in its shiny metal ass. Nickel plating requires constant, daily polishing to stay shiny — and on a car like this old Rolls, that means your chauffeur would soon have forearms like Popeye from all the polishing. Chrome, I've learned, was a labor-saving innovation.
Back in the luxurious part of the Roller, there's seating for, say, three abreast on the rear bench and there's a pair of clever little jump seats to cram in two more. It's roomy for two, not bad with three, but I think cramming five back there wouldn't be so pleasant, even though I'm sure everyone there would smell fantastic.
Still, by modern standards, the luxurious passenger compartment is actually a little bit spartan. Our notions of modern luxury would make one think a car of this era would have had at least a Victrola and a Kinescope so you could hear the latest rags and watch old favorites like Guy Sneezing any time you liked, but what luxury meant back then was simply different. It was about being seen, not what you're seeing. And making your many rivals look bad.
The car is huge in every dimension except for interior space, the result of the construction methods of the era. Still, the car has a staggering amount of presence, and as we rolled down Wilshire Boulevard you could actually hear all those eyes wetly swiveling in their sockets to follow us.
A car likes this one has one huge advantage over almost any other sort of land-transport — it gets you in anywhere. We stopped in the middle of Beverly Hills to shoot a photo next to a Veyron, we drove through the Beverly Hills Hotel to waste their valet's time and get some more pictures, and, most importantly, we briefly blocked traffic on LaBrea because I really wanted a shot of it in front of Pink's. And nobody minded at all. Because being stopped near this car is like having a miniature cathedral dropped next to you by some impeccably-dressed angels.
But that's just riding — I want to know what it's like to drive an elegant monster like this —and happily, they let me. I was pretty intimidated — not just because of the sheer value of the car, but because of the straining muscles and alarming gear-grinding sounds I was hearing as the man who actually restored the car was driving. What I learned was that, with a totally non-synchronized gearbox, you're going to grind some gears. And the gearbox is made to handle it.
The whole way this car is designed from a driver's perspective is very telling. The incredibly low-revving, long-stroke, twin-spark, 7.2L I-6 engine — making around 80 HP or so— is designed to be lugged, and to pull away at a near-idle. The car tries to be as close to an automatic as was possible given the limits of the technology. That means if you can manage to endure 1st and 2nd gear for short periods of get-going time, you can pretty much leave it in 3rd and treat it like an automatic, saving your precious passenger's delicate eardrums from the harsh sounds of clashing gears.
Sitting on the springy bench drivers' seat, you find yourself sitting quite high up, looking out over that long, long hood to where it meets that flying lady way out there. You have to completely drop your head down to see any of the instruments, though the wheel, pedals, and shift lever are all in fairly natural-feeling locations.
Rearward visibility is hypothetical at best; the pair of side mirrors that strap onto the spare tires are almost entirely useless, and there's no conventional rear-view mirror as such. Still, who needs to look backwards in a car like this?
Getting it into 1st gear requires being at a dead stop; to take off, you let off the clutch and barely give it any gas at all. Getting into second without grinding requires either careful double-clutching or luck or both. I did plenty of grinding, but when you do manage to get it to snick right into gear, it feels like an absolute triumph.
You feel everything on the road via the very mechanical steering system, which can be useful, though the huge ride height does make absorbing rough roads and potholes much easier. Similarly, everything about this car is the absolute highest quality possible, and in that era that meant everything is overbuilt and oversized. It's why the lights are so huge and why four bolts are used where two would work. It's getting to quality via the brute force method, and, at the time, it worked.
The most important take-away about driving this old Rolls is the alarming sense of lag. You turn the wheel left, and then you can imagine the tiny British gnome stationed at the base of the steering column yelling into a speaking tube "LEFT TURN REQUESTED!" A few moments later, after the pair of brawnier gnomes chained to the steering gear get the message, and shout back "LEFT TURN ACKNOWLEDGED AND COMMENCING!" and then you slowly start to turn.
At least, that's how it feels. It just means you get very good at anticipating your actions. Same goes for the braking as well, which is only active on the rear wheels. The car also really follows the crown of the road, thanks to its solid axles, so you're always being vigilent to keep from careening into the parked cars on the sides of the road. It's not an easy thing to drive, but not awful, either. You can imagine getting used to it quite easily.
Driving this iconic bit of motoring history was absolutely fascinating, and the entire exhibit is incredible as well. This is a part of motoring not likely to be repeated, and as such is worth any gearhead's interest, at least for an engaging afternoon. Just make sure to give a thought to the memory of all those burly-armed, polishing-compound drunk, detail-oriented chauffeurs, and all the crap they probably had to put up with.
(Special thanks to Dick Messer for being so generous with his car, and to the Petersen for arranging this opportunity)