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Rolls-Royce at the drive-in

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Launched in 1952, the ocean liner SS United States demonstrated that speed and luxury were not mutually exclusive, crossing the Atlantic at a record average speed of 41mph – presumably without spilling the champagne.

In a reciprocal gesture 60 years in the making, the British have sent back across the Atlantic the 563-horsepower, 6.6-litre, twin-turbo Rolls-Royce Ghost Extended Wheelbase. It similarly pairs incomparable luxury with improbable speed, thanks to its combination of leather, wood and V12 muscle.

In an age when darty handling has displaced cushiness as the desired luxury-car behaviour, the term “boat” rings as an automotive pejorative, chasing most carmakers away from nautical analogies. But Rolls-Royce continues to embrace the land-yacht persona, touting proportions that intentionally recall a vintage mahogany Chris-Craft.

But how to introduce English royalty to workaday America?

As our colleagues at BBC Culture recently observed, there are few more traditionally American automotive activities than going to the drive-in to catch a double feature. Drive-ins were once commonplace, but today they belong to a specialised realm of nostalgia-inducing entertainments, not unlike vinyl records (and manual transmissions). Though every US city contained them a half-century ago, only the hardy few remain.

Among these is the Family Drive-In Theatre in Stephens City, Virginia, about a 90-minute drive from Washington DC, nestled in Virginia’s historic Shenandoah Valley. This particular drive-in dates from 1956, and the hospitality and low prices could convince visitors that little time has passed since.

Parking spaces that often accommodate pickup trucks and Chevy Suburbans were just the place to moor the Ghost for the evening. The Rolls stretches 219.3in, a scant 3in shorter than those Suburbans. While such proportions are not problematic at the drive-in lot, a pilot should take care not to mow down the speaker posts sprouting across the grounds. (It is considered poor form in rural Virginia to run over speaker posts in your Rolls-Royce.)

The view from the Ghost's front seat is splendid, unsurprisingly. In many cars back-seat viewing would be made difficult by the roof’s intrusion, but the Ghost's sofa-like rear seats position occupants low enough for a clear view of the screen through the windshield. Traditionalists mount a classic drive-in metal speaker to the window for audio. But with the Ghost’s 600-watt, 16-speaker sound system, tuning in Hollywood surround sound via the car’s radio dial seemed the more suitable choice.

Granted, few sounds emanating from those speakers could compete for sheer drama with the Ghost’s V12, which even sounds expensive on start-up, sparking to life with the high-speed whirr of a jet engine. On the trip west to the drive-in, flattening the accelerator made the Ghost assume the nose-high attitude of a powerboat climbing up on plane. In such moments the Rolls’ Spirit of Ecstasy hood ornament sooner resembled a ship prow’s figurehead.

Of course, the hydraulically smooth V12 never betrayed any effort, despite its tremendous output and hefty load. The Ghost’s eight-speed automatic transmission also faded into the background, with the only discernable shifts coming when changing from forward to reverse gear.

The Ghost is a luxury liner and never fails to remind occupants of this truth. At highway speed the car shoulders aside the air with its bluff front, but passengers never notice, as no wind noise penetrates the Ghost’s vault-like sheet metal, and the car’s air shocks erase any bumps not flattened by the optional 20in tires.

The English White worn by this tester was complimented by Seashell-hued leather upholstery. The white-on-white layout underscored the Ghost’s extravagance; who could live with such a colour scheme? Children with a modicum of dirt on their jeans would be forbidden passage. Even better, only passengers in all-white ensembles would be allowed inside.

Maybe this was the Ghost’s arch way of conveying that it truly was intended for the yachting set. But as the Hollywood studios know, it sure is fun to play make-believe.

Vital stats: 2013 Rolls-Royce Ghost Extended Wheelbase

  • Base price: $296,000
  • As tested: $356,290
  • EPA fuel economy: 13mpg city, 21mpg highway
  • Powertrain: 6.6-litre, 563hp, twin-turbocharged V12 engine, eight-speed automatic transmission
  • Standard equipment: Electronically retracting Spirit of Ecstasy hood ornament, 600w audio system, GPS navigation, power-closing rear doors, umbrellas built into front doors, leather and wood interior appointments
  • Major options: 20in forged aluminium wheels, front and rear ventilated massage seats, lambs’ wool floor mats, head-up display, night vision, panoramic sunroof
It is considered poor form in rural Virginia to run over speaker posts in your Rolls-Royce.

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