In 1908, Ford was just getting started in Detroit. Henry Ford's namesake brand was about to change the game forever, creating a mass-production system that would mobilize more people than ever before and fundamentally alter the American landscape.
Halfway across the world in Manchester, England, Rolls-Royce was in its infancy. Over a century later, that company has built an empire around fundamentally rejecting the mass-market, mass-produced business model of the Detroit automakers.
After spending time with a 2019 Rolls-Royce Dawn Black Badge in the Detroit area, it's easy to see how the company's approach continues to be so alluring. In a sea of beige boxes and cost-cut forgetableness, a Rolls-Royce is intentionally iconoclastic and incredibly special.
The Rolls-Royce way
Henry Ford famously said any "customer can have a car painted any color that he wants so long as it is black." Rolls-Royce has a different approach. The customer can have any color that he or she wants, full stop.
So if you feel constrained by only having 44,000 existing color options direct from Rolls-Royce, rest assured that you can bring anything — anything at all — and Roll-Royce will make paint for your car to match it. The only constraints are the physical limitations of existing paint technology and the spectrum of light that the human eye can see.
While automakers like Ford and even Tesla pare down color options to streamline production, Rolls-Royce happily offers infinite flexibility and will hand polish your car for hours to make sure it's as good as it can be.
Of course, they aren't the only company to offer a paint-to-sample program. But Rolls-Royce takes customization to an insane level.
The company's "Woodshop," which handles all interior trim from knurled aluminum to teak wood, employs over 163 people to ensure that every bit of hand-finished wood or grooved metal is up to the company's obsessive standards. One person is dedicated to traveling the world looking for woods and materials that suit the character of a Rolls-Royce.
This, in contrast to the plasticized wood trim and harsh gray plastics found in products from companies like General Motors. Rolls-Royce will scour the world to find ever more unique wood grains, while GM will relentlessly cut material costs to provide features customers demand at mass-market prices.
But Rolls-Royce will happily omit trendy features if they aren't seen as refined enough. Even basic Fords and Chryslers offer automatic climate control, which regulates the heater, air conditioning and fan speed to keep your car at your selected temperature.
Despite its $458,026 as-tested price, the Dawn Black Badge has simple controls where you slide your temperature dials between blue and red and toggle fan speed between "soft," "medium," "high" and "max." No computerized intermittent blows of cool and hot, just simple and straightforward operation that keeps you comfortable.
The Dawn also doesn't wade into the complicated and often finicky world of today's semi-autonomous technology. Instead of buzzing and beeping as it disengages and reengages a perpetually confused lane-keeping system like every Fiat or Ford, the Dawn doesn't bother trying. It's comfortable and smooth enough that you shouldn't mind driving, so it doesn't try to take the wheel.
In fact, you'll probably find yourself less stressed behind the wheel of a Rolls-Royce than just about anywhere else in the world. Every control is sturdy and satisfying to touch, every operation as smooth as possible. Even the infotainment, which is heavily based on technology from Rolls-Royce's parent company BMW, is straightforward.
It also manages the music flowing through the premium audio system. Unlike the top systems in Cadillacs and Lincolns, which boast over 30 speakers and premium sound systems, Rolls-Royce is confident enough in itself to offer the simply named "Roll-Royce Bespoke Audio" system that doesn't need to brag about speaker counts to impress you.
You can enjoy it in what are probably the most comfortable seats you'll experience in a car. And despite its positioning as the smaller, two-door Rolls-Royce, the Dawn is still 17-and-a-half feet long. That means that even the back seats — which are usually an afterthought in convertibles — are cavernous.
That wheelbase also contributes to an utterly sublime ride, so smooth and soft that it erases the potholes and pimpled highway surfaces that define Detroit motoring. Calling it floating would be a disservice, as that implies a lack of control or some degree of unpredictability. A Rolls-Royce rides so smoothly, it erases road imperfections without relying on the trick magnetic suspensions and road-scanning cameras deployed by Cadillac and Lincoln.
Even though the powertrain is exceptional and produces 563 horsepower, Rolls-Royce would much rather describe the available power from the 6.75-liter V-12 as "enough."
You don't have a rev counter to see when you're redlining. The Rolls-Royce has a "power reserve" gauge that always reminds you how much shove a flick of the right foot can generate. It never feels hustled or aggressive, it just provides an inexhaustible supply of thrust from any speed.
Basically, a Rolls-Royce feels unlike anything else. From the umbrellas in the rear-hinged "coach doors" to the "flying lady" hood ornament that rises from the nose, every part of the Dawn feels deliberate and unique. It's free of technology for technology's sake, focused only on luxury at all costs.
The price of entry
When we say "at all costs," we aren't exaggerating. The reason that Henry Ford focused so much on streamlined, simple production methods is that mass production is a heck of a lot cheaper than a craftsman's work. And hundreds of craftsmen work on your Rolls-Royce before it leaves the production facility in Goodwood, England, so the prices are eye-watering.
Despite a starting price of $353,000 for a basic Dawn, our tester's price tag ballooned to $458,025 with options. The paint costs $11,550. The Black Badge package is $48,200. A Mercedes S-Class, not a particularly pedestrian or uncomfortable car, can be had for less than the total cost of all of this Dawn's options.
What bespoke is worth
The point of a Rolls-Royce is that you pay top dollar for a more pleasant, more thoughtful, more unique experience. The Dawn is a perfect execution of this design philosophy. It gets tons of attention, feels amazing to drive and is so free of substantive faults that a mortal passing judgment on it feels almost trite.
Automakers using the Detroit method of mass production will gladly sell you a car with more power or more features than any Dawn can offer. But Rolls-Royce has built a priceless brand and extensive waiting list off of what others can't sell you: something unique.
From an individualistic design approach to the world's most relaxing driving experience, a Rolls-Royce feels remarkably different from any other luxury vehicle in the world. You're not buying into today's technology or some irrelevant performance metric, you're buying into the world of effortless luxury, serious exclusivity and unmistakable brand identity. It's up to you if that's worth half a million dollars.