The gradual come-up of certain 1980s and 1990s Rolls-Royce and Bentleys is one of the collector car market’s subtlest shifts. Long banished to the outskirts of the “serious” collector market as uptight, soporific behemoths best left to return to the earth, we’re noticing an increasing number of clean Continentals and Corniches infiltrating the sales dockets of major auction houses.
This year’s docket of Scottsdale sales was no different. All three of the major sales had at least two noteworthy 1990s- or 2000s-era Rolls-Royce and/or Bentley drop-tops, all hammering for sums greater than you might expect from a deprecated ultra-luxe sled considered too stuffy for an enthusiast and unfashionably dated for the wealthy socialite.
Yes, old Rolls-Royce saloons trading hands for used Camry money isn’t anything new or noteworthy—and neither are the follow-up stories of routine five-figure maintenance maladies that follow these “cheap” Rolls like a cloud of oil smoke. Between lengthy, numerous, and exorbitant service sessions and parts availability that would make old Lancias blush, it’s often not worth the financial burden.
But an old Rolls drop-top? That’s a different animal entirely. Chopping the rear doors and peeling off the roof turns a stodgy smoking-room armchair into a leather-wrapped adirondack lounge on the deck of a super-yacht. Now, with the wind in your expensively-coiffed hair and surrounded by enough hides and mahogany to choke a gentleman’s club—we’re talking Savile, not strip—you’re not just motoring, you’re touring.
At the moment, we don’t track any of these late-model soft-tops in the Hagerty Price Guide, but it’s worth comparing by generation. Let’s see what vehicular gentry wafted through Scottsdale.
2000 – 2002 Rolls-Royce Corniche V
Even in wealthier parts of town, you never, ever see early 2000s Corniches—and for good reason, as Rolls-Royce only built between 372 and 384 examples, depending on whom you ask. Constructed on the bones of the 1995-2003 Bentley Azure—we’ll get to that beauty later—these were ruinously expensive cars with a $359,000 price tag in their first model year, or an astonishing $630,000 in 2023 bucks.
These occupy a weird place in the Rolls timeline. The Corniche V—the unofficial denominator, as it’s the fifth Rolls to wear the Corniche name—is the first and only Rolls engineered and developed during the marque’s brief tenure under Volkswagen. After just two years, VW ceded rights to Rolls’ stylistic intellectual properties after an infamous corporate tussle with BMW, who separately acquired the right to sell cars under the Rolls-Royce nameplate from the extant Rolls-Royce aerospace corporation. Amid this kerfuffle, the Corniche V emerged as the final, elegant product of “old” Rolls-Royce, with BMW’s ground-up revamp of the RR image arriving soon after for the 2003 model year.
It’s a transitional model, and one that is very much a product of a time when Rolls and Bentley were absolutely inseparable. The 6.75-liter—say it with me, six-and-three-quarter-liter—V-8, much of the switchgear, the chassis, and portions of the rear fascia are all shared with the contemporary Bentley, making it ostensibly the first Rolls to ever descend from the Flying B, and not the other way around.
Once an extravagant status symbol, its clear aesthetic separation from BMW’s modern Rolls renders it a bit of a curio and the type of car favored primarily by the Rolls-Royce enthusiast, rather than the casual consumer. “They made very, very few [Corniche Vs], and it was quite a step forward [in style] as it looked very little like the preceding Corniches,” explains Hagerty Price Guide Publisher and Bentley/Rolls aficionado Dave Kinney. “I think both the Phantom and Corniche [V] are aging gracefully, but they’re all from a different design period. They went from a more organic design to Bauhaus with the Phantom.”
These cars are magnificently hand-built with incredible road presence, particularly with the top down. And, you can have them for a pittance compared to a 2023 Rolls-Royce Dawn—a car that curiously carries an identical MSRP of $359,000—RM Sotheby’s 9,300-mile Magnolia White 2002 Corniche sold for a “mere” $128,800 final price. Condition is king on these cars, as evidenced from RM’s other Magnolia White 2000 Corniche V that sold at last year’s Open Roads online auction. 38,000 miles on its odometer and a bit more than expected wear and tear cut it down to a $99,000 final sale.
Bonhams’ black 2001 Corniche was less enticing. After exiting long-term, 14,500-mile ownership under the original buyer, subsequent owners added just over 4,000 miles until 2010, when it sat essentially unused in storage until its time in the Scottsdale sun. A visibly sagging rear suspension implied further maintenance was necessary; Bonhams apparently agreed, admitting “it is recommended that the Corniche is serviced prior to any wafting about.” Still, it matched RM’s 2021 sale with a $98,560 final price.
2007-2016 Rolls-Royce Phantom Drop Head Coupe
“The Corniche looks like old money wherever it goes,” says Kinney. “To me, the Phantom says ‘I’m in Miami, I’m in Los Angeles,’ and it still looks like a car that could still be in production today to most non-car people.” Walking around RM’s black-over-cream example, I must agree; there’s a very real sense that BMW’s Phantom and its inimitable Drophead Coupe variant was deliberately designed to withstand the test of time. Regardless of its aesthetic relation to the current production Phantom, this one’s replete with subtle and deliberate details that might just render it timeless.
Take note of the brushed windshield surround that wraps its way around the wing windows, and the teak decking on the rear tonneau—oiling this wood is part of the Drophead’s regular service regimen. Inside, glossy wood surfacing and trim is refreshingly devoid of screens and digital displays which ironically make other luxury cars from this era look more dated today.
As Kinney said, even 15 years on, this 18-foot ocean liner still looks like pure money, even to the uninformed. “The car is nothing but in-your-face presence. A lot of people want that in a Rolls-Royce, and it as that in spades,” Kinney muses. It’s this captive modernity, more advanced technology, and surprisingly lower running costs that has kept Phantom Drophead Coupes ahead of their pre-BMW progenitors in the market.
RM Sotheby’s beautiful Drophead carried just 8,620 miles and $18,000 in receipts from a recent service. $201,600 took it home to a very excited winning bidder; a colleague caught who we presume to be her friends and family singing her happy birthday in the lot outside RM’s host hotel.
Even rattier Phantoms carry cachet the Corniche can’t match. Barrett-Jackson’s 2009 white-over-black Drophead had minor-but-noticeable interior wear from its 29,291 miles, along with two incidents of repaired sideswipe collision damage in 2017 and 2021. Still, the $159,500 final price makes it the fourth most expensive Rolls sold out of the 18 offered during Arizona auction week.
1995-2003 Bentley Azure
Spirit of Ecstasy too ostentatious for ya? Try the Bentley Azure—of which two were on the ground in Scottsdale. Based on the popular and very expensive Bentley Continental R, the Azure is a more sporting alternative to the cushy, cloudy Corniche. The 5,700-pound bruiser is hardly a Spec Miata, but the Bentley is 300 pounds lighter, more powerful (385 hp vs 320 hp), quicker, and not-insignificantly sharper than the Rolls.
However, it’s no less costly to keep alive than its ritzier sibling—but it’s getting better. “I really like the Azure,” says Kinney. “The top mechanism is its Achilles heel, but people are figuring out how to fix them. For the longest time, you’d get the car for $25,000 and then spend another $25,000 on the top alone.”
Not anymore. A car this elegant and hand-finished couldn’t stay incongruously cheap forever, and prices appear to be on the rise. Bonhams’ impeccable one-owner, 14,000-mile 1996 Azure changed hands for $67,200. Yes, that’s less than half the price of RM’s Corniche, but there are more than three times as many Azures than the Rolls. “Lovely colors, very reasonable miles, and I think it went for right where it should have,” observes Kinney. “Everyone should be happy on that deal. I’ve seen these cars sell for $25,000 and $30,000, and now they’re finally coming into their own.”
Barrett-Jackson’s $84,500 2003 Bentley Azure Mulliner Final Edition has to be one of the best buys of the week. This is one of the highly-personalized examples of the top-shelf Mulliner trim offered from 1999 through the end of production in 2009, and the listing states an original bill-of-sale topping $500,000—or $795,000 when adjusted for inflation. It also claims the original buyer—get this—sold his Corniche to make room for the Azure.
It’s clean, it’s rare, it’s handbuilt, it’s extraordinarily luxurious—and its metallic yellow over royal blue upholstery is one of the most gauche colorways we’ve ever seen on a Bentley, no doubt culling a few grand from the final price. No matter—you won’t see your reflection out in the rolling countryside, where the Azure is best enjoyed. Kinney summed it up best:
“Bentley for the drive, and the Rolls for showing up.”
As a 65 year car enthusiast, moderate collector, past my prime for owning and driving Ferraris and the like, I have just attended my last Barrett Jackson Auction in Scottsdale. I left it saddened by the turn of sales of wonderful original Classic cars that I collect and preserve to seeing them retro fitted with huge engines, altered frames, 50% white exaggerated interiors, a third in altered colors in fantasized paintjobs and state of the art sound systems to blow away the onlookers. As owner of a black 1957 Continental Mark II for many years, I sat next to a gentleman who had acquired a car like mine and altered it into a lowered Resto Mod example of what I just described and saw it sell for four times the value of mine and putting a $200,000 profit away for his effort. We are dying off breed and our collections often go to the inherited rich and certainly young, successful entrepreneurs but lack respect of the originals. I have been relegated to the diminishing “old fart” category and am just ignorant I guess. BJ had their highest prices and a total sellout as far as I can see with almost no loved Classics like mine. Amos Minter sold his outstanding totally ground up restored 1957 Blue TBird without the restro treatment for a whopping $435,000 which certainly raises the value of the red one he sold me 15 years ago…still #1. On a good day mine is worth $120,000 but more like $100,000 in local markets. GO AMOS! Gotta be a great story behind that one. Other than some star studded background classics it was Resto-Mod Classics for the Saturday sale. The tents were more encompassing for older originals Classics like Corvettes. I sat through five hours of Saturday’s Resto-Mods sales and left angered a bit depressed over this turn of events for the main day but the bottom line is to sell what people will buy, make a profit, contribute to Charities which they have always done so well, and carry on in a younger man’s world because it works. Mecum is where I have acquired my last two classics but have not attended for two years. I will now look to them until old age eclipses my devotion to “Original Classics.” My Dad was an Edsel Dealer and as we were failing, I became the eleven year old janitor and sat in on the mechanics five o’clock shots and beers telling stories about cars. 127 cars later…own ten…I still love to work on and play with my “Mistresses” as my late wife referred to them. Own two Edsel Citation Convertibles full of nostalgia. There are still a lot of Classic car owners like me so still enjoy the shows and the folks that share my love of cars. I have been so blessed!
Wonderful write up. There are plenty of car guys out there just like you. Keep the faith.
I’m just not into big boat British convertibles. Coupes and sedans for me.