The car costs more than any house I’ve ever lived in.
“Touch it,” the dapper salesman tells me. “Touch it!”
He’s talking about the part of the car where your feet are supposed to plop. You know, the part where there’s usually an ugly rubber mat. Instead, my hand touches what appears to be a blanket made from the wool of lambs bred only to swaddle my toes.
We’re sitting in a Rolls-Royce Ghost in a showroom in Sterling, Va., and apart from the salesmen — excuse me, “client executives” — I’m the only person in the room. Shouldn’t we be concerned that there are no actual customers here? The salesmen smile. This is a Rolls dealership, they remind me.
The Rolls-Royce is not really a “car” so much as “the king of cars,” one owner later tells me. “The epitome of cars.” “The car of cars.” A new Rolls costs nearly half a million dollars, so selling just a handful a month will more than pay the bills. And in Washington there are plenty of government contractors, business executives, athletes and embassy officials ready to spoil themselves. But these aren’t people who just stroll in and window shop. They send someone. They know what they want. Most of the time, they buy their custom-detailed cars over the phone.
The Rolls is everything that Washington is: traditional, expensive, tailored to the powerful. It makes sense that it would be in high demand here. When I run my fingers over the floor cushion made of clouds, I get it. But to be honest, this is the first Rolls I’ve seen in real life. If Washington’s elite love these cars, why don’t they drive them around?
There’s a very Washington answer to that, too.
Call the guy who would know. Marty Janis’s company, Atlantic Valet, parks the cars of the city’s powerful at its many elbow-rubbing soirees.
“You don’t see Rollses in Washington,” says Janis. “You do in Chicago or Florida. Here, you might see one or two a month, maybe three. Not four. You could park 500 cars on a Saturday night and never see a Rolls.”
Limousines used to be the transport of choice, he explains. Then Lincoln Town Cars. Then souped-up SUVs. Then UberBlack, and now — the famous, they’re just like us! — folks roll up using UberX.
Call the guy who is known to have a sparkling white Rolls-Royce convertible. Word is that he loans it to Drake when the rapper is in town.
“I sold it!” Rock Newman apologizes. The boxing-promoter-turned-radio-host bought his wife a 12-pound Havanese puppy named Mani. They like to take her for rides. The Rolls just seemed impractical, so he gave it up last year. But he still dreams about that deep-red leather interior and the way everyone would stare when he rolled by.
“Ooh, that car just commands attention and respect,” Newman says. “The prestige just makes life reeeally easy.”
The prestige is why Rolls-Royces are widely accepted as the super-est of super-luxury automobiles, even if they aren’t the world’s highest-priced cars. Every single detail in each vehicle can be customized — excuse me, “bespoke” — to a customer’s whim. Rolls-Royce would make me a Phantom in the exact fern-green color of my favorite dress. I could request that the interior be studded with a million dollars’ worth of diamonds. Sitting beneath the ceiling filled with twinkling star lights (a Rolls-Royce staple), I could demand a nightscape matching the one on the day I was born. The car’s interior wood veneer could be crafted from a tree I used to climb in Ohio. Oh, and throw in one of those $46,000 Rolls-Royce picnic baskets, won’t you?
These are a few of the requests that can be fulfilled at Rolls-Royce Sterling. Every month, the dealership sells two to four new, bespoke cars and another eight to 10 used ones.
And then, the cars are promptly shipped somewhere else in the country.
Call the guy who runs the operation. Thomas Moorehead’s dealership sits amid the three wealthiest jurisdictions in the nation, according to the Census Bureau — the city of Falls Church and Fairfax and Loudoun counties. His salesmen call what you find there “majestic wealth.” “Silly money.”
But Moorehead knows that it is first and foremost “quiet money.”
“In Florida, everyone wants you to know what they have, and when they drive down the street, they want you to look at them,” Moorehead says. “That’s not here.”
Here, a lot of the deep pockets work with the federal government to make their money, so it would be in poor taste to flash that money around, even if everyone knows it’s there. Better to take Uber or a Town Car while in Washington and ship the Rolls (and often Rollses) to their vacation homes in Miami or their second business headquarters in New York.
In private, though, “they’re not denying themselves the fruits of their labor,” says Moorehead.
His knack for this business is evident in his dealership office, where the walls are covered with plaques, portraits and news clippings broadcasting his success. Besides owning five other dealerships in Virginia and Washington, Moorehead is one of only 39 Rolls-Royce dealers in North America. And he’s the first African American to own a Rolls dealership in the United States. But ask him to explain what that means to him, and he mimics his sheepish buyers.
“Ah, I never like to say that,” he says. “We were just fortunate to get the brand. ... This is about building relationships and taking care of customers.”
One thing he will do to build those relationships? Drive his Rolls-Royce — a tan Wraith — around the area, especially to events where he’s bound to find a few quiet-moneyed admirers.
Two teenagers are huddled beside the driver’s-side door of a $422,520 Rolls-Royce Dawn, a sleek convertible designed to catch the eye of a younger generation. The top is down to show the interior, a comfortable oasis of creamy white leather. One of the boys reaches out and fondles the headrest.
He looks at his friend and whispers, “Feels like a C-cup.” On this Saturday morning, the lot is packed with people here for a “Cars and Coffee” open house — an invitation for anyone to come by and gawk shamelessly. Moorehead’s Lamborghini, McLaren and Mini Cooper dealerships are connected to the Rolls-Royce building. And today, there are even more super-cars — a 1969 Chevrolet Camaro, a limited-edition Ford GT500, a sleek black Aston Martin — parked outdoors for the crowds to ogle. Once a month, dozens of owners bring their vehicles here for a grand showoff. Their many Batmobile-ish cars are getting all the attention. Enthusiasts are snapping selfies with them and positively losing it when they hear the engines roar.
The Rolls showroom is, once again, mostly empty.
I wonder if these cars simply don’t have the “wow” factor they once possessed. But in fact, Rolls-Royce says it sold a record number of cars in 2014 and in 2015.
Salesman Brendan Pinto knows that the gawkers outside are not his target market.
“I don’t think I’ve ever sold a Rolls-Royce on a weekend,” Pinto says. Of course not. The kind of people who can afford a Rolls can shop anytime they want.
Pinto is as much an expert on his customers’ tastes as he is on the cars they buy. He can strike up a conversation about luxury boats, homes and planes. He doesn’t own these items himself, of course, nor does he drive a Rolls-Royce. (“There’s no good employee discount on a $400,000 car,” he says.) But before joining the dealership, he sold luxury watches and jewelry. Almost all the sharply dressed salesmen have backgrounds in luxury goods. It’s easier to go from selling six-figure watches to six-figure cars than it is to switch from selling $40,000 cars to six-figure cars, they say. Especially when the clients require discretion.
“This is not someone you can ‘sell to,’ ” says Felix Bighem, who sells Rollses while clad in a bow tie and fedora. “They have to have the desire.”
Occasionally, the unusual customer comes through, like the 14-year-old who bought a Rolls he isn’t old enough to drive. (He’s an heir, and that’s all Bighem will disclose.) Once, the leader of an African nation was visiting Washington, so his staff purchased a $500,000 Rolls just for the 10 days he was in town.
And lately, the dealership has been seeing more buyers in their 20s and early 30s. They’re usually inventors or start-up investors of some sort who are eager to show that they’ve made it. It wouldn’t be a surprise to the salesmen if one of the many young guys in hoodies and gym shorts at the open house was actually a potential buyer.
With the influx of tech companies to Washington, the Rolls-Royce folks have wondered whether the area’s quiet money culture might be changing.
The town will soon be welcoming a Rolls-Royce-loving New York businessman, after all. He’s said to own a 2015 Phantom and a 1956 Silver Cloud. His plane has two Rolls engines, which recently powered it across the country, from swing state to swing state.
Maybe he will make the District a boastful, Rolls-Royce-driving kind of place. How big is the garage at 1600 Pennsylvania, anyway?
Jessica Contrera is a Washington Post staff writer.
THE LUXURY ISSUE