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What can you say about test-driving a Rolls?

"Cheaper by the dozen" may apply to some things on the shelf these days but not to a Rolls-Royce automobile. Nonetheless, the Peninsular Hotel of Hong Kong not long ago bought nine Roll-Royce Silver Shadow II cars worth -- are you ready for this one? -- $776, 600, cold cash. The cars, the epitome of British craftmenship in motorcars, will replace eight Silver Shadows built in 1976, which in turn replaced seven Silver Shadows bought in 1970.

Each order was the largest for the British luxury-car maker and will be used for guest transportation at the world-famous hotel.

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Thus, while many things have changed in the British lifestyle since the end of World War II, the Rolls-Royce motorcar goes on and on -- much as it has during its almost 80-year lifetime. In fact, predicts Fritz Feller, chief engineer in charge of styling and future projects, the Rolls-Royce car of the future will look very much like the Rolls-Royce of today. He should know.

There will be no attempt at an aerodynamic shape, he adds. PRoduct identity is all important to this elitist car company with the British accent.

"Our designers must be bound by traditions," says Mr. Feller.

Yet, he continues: "We will try very hard in the future to make our cars lighter since the overriding factor in fuel consumption is weight." But gentle does it when it comes to cutting weight. "Our task is to save a few pounds here , a few pounds there," declares Mr. Feller.

Simply stated, function, efficiency, serviceability, longevity, and quietness will still be the hallmark for R-R.

Thus it was that I hardly heard the brand-new Rolls-Royce Silver Shadow II as it arrived at the office garage the other day for a few days test on the streets of Boston and its suburbs.

However, when I sat down in the front seat, put the key in the ignition lock and turned it, and settled back into the plush leather wrapping that are the seats, I knew exactly where I was. Surely, no other car on the road still holds the same aura for so many people as the Rollys-Royce. Few people ever see one on the road, much less sit in one or drive it.

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To own a Rolls is to have arrived. Even to drive one for a long weekend is to savor the feeling of riches, however brief. The Silver Shadow ii -- $77,600 -- was introduced in 1977. To those who want to know, Rolls-Royce also builds the Silver Wraith II for a bit over $90,000, the Corniche coupe and convertible for more than $130,000, and the Camargue for $136,500.

The Bentley -- everything's the same but the radiator grill -- costs a few hundred dollars less.

What you pay for in a Rolls, which harks back to the glory days of the British Empire and all that, is workmanship and image. Simply, the Rolls motto is: If it's worth doing at all, it's worth doing well.

Surprisingly, perhaps, even with such rarefied prices, the manufacturer sells every car it can build. Production has been gradually rising over the last few years but even now is well under 4,000 cars a year. Almost one-third of them are shipped to the US.

To wrap up, the Rolls-Royce is billed by the company as "the best car in the world."

Indeed, it may be an anachronism in today's world of tight energy supplies and sharply rising prices. The Rolls gets from 8 or 9 miles to a gallon of lead-free fuel up to maybe 11, depending on where and how you drive. In a few days' of commuting I was able to eke 10.7 m.p.g. out of the engine.

Because of its low mileage, the US buyer pays a penalty to the federal government of some $500, in addition to the price of the car. A small matter, of course. In the next few years, however, the low-m.p.g. tax rises sharply to several thousand dollars.

It's hard to find fault with a Rolls-Royce automobile, but in the nit-picking department I find the car gets dirty just like any other vehicle on the road in a New England winter.

In my opinion, the seat-adjustment motor is noisy as is the seat-belt-warning buzzer. A genteel bong might be more to the point, such as that used on some of the high-priced (but far, far less than the Rolls) US-built automobiles.

The inside temperature adjustment controls also are less precise than a button, such as that on the $20,000-and-up Cadillac Seville in which the motorist simply punches the temperature setting he wants in the car -- and that's that. The snap switches are noisy, too. No matter, the wonderful world of the Rolls-Royce motorcar goes merrily on its way, twisting and turning as the road directs.

Is it worth the price? Who knows? Ask the man -- or woman -- who owns one.


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