The drive-in movie theater is having something of a renaissance in 2020. Thanks to the coronavirus pandemic, the idea of seeing a film in a regular theatre — elbow to elbow with the masses in a closed-off room, shrouded in darkness that leaves you unable to see who might look sweaty or sick — sounds about as fun as a root canal. But while Netflix and Amazon and Disney and the rest of the big names in corporate entertainment have made it easier than ever to pipe fresh films straight into your eyeballs at home, they're still not a replacement for the visceral thrills of Going To The Movies: dedicating a chunk of time to watching a film without distractions, in a theater, with overpriced popcorn and oversized sodas in hand.
Hence, the resurgence of drive-ins. Their heyday may have long since passed (their numbers peaked in the 1950s and 1960s), but these outdoors venues have never gone away; they've lingered in small numbers, often out in rural areas where land is cheap and entertainments few. With cineplexes shuttered and living rooms growing to feel like prison cells after spring's lockdowns and summer's continued restrictions, people hungry for the experience of Going To The Movies have few other choices.
Indeed, Dr. Fauci himself likely couldn't come up with a better means of group entertainment for the COVID-19 era than the drive-in theater; not only is it outdoors, but it involves remaining inside vehicles, guaranteeing people remain at a safe distance from one another. (And while it might seem a shameless nostalgia play, the upstate New York drive-in I visited was jammed not with Baby Boomers, but teenagers. It wasn't exactly like the kids were sneaking into see something scandalous, either; we were watching 1985's PG-rated Clue.)
Any car, of course, works plenty well as a personal escape pod for a drive-in movie; all it needs, really, are seats and a working radio. But some cars are distinctly better-suited to it than others. A Ford GT or Chevy Camaro, with the sight lines of a Civil War pillbox, wouldn't be ideal. A Hummer H1's massive transmission tunnel might make for a great place to lay out a pre-film smorgasbord, but its cramped seats would have you ready to leave before the third act.
No, a great drive-in car needs to prioritize comfort above all else. It needs pillowy yet supportive seats, a tall windshield, and plenty of room to stretch out. A nice stereo, ideally. The back seat is largely irrelevant; after all, those relegated to secondary or tertiary rows will see less of the flick than they would at AMC sitting behind Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. And when the weather's nice (and let's face it, you're probably not going to a drive-in during a thunderstorm) a convertible top lets you bask in the warm summer breezes that can transform a night into a memory.
In other words: the perfect car for a drive-in movie is the Rolls-Royce Dawn.
That was the hypothesis, at least. But hypotheses require testing, so the good folks at Rolls-Royce let me borrow a Dawn Black Badge for a couple of days so I could test it out
Whether or not you choose to opt for the Black Badge version of the Dawn is rather immaterial for drive-in purposes. "Black Badge" lies somewhere between trim level and option package in the Rolls-Royce lineup, though you'd be hard-pressed to tell that from the carmaker's consumer-facing materials; the website is a mess of pretentious nonsense ("Black Badge is for those who reject conformity and live on their own terms. It’s for the innovators, trailblazers, rule-breakers — and above all — those who dare") and the car's launch video seems more like a cologne ad than a promo for a convertible.
But there are mechanical changes here: the mighty 6.6-liter twin-turbo V12 has been given a spritz more power, now summoning up 593 horsepower and 602 pound-feet of torque; the suspension has been retuned for a slightly sportier character; and most noticeably, a subtly revised aesthetic, with black chrome aplenty outside, more aggressive colorways and a handful of infinity symbol badges, presumably symbolizing how much you could spend on the car if you really tried.
None of that brings anything extra to the movie-watching experience, of course, but it does add a dash of flavor to the drive. The engine's specs might seem well-suited to a supercar, but the power delivery feels more like an electric one once the tachometer rises past: a rush of effortless, smooth torque. You might not realize how much power it has, but then again, you'll never think about how much it weighs, either.
There's no option to shift the eight-speed automatic for yourself, but why would you want to? After all, Rolls-Royce's transmissions use GPS data to know the road ahead and plan out shifts accordingly for maximum smoothness. Just slot the long, spindly throwback of a gear selector into D and let it handle the hard work. Not that you'd know when to shift if you could shift for yourself; there's no tachometer, merely a gauge that lets you know how much power you have left to call upon. (It sounds stupid...until you try it, and realize how much more handy it is in most automatic cars than a conventional tach.)
Likewise, there's no need to worry about adjusting suspension or steering settings; the Dawn has been tuned to be easy to drive, full stop. A gentle touch of the thin-rimmed wheel nudges the U.S.S. Nimitz-like expanse stretching halfway to the horizon ahead of you left or right, while the shocks soak up even the road flaws sure to rattle the tailbones of most drivers without letting the handling stray into puddling-like levels of mush.
Indeed, sit back and enjoy yourself seems to be the message the Dawn constantly whispers to you in a soft British accent. I wish I'd had an Apple Watch during the drive, because I bet my heart rate dropped during my time behind the wheel. It's the first car I've actually tried to drive at the speed limit simply to spend a little more time inside.
There's an argument to be made that true luxury is not about amenities or materials, but simply about making life simpler and easier. It sounds like a thought that would make Thoreau chortle, but the Rolls-Royce bears it out. The mammoth doors (which, of course, open backwards) swing with oily ease on their hinges, but you need not worry about hyperextending for them; a tiny switch by the A-pillar powers them shut in silence. Should an unexpected shower (presumably never far from mind in the U.K.) catch you off-guard, fear not; full-size umbrellas hide inside the fenders, accessible from inside the door frames. Little things, perhaps, but two fewer things to worry about is two fewer things to worry about.
Perhaps the best example of this Walden-esque approach to luxury, though, is in the simplicity of a single feature: the climate control. Automatic climate control was once the provenance of luxury cars alone, but it's since trickled down to even cheap cars. One place you won't find it, though: a Rolls-Royce. Instead, the Dawn goes old-school: each front seat occupant gets a dial to control their fan speed, and a pair of temperature regulators (one for the legs, the other for the upper body) that roll from warm to cool. Guess what? It works better. There's no trying to guess what the right temperature should be, or battling with a computer that's blasting your hands with icy air in an effort to cool off a sun-baked interior. If you're warm, you set it to cool; if you're cool, you set it to warm.
Not that you should be using the climate control at a drive-in, of course (unless you're driving an electric car, in which case, go wild). Engine-off, key-to-accessory is the name of the game at the movies, both in the name of saving the Earth and the lungs of those around you. This, as it turns out, would prove to be the sole fly in the cinematic ointment with the Dawn: after 20 or so minutes in accessory mode, the car would begin warning that it would shortly power down unless I quickly stabbed the power button — a warning I missed the first time, which meant the car shut off...which meant I frantically stabbed the button again and accidentally turned the car on all the way, causing the automatic headlights to come on and light up half the audience.
Beyond that, though, the Dawn more than lived up to expectations. The Bespoke Audio system and its arsenal of tweeters, woofers and software delivered a better-than-THX experience; Tim Curry has never sounded quite so respectable. The heated massaging seats were far, far superior to any cineplex chair, with armrests soft as a puppy's ears and cupholders perfectly suited for beverages and movie-sized boxes of candy. All told, I'd be hard-pressed to name a more comfortable movie-watching experience — drive-in or otherwise.
2020 Rolls Royce Dawn Black Badge
Base Price (Price as Tested): $361,850 ($459,875)
Powertrain: 6.6-liter twin-turbo V12; eight-speed automatic; rear-wheel-drive
0-60 MPH: We don't worry about such things
EPA Fuel Economy: 12 mpg city, 18 mpg highway
Seats: Two adults and two children / boutique dogs