NEW ORLEANS (Reuters) - Grim economy be damned. How glum can you be when surrounded by stately, polished automobile royalty?
There’s little to celebrate elsewhere in the car world. On top of that, U.S. stocks are still languishing and the country’s jobless rate is at a 26-year high.
But the mood was buoyant at the Rolls-Royce Owners Club, where some 500 members of the U.S.-based club, which also welcomes Bentley enthusiasts, tended their Silver Ghosts and Phantom Vs at the Louisiana Superdome on Saturday.
Judges surveyed rows of gleaming automobiles — some of them almost a century old. Members sipped champagne and kept their expensive chariots free of fingerprints and dust.
Julius Cohn of White Plains, New York, has spent a fortune restoring and maintaining his 1952 Rolls-Royce Silver Dawn.
“Only 111 of these were made in the left-hand driving type, with a stick shift,” Cohn boasted.
Some of the vehicles on display are valued at more than $1 million, but Cohn said pricetags are irrelevant.
“We hope enough people imbue in their children the appreciation of nice things that these cars will always be preserved,” he said.
Cohn and others have poured thousands into the vehicles.
Rolls owner Hamilton Dixon of Rome, Georgia, said he once spent $250,000 restoring a Phantom V that he later sold for $95,000. “It costs way more to restore it than what you get for it,” Dixon said with a chuckle.
Dixon and his wife, Jane, brought a pristine 1954 Silver Wraith, James Young touring limousine to this year’s show.
“It’s the same model used for years by the Queen of England,” Dixon said. His wife likes to ride in the limousine’s plush back seat so she can mimic Queen Elizabeth’s genteel wave, he said.
The opulence on display contrasted with the doldrums that have hit the autos world — Chrysler and General Motors collapsed into bankruptcy in the last two months — amid the global recession, including in the market for new luxury vehicles.
Luxury car manufacturers like Rolls-Royce, owned by Germany’s BMW, prospered in the last decade as easy credit prompted U.S. consumers to go on a buying spree that many in the industry thought would last for years.
But U.S. sales of high-performance and luxury cars have fallen sharply in the January-May period, a casualty of the economic downturn. Some of the most expensive and exclusive brands —- Lamborghini, Bentley and Maserati — have seen sales tumble by more than half versus a year ago, a steeper decline than in the market for everyday cars and trucks.
Sales for other luxury brands have held up relatively better. U.S. sales for Rolls-Royce are off 20 percent this year through May. Sales for Ferrari and Porsche are down over 30 percent through May.
Models from the 1940s and ‘50s are considered some of the most stylish of the Rolls-Royce line, but the oldest vehicle on the floor at the weekend was the classic 1911 Silver Ghost.
Owner Bill Kennedy of Taylorville, Illinois, said he has no idea how many miles the car has covered in 98 years, but he has driven it more than 17,000 miles in “holy ghost” tours around the country.
Amid the understated elegance of the event, Texan Don Knobler was hard to miss in his 20-gallon Western hat, red cowboy boots and a gigantic diamond-encrusted watch.
A Dallas real-estate developer, he held court next to his cream-colored 1989 Rolls-Royce Corniche, which featured a set of Texas longhorns attached to the grill.
“I don’t drink, I don’t gamble and I don’t run around on my wife,” Knobler said. “I do this for fun because you only go around once.”
Additional reporting by Kevin Krolicki in Detroit, editing by Chris Baltimore and Frances Kerry