Rolls-Royce helps fulfill a family promise

by Alex Kalogiannis

Cancer gave my mother, Theonie, hell for five long years. We like to think she gave it hell right back. In June 2019 she died and left us behind: my younger brother, my father, and me.

The year that follows the loss of a parent is an odd one. All the usual annual milestones take on a resonance, the unfamiliar waveform of the first holiday or birthday without them. They all start with the realization that they’re gone. The following weeks are spent bracing for the wall of overwhelming emotion that’s about to crest and topple you over. 

None could compare to the inevitable gut-punch that the one-year anniversary of my mother’s death would bring. I still listened for the ring of her phone: Edith Piaf’s “Non, je ne regrette rien.” How could she be gone a year if I could still hear it?

The closer it came, the more I became consumed with keeping a silly promise I was never able to honor. I wanted to bring home a Rolls-Royce for my mother, even if I was a year too late. 

Kalogiannis family

As an auto writer, I regularly get cars for test drives. Loans usually last a week to provide a reasonable amount of time to gauge what the car is like to live with. Every once in a while, I nab something really interesting, be it a spiffy sports car or a lavish luxury cruiser. 

I enjoy sharing the experience with friends and family, be it taking my significant other out for an evening or giving my friends a ride around town. It’s great for collecting different perspectives on the cars, but I’m mostly just happy to put a smile on a loved one’s face by providing a ride in something out of the ordinary. 

I’ll sheepishly admit that there was always an element of pride attached to swinging by my parent’s house in a particularly exciting car. Bringing home a cool car wasn’t a sign of financial success, but visits in the odd special vehicle were still meaningful to my folks. To them, it signified that I was at least doing well enough in my field to be trusted with such unique things. It’s a reassurance that a child of immigrant parents feels pressured to provide. 

Shortly after my parents married, they came to the States in classic fashion, with nothing to their name and dreams of starting a family. Built on the pillars of hard work and immovable faith, they worked tirelessly, eventually opening a handful retail furniture businesses. All the while, they raised two sons, and my brother and I watched them putting their faith and hard work to practice. Often, they put us to work, too. It was a true family business. Everything they did was for our benefit, regardless of how often we tested them with childish misbehavior or skepticism. 

Sharing press cars with them always provided the satisfaction reserved uniquely for pleasing a parent, a kind of “look ma!” glee mixed with some overdue recompense. 

Theonie Kalogiannis with Nissan GT-R

Theonie Kalogiannis with Nissan GT-R

I’m not sure when I first promised to bring home a Rolls-Royce, but I probably joked about it when I was a very green auto writer and the idea seemed like an astonishing novelty. I was being entrusted with test cars of the Toyota Matrix and Nissan Cube variety, so saying I’d bring home a Rolls-Royce one day was more of a fun self-deprecating poke at my nebulous career trajectory than a statement of intent.

Kalogiannis family Oldsmobile 98

Kalogiannis family Oldsmobile 98

Kalogiannis family Lincoln Town Car

Kalogiannis family Lincoln Town Car

Kalogiannis family Lincoln Town Car

Kalogiannis family Lincoln Town Car

My mother wasn’t what you would call a “car person,” but her vehicular tastes swung as close to luxury as a working mom with two kids would allow. My earliest memories of the family car are  of the garishly green Oldsmobile 98 Regency with its pea-soup exterior and muppet-skin upholstery. Some time before the birth of my brother and moving out of state, she jumped  to a 1987 Lincoln Town Car. It cemented her automotive preferences from then on. Our silver Cartier-edition behemoth spoke volumes about who my mother wanted us to be. Such a car wouldn’t be uncommon in episodes of “Dallas” or “Dynasty,” and it betrayed the aspirations of the status my mom, who worked to build everything we had from the ground up, would seek to achieve. 

It was no surprise then that a Rolls-Royce, often regarded as the pinnacle of automotive luxury, would be her ideal car. It was always simply “a” Rolls-Royce, not a specific model she coveted. A cynical person would say she was taken in by the automaker’s marketing, but we knew she just appreciated classic elegance. She loved the idea of Rolls-Royce as much as the cars themselves. Her email address? “RollsRoyce4me.”

Only my mom would never see me in a Rolls-Royce.

The battle ends

It’s June 2019 and I’m driving another press car, an Audi RS5, to the hospital. My girlfriend is in tow, as is my cousin who’s visit was fatefully delayed a couple days. My brother has just called me to deliver the news. I feel hyper aware and inebriated at the same time. I’m laser-focused on driving at legal speeds and not bolting at the velocity I know this car can deliver. Everything is muted, but crisp and electric like standing in a thunderstorm cloud. All my hair stands on end, and I know I have only a brief window to keep it together before the shock subsides and I fall apart. 

Over the years, the Rolls-Royce promise became more tangible as I earned opportunities to bring home other vehicles arguably just as luxurious, like when I visited with a beautifully appointed Bentley Continental Flying Spur only for her to cheerfully say, “Oh, it’s nice, it’s just not a Rolls-Royce!” 

A few days later, I’m in my own car, my dutiful Ford Mustang and we’re in the convoy driving to lay her to rest. 

The playful game of bringing home fun press cars that weren’t a Rolls-Royce continued right to the end. 

Not a Rolls-Royce

During the month that follows, I throw myself into work, flooding my schedule with cars to review. A week later, I’m driving a Lexus RC F, not a Rolls-Royce. After that, the Ford Mustang Shelby GT350, not a Rolls-Royce. Next up, the BMW i8, not a Rolls-Royce. Nissan 370Z, not a Rolls-Royce. Volvo XC40, not a Rolls-Royce. Toyota 4Runner, not a Rolls-Royce. 

It’s now September, and I keep asking myself if any of them should’ve been a Rolls-Royce. 

I question if I should’ve requested one when the proverbial writing was on the wall, but that would’ve been too late, and would’ve forced me to accept a cold reality I wasn’t ready to accept. Maybe I should have scheduled one for her send off, but that thought leaves my mind as quickly as it flickers in as it’s too morbidly gauche for me to entertain. 

The months roll by and throughout the difficult holiday season, I increasingly wonder if it’s worth giving it a shot. I’m constantly waxing back and forth between thinking I’ve missed the chance to keep my promise and wondering if I should get a Rolls for a more significant milestone. The Rolls-Royce becomes a metaphor for all of my other “too late” regrets: She won’t be there if I ever get married. She’ll never dote on the grandchildren I know she wanted. I wasn’t there when she passed.

This continues until June 2020. It’s almost been a year. Forever ago and yesterday at the same time. Finally, I give Rolls-Royce a call to book a car for the one-year observance of her passing.

2020 Rolls-Royce Dawn Black Badge

2020 Rolls-Royce Dawn Black Badge

2020 Rolls-Royce Dawn Black Badge

2020 Rolls-Royce Dawn Black Badge

2020 Rolls-Royce Dawn Black Badge

2020 Rolls-Royce Dawn Black Badge

Dawn of a new day

The Rolls-Royce Dawn is the automaker’s sole droptop. Like its cousin the Wraith, it’s a two-door four-seater that’s a bit sportier and more youthful than the full-bodied, all-business Phantom four-door or Rolls-Royce’s latest gem, the Cullinan SUV. 

“This is it,” I acknowledge to myself when I arrive at the car’s pick-up location. Getting the car has been a logistical scramble, and I try to stop myself from thinking about what to do next, but I’m too eager to get it home for the moment to last. 

As the car glides along across the highway, my head is in the clouds, and I’m thinking about mom as if I’m preparing what I’d say to her when I get home. The car is Magma Red, and as a Black Badge model, it’s laden with extra attitude. This limited-edition trim darkens typically bright chrome fixtures like the grille and the iconic Spirit of Ecstasy hood ornament. Beyond the cosmetic, the Black Badge treatment permeates to the already impressive 6.6-liter twin-turbo V-12 under the aluminum bonnet. It ups the output to 593 horsepower from the “normal” 563 hp while delivering more than 600 pound-feet of torque. The whole package rides on carbon alloy-composite wheels, each the price of a a part-time retail employee’s annual salary, which I try not to think about while rolling through pot-marked intersections. I may have a Rolls-Royce, but even at $460,000 I’m not sure it’s the right Rolls to fulfill the promise to my mom. 

2020 Rolls-Royce Dawn Black Badge

2020 Rolls-Royce Dawn Black Badge

“Mom…would hate this,” my brother hesitantly blurts out when he meets me outside of my dad’s house. He’s the only person I’ve told about this personal mission. Between the two of us, we decide that having the car on hand for the memorial is the main event, but I can still surprise dad with it just as I would mom. My brother’s reasoning is sound and I don’t see it as dismissive. We always assumed my mother’s vision of a Rolls-Royce and the accompanying lifestyle was traditionally classic, and we both conclude she’d like a silver Phantom or Ghost much better than this flashy red car with its darkened trim. 

My dad comes home. He knows I’m arriving in a press car, but he doesn’t know which one or if it’s for a specific purpose. He certainly doesn’t expect it to have anything to do with mom. It takes him a minute to connect the dots. 

“Oh wow, what kind of car is this?” he asks. 

“It’s the Rolls-Royce Dawn,” I reply. 

“He brought it for mom,” adds my brother. 

There’s a palpable beat of silence that I purposefully try to step on, but to no avail. “I brought it for mom’s memorial because I couldn’t…” That’s as far as I get in articulating my purpose. My throat tightens, and I can’t say any more. It’s the first time throughout the process—of deciding to give this a shot, reaching out to all the people who need to say yes for this to happen, hoping there is even a Rolls-Royce in the local press fleet, and praying it’s available for this weekend—that it hits me: I brought home a Rolls-Royce for my mom, as promised. 

“Your mother would’ve loved this,” he says, sharply contrasting my brother’s take as I give him a tour of the car. The more we talk, the more my brother and I flip on our knee-jerk take. Who would know better than him, right? Her favorite color was red, and for as much as she loved traditional elegance, she was not of that mold. She was too unique and self-assured to simply accept someone else’s notion of luxury. For as much as she sang about Rolls-Royce, she talked just as much about having “a red convertible,” often in the form of the Mercedes-Benz SL 500. It was the fun-loving Hyde to mom’s straight-laced Jekyll. Inexplicably, I’ve delivered the perfect car for mom: the best of both sides of her car tastes, a red Rolls-Royce convertible. 

“Alex, I’m very proud of you,” my dad says. This catches me off guard. My dad’s always been excited and impressed by the cars I’ve brought home over the years, but this is the first time a car has elicited such a strong reaction. I wasn’t seeking that, nor was I expecting it, and I’m not sure how to process it. 

It’s Sunday. My family and I pile into the Dawn and head over to church for the memorial service. In our youth, my brother and I were dragged to Sunday service by our dutiful, church-going parents, but this became a rarer occurrence as we got older. When we did go, it was mainly to please our mother. It’s the first time we’ve been together like this in months due to the coronavirus pandemic, and even longer since we’ve gone to a service. The last time almost certainly was with mom. The day feels oddly cheerful, as we’re happy to be together, joined by loved ones and celebrating mom in a special way. Later, my dad and I confide that we independently felt guilty for not feeling as sad as we’d anticipated. With service concluded, we drive over to pay respects to mom, and though I considered my promise fulfilled when I brought the Rolls-Royce home, this moment goes even further to unquestionably satisfy that commitment. 

I force myself to pause and take stock of everything that’s happened now that I’m on the other side of things. The month was a whirlwind, starting with the internal struggle of deciding to book this car. Part of my hesitation was that requesting it felt too self-serving. There was also a feeling of finality. The promise had built up a significant emotional momentum over the years, and finally realizing the goal was going to be its own struggle.

2020 Rolls-Royce Dawn Black Badge

2020 Rolls-Royce Dawn Black Badge

There was no way around it this time, though. I did this  specifically for my mom. I wish circumstances were different. I wonder how I’d feel if I found even the flimsiest excuse to bring home a Rolls-Royce before now, but at this point I’m fairly well-practiced in compartmentalizing the myriad “what if I’d done this while she was still here” thoughts. 

With nobody around, I imagine my mom’s reaction to the Dawn parked outside her house. I see her standing on the front step, clasping her hands together under her chin, and smiling. “For me?” she asks with a grin. “Yes mom, a Rolls-Royce, for you.” 

Rolls-Royce provided the test car to fulfill a family promise and make this story possible.

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