Be under no illusions: this article will be a competition between myself and our dashing motoring editor, Oliver Smith, as to who can gush the most about Rolls Royce. There is little to be objective about. In 1904, Henry Royce and Charles Rolls engineered a vehicle of such poise and grace that it ran virtually non-stop for 14,371 miles. It was the Silver Ghost, named ‘the best car in the world’ by Autocar in 1907. Pretty conclusive, if you ask me. Of course, we’re talking about a world in which the Wright brothers had only just flown a powered airplane. Little did they know, Rolls Royce would become a brand so synonymous with luxury that it would set the benchmark for coach building for the next century.
There are many luxury marques silently rolling into the market, but there is only really one that sits in the rarefied atmosphere of the luxury layer cake. The first incarnation of the Rolls Royce Phantom came in 1925, as the replacement to the Silver Ghost. Arguably the world’s hardest act to follow. The Rolls Royce Phantom, however, secured infamy when it received the royal warrant in 1952, as the then-Princess Elizabeth ascended to the throne.
The Phantom always had an immediate sense of prestige. It wasn’t until the 1960s when it would become the play thing of a new breed of owner. John Lennon famously took delivery of his in June of 1965. After deciding to paint it psychedelic colours, he was attacked by a lady with an umbrella who ran at him shouting “You swine! You Swine! How dare you do that to a Rolls Royce!”
Whether you agree with her sentiment or not, the world is rapidly rotating on its axis and The Phantom has seen more obscure paint jobs than the works of Dali. What it has done throughout the years, though, is remained a car regarded as both a waft mobile by gentry and a status symbol by the glitterati, without needing to have all four wheels in either camp. There are many brands that have fallen foul of modern adulation by a societal subset, but Rolls Royce is a marque so engrained in the British psyche, well, ‘You can’t bloody have it, you hear, it’s ours!”
Having toured the factory a few years ago, during Goodwood Festival of Speed, I am convinced that without the artisans at Rolls Royce, England would fall. Mark Court, the single coachline painter at Rolls Royce, hand paints the individual line on each marquee using a brush made from squirrel hair.
I was told that a Middle Eastern buyer had recently taken delivery of his new marquee, only to realise it didn’t have the famous coachline. Not all marques do and evidently, one of the Prince’s footmen had not factored in that his boss would indeed want the coachline. So Mark and his squirrel brushes were flown out to Dubai to paint the famous line. Some serious millage, but when you’re a prince in a place where money talks and status is everything, what choice do you have.
We took delivery of our Phantom on a fairly grey British day, but watching that 5.8 metre beauty cruise up the driveway was a majestic sight. The interior was fitted with a drinks cabinet for the individual rear seats, a rear theatre, and of course the bespoke RR monogram on all the headrests. How else would people know it was a Rolls Royce?
The exterior was called Blue Velvet with a cream and navy blue interior and barrel oak veneer, not to mention the silver coachline hand-painted by Mark.
I quickly decided that, given the seven days we had to review and film this monument, I should curate opinions from the entire senior writing staff. The first stop on my itinerary was to James Clarke, creative emissary of internationally-renowned ‘True Bespoke’, a fine furniture maker and all round wood botherer. In my experience, Clarke has the same level of attention to detail as the chaps at Goodwood HQ. No matter where we go together, if a trim is off or a finish not picture perfect, he goes into a deep silence. He paces muttering, “Show me the blueprints, show me the blueprints”. Arguably, he isn’t quite as bad as Howard Hughes – and the Phantom is certainly no spruce goose. Suffice to say, if anyone is going to appreciate a barrel oak veneer and leather work that fine, it’s going to be Clarke.
I arrived on a muggy afternoon at the True Bespoke workshop. From inside, I could see Clarke drawn to the vehicle like a moth to a flame. Silence. No words were said as his automaton brain whirred and clicked, processing the car and its exquisite splendour. He scratched his chin whilst making facial expressions like he was having a design meeting with three people inside his walnut-encased head.
“Mmmm, well, mmmm, mattteeeeee”. We had reverted to the simplest available greeting sounds available to us as homosapians. Our brains were just too busy trying to work out how something with a pavement weight of 2560Kg could hit 60 in less than 6 seconds. It sped forward with a sense of urgency and refinement. Heaven forbid your ice should clink in the glass as you recline in the beautifully appointed rear seats. With James’s seal of approval secured, it was time to move onto our style editor, David Minns.
Minns is a man that is torn between traditionalism and modernity. His position as head tailor of Brown in Town (tailors, shirtmakers and atelier) is something I always found contradictory to his youth growing up as a skate-boarding aficionado. This is a man that has images of himself in his studio doing a kick-flip in a two piece. Arguably, though, he is one of the most well-pointed people I have ever come across, so what would he make of the pomp and ceremony available to us. And more importantly, where would we lunch?
‘Cheese and rice’. At least that’s what I think he said, as he strolled out of his Bristol studio. He stood with his Fox umbrella, appearing to balance his somewhat lighthearted, musical stance. I do recall him rubbing his hands together at one point with a sense of glee.
“Where are we headed?” I asked. “The Ethicurean”. Excellent, I thought, let’s drive out to Wrington in a car that opitmises opulence and basically runs on coal. The engineers at Rolls Royce chose a magnificent engine and one that produces 19.1 average MPG, but let’s not kid ourselves, it isn’t a car that screams “I AM ETHICALLY CONCERNED”. It does, however, whisper “I couldn’t trouble you for another Petit Upmann from the humidor and a glass of Lagavulin, could I?” Words that I am much more likely to utter.
We pulled into the walled garden, parked the land yacht (as I affectionately called her) and strolled up to the restaurant for a light lunch. Conversation flowed, people toasted, and the sun shone, but I couldn’t quite see the car. I wasn’t concerned about security – the Phantom was quite at home in Wrington – only that I was spending time looking at a plate of food and a room full of people as opposed to over 100 years of engineering prowess.
Lunch finished, we were briefly joined by Jack Adair Bevan, one of the brains behind The Ethicurean and winner of the Young British Foodies Award. Bevan was kind enough to treat us to a taste of his new vermouth, brewed from sources on site at the Walled Garden, and we then took him and his cohort for a spin in the Phantom. A good trade.
With Minns returned safely to his tailoring outpost, all that was left was for the final seal of approval from my family’s matriarch. My grandmother is a strong woman, one that grew up in the days of the Raj as her father and his father travelled from central India, consulting on the railways. After the Second World War, they settled in Kharagpur, near two American air bases. My grandmother remembers the Spitfires travelling overhead with the roar of the Rolls Royce engines being completely unmistakeable.
I wouldn’t have been able to forgive myself, had I not taken Grandmother Robinson out for a spot of supper. I can confirm that she disappeared into the back seat, given the cavernous size of the Phantom. Having collected my aunt and mother, we wafted across Wiltshire’s green and pleasant land.
Supper was served in a small but well-formed country pub. Sometime later, my aunt and grandmother, doing their best to remain upright, shuffled out into the night and into the Phantom. However, the entrance to the car didn’t secure many style points. I hadn’t been able to work out how to drop the car’s ride height, so wasn’t able to lower her for entrance. This resulted in a typical move from my family: enter the car on hands and knees, to avoid damaging ones clothes. Obviously in fits of laughter throughout. I should have been ushering ladies of the night into the back seat and heading for a country pile somewhere, not watching my family crawl into the car whilst trying to keep their Burberry macs unscathed.
All agreed with resounding finality: “They don’t make them like this anymore”. Well, they do, obviously. But no one makes them like Rolls Royce. The Phantom is a motor car so well built that I don’t believe I will ever quite fully recover from its magnificence. It gets my vote as the replacement image on the new twenty pound note. Long live Rolls Royce.