The only time I have been in a Rolls-Royce with a woman at the wheel was in Los Angeles about 20 years ago. The woman was young and exceptionally beautiful and claimed that her white convertible was a gift. Even in a city so inured to wealth and glamour, people stared as we purred along Sunset Boulevard. I became instantly and permanently convinced that a girl’s ultimate luxury accessory was a Rolls-Royce, but since then I have never glimpsed another woman driving one.
Before 2003, a typical Rolls-Royce owner was a gentleman in his sixties. Much has changed since BMW bought the company in 1998 and now there are more young owners and the brand is subtly but surely adapting to suit the demands of women drivers. It is perhaps no coincidence that the Rolls-Royce colour palette is overseen by a woman, nor that one in five of the manufacturing work force is female. Yet the biggest breakthrough when it came to drawing women to the brand was the introduction of the Ghost in late 2009.
The starting price of £200,000 is steep but I thought if I could not buy one, I could at least take one out for a spin. I was ready to make my own way to Rolls-Royce’s headquarters in my Mini but it was suggested that I might like to ‘experience’ the Phantom first. Preceding the Ghost, the Phantom was launched in 2003, ready for Rolls-Royce’s centenary in 2004. Would I like to be picked up in one? Indeed I would. So one February morning I had the delicious experience of stepping from my flat into the creamy leather-upholstered cocoon of the Phantom’s interior.
With sixteen standard variations to choose from, or the option to have even the paint invented specially, each Phantom is unique. This one had a black leather ceiling, pinpointed with tiny stars of adjustable brightness so I felt I was being whisked away on a magic carpet ride. Rodney, the driver, said it usually took new owners a couple of days to become familiar with the car’s multiple gadgets. I was with Paddy Renouf, himself the owner of a Shadow Two as well as a Bentley, and a connoisseur of pretty much everything.
I therefore feared he might be jaded or indifferent, but he was as excited as I was as we cooed over all the touches that make a Rolls-Royce a king among cars — the big, sturdy umbrellas that slide in and out of niches in the passenger doors, the personal televisions, the gleaming, wood panelling, the shiny knobs that adjust the seat or the direction of the air conditioning.
Rolls-Royce’s headquarters are in the bosom of Sussex, on six acres of the Earl of March and Kinrara’s Goodwood Estate, famously home to the Festival of Speed. Historically and emotionally, there is a link with Henry Royce who had a summer home in Wittering eight miles away. Given over 90 per cent of Rolls-Royces are exported, it is a huge strategic advantage to have situated the assembly line near Southampton, rather than following other British manufacturers north. Sussex, with its rolling downs and immaculate picturesque villages, is already teeming with well-heeled existing or aspiring Rolls-Royce owners.
The Phantom deposited us on a forecourt, eerily empty apart from a uniform line of trees and a purple-black Ghost awaiting my test drive. The world of Rolls-Royce is like a private club with its own rules and dialect. For example, Rolls-Royces never break down but occasionally ‘fail to proceed’. A place that is not within reach of a Rolls-Royce mechanic is a ‘white space’. In years gone by, a mechanic would be flown to any white space, sometimes with a police escort. Andrew Ball, the corporate communications manager, delighted in telling us about an owner whose Rolls-Royce ‘failed to proceed’ during the Peking-Paris Rally in the 1930s. The owner asked his hotel concierge to telephone Rolls-Royce and by the next morning the car was not only fixed but valeted.
Andrew laughed off the suggestion that the Ghost is designed to appeal to WAGs and, so far, figures about how many women are buying them are not available. Yet there is no doubt that its slightly shorter (by just 40 cms) body and inward-curving interior give the impression that it is neater and smaller and less of a big beast for a woman to drive.
With joy I drove the Ghost for 60 miles around Sussex. I used to have an old Mercedes that felt like driving a plane before take-off. This felt like handling a silky, silent airborne jet. It went from 0 to 60 in 4.7 seconds without a lurch and even sudden braking round sharp corners failed to disturb a sense of velvet solidity. The Ghost looks more informal and discreet than the Phantom, so often it was only on second glance that people realised a Rolls-Royce had just glided past.
From now, the Ghost is going to be available with a range of bespoke design features. Already Phantoms can be built with all the accessories a girl could dream of. I saw a lavender Phantom with a powder-pink interior and a specially designed picnic set complete with champagne flutes. ‘Women are always influential in the choices even if their signatures are not on the paperwork,’ said Gavin Hartley, bespoke interiors manager. ‘We’ve even designed baby seats specially to match the car’.
The point about a Rolls-Royce is that although it is an obvious status symbol, its superb engineering means it is neither vulgar nor meretricious. It is built to last. Of the 110,000 or so ever made, between 60,000 and 70,000 are still roadworthy, while the demand for new cars is rising — 2,711 cars were built in 2010, three times more than in 2009. I expect it’s only a matter of time before lots of women will be driving around in Rolls-Royces. After all, they’re powerful and reliable as well as being the ultimate in comfort. What more could a girl want?