I am in the south of France in the Maybourne Rivera: a mad, modernist hotel on a rock above Monaco filled with cashmere blankets, and beds. The cloud rolls in and Monaco disappears like an eye closing, and I am glad. Monaco is a land of defibrillators at bus stops and street signs that say 'Prada'. It smells of petrol and tax avoidance. Far above, this is the sort of hotel that creates its own reality, in which nothing can harm you, which is the point of any great hotel. It’s hard to write well about luxury because it numbs you into a state of infancy. By the end of a trip on the Orient Express, for instance, I could not find my slippers in a cabin that was less than 30 square feet. But I can rouse myself to call the Maybourne Riviera a soothing fortress, much like the Rolls-Royce Phantom.
We are not in South of France by mistake. It’s a sad and amazing tale: Charles Rolls, the aristocratic marketing genius met Henry Royce the engineer at the RAC club, and they founded the company. Rolls died in an aeroplane crash at 32, in Bournemouth of all places, and Royce lived in the South of France for his health. Cars were driven across Europe for his comments, then he would return to Goodwood and shout at people. Some purists call Rolls-Royces 'Royces': a tax on death.
The Phantom is the last petrol Rolls-Royce I will drive before Spectre – the first electric Rolls-Royce – arrives next year. They are confident it will work perfectly: Rolls-Royces are always quiet and with electrification they will only become more so. For now, though, the Phantom is the flagship car: it is bigger and more expensive than the Ghost, the Wraith, the Cullinan, and the Dawn. It costs half a million pounds and beyond and there are a score here, parked outside the hotel like a taxi service for gods.
Car press tours often invite journalists to experience the 'lifestyle' of their clients – the smoothest drives, softest towels, the deepest beds. I love the cognitive dissonance of a luxury goods press trip. We try our best, but we still we look like baggage handlers who came on holiday by mistake: grifters.
After I have laughed at the yachts in the bay – nothing looks as pitiful as a big yacht next to a bigger yacht – and overcome my fear of a loo that flushes whenever I am within a foot of it, we are taken to a press briefing. The head of customisation, who speaks of her products as if they are her children (they all do this; the chief engineer looks soppily at his cars sideways), shows slides of famous Phantoms. They are all bespoke: if you want a non-customised Phantom, you must customise it. Most strangely, a Phantom is also an art gallery: you can commission anything to slide under the glass on the fascia, or dash. We see Phantoms with silk interiors woven with flowers; a Phantom matched to a piece of indigenous art the owner admired; Phantoms dotted with feathers, sculptures, or gold. Of course, some of them are grotesque – I cannot understand why anyone would build a Phantom in homage to a banana, for instance. And I know mine would be better: my bubble pink Frenchie-from-Grease Phantom; my Jack Russell Dachshund Cross Phantom; my Spectator Phantom; my mother Phantom. They have almost infinite possibility, and a car with this much presence can handle anything, especially vulgarity.
For this reason, I think, Rolls-Royce invented the Black Badge. It is a styling that is almost all black – though there are hundreds, maybe even thousands of blacks at Goodwood – and so a Black Badge Rolls-Royce is nothing more than an inky machine of war. No floristry and no flounces: just power. There isn’t a more beautiful car than a Black Badge Rolls-Royce Cullinan. Until the next one.
The briefing ends and the blinds are raised. Outside, in the garden, two new Phantoms have been winched over the wall. One is pearly white, almost iridescent; the other is a deep and brutal red.
The following day I drive it. It is not a city car. It is immense: 5.6 metres long, 2.1 metres wide. It weighs three tonnes. The engine is a 6.75 litre V12, which delivers a top speed of 155 mph and does 0-60mph in 5.6 seconds. Since it is not customised for me, I am not driving my bedroom, or my brain: I am driving a hotel. It has a name –The Iconoclast – a purplish-pink trim and a Champagne fridge. I could write the details – the gallery is grey and rippling with an Art Deco clock and the roof is fretted with thousands of lights – but all I really remember is the smell of it: a combination of fine leather and petrol. Have you ever smelt the absence of dust? I know as I gently turn the wheel that I am using perhaps a tenth of its power. You can read a Phantom as something destructive or creative. It is, of course, both – a metaphor, then, in metal, for being human.