"This is a long way to come for a new set of headlights," said a fellow writer as we got into our chauffeur-driven Rolls-Royce at the airport in Nice, France. "Oh, no," our driver pointed out, helpfully and probably by design, "there is much more to the Phantom."
All the real heavy lifting for this archduke's plaything occurred in the late '90s and early aughts, after BMW purchased Rolls-Royce, a once-great British label that had gathered as many cobwebs as Miss Havisham's wedding dress. The German masters imagineered the Rolls for a new generation of globe-hopping aristocracy, one that likes to drive with the power of a 453-hp V-12 direct-injection engine while also surrounded by a lacquered forest of walnut veneer and a panoply of "bespoke" luxury items. The new Phantom was a 5,600-lb. car that went 60 mph in under six seconds, with brakes that could crush coal into diamonds. Everyone loved driving it, but the car's design got Rolls in trouble. The Phantom was 19 feet long, with a hood the breadth of a football pitch. One critic compared it to a coffin. Another, "the world's most majestic air conditioner."
BMW's Rolls took these criticisms and spent the next decade swatting them away. In 2007 came the Phantom Drophead Coupé, a multi-platinum ragtop that condensed the original Phantom without sacrificing one foot-pound of torque, followed by a hard-topped grand-touring Coupé. The Spirit Of Ecstasy perched on the hood still indicated "none shall pass," but at least the Phantom had loosened up a bit, like Peter Boyle learning how to sing "Puttin' On The Ritz." Soon Rolls debuted its Ghost series, which was half the price of the Phantom, for people who enjoy the luxury and power of a Rolls but don't want to feel like they're chauffeuring a dowager countess to a royal funeral.
Now the Phantom has been massaged enough to be deemed Series II, snootier than ever, with prices starting at $400,000 and rising like a Learjet from there. In addition to an LED headlight system that changes direction as the road curves and could spot a sniper in the hills at a thousand meters, the Series II brings an eight-speed gearbox, a modern navigation screen featuring a 3D topographic map and surround-look camera systems. There's also a list of minor cosmetic updates as long as a private-dining room wine list.
But these are trifling accessories in the overall. The Rolls-Royce Phantom Series II is still essentially the same grandiloquent luxury barge that debuted nearly a decade ago. As an executive said during our mercifully short press briefing, "they got it right in 2003. Rolls-Royce doesn't do facelifts." In other words, let them eat cake.
During my high-end Rolls weekend in the South Of France, there was plenty of cake to go around.
Rolls likes to describe its brand as an avatar of "effortless luxury." To illustrate this, they treated a non-elite gaggle of car hacks to a weekend that included a wake-jumping ride in a $1.5 million Swedish-designed luxury powerboat, evenings full of unlimited after-dinner drinks, and a dinner at a Phillippe Starck-designed restaurant adjacent to Monaco Harbor. We stayed at Le Cap Estel, an elite private compound with fewer than 30 rooms, all marble flooring and soaring balustrades and top-end Cote d'Azur style. It boasts a cliffline of Mediterranean coast that would make Brigitte Bardot drool. Princess Grace used to send overflow guests when the Monaco palace was full. Discretion is the watchword there. As a Rolls guy said to us, "it's a place where celebrities can come and wear baggy clothes."
One morning I got to spend a few minutes in one of Le Cap Estel's seemingly endless series of lounges with Torsten Müller-Otvos, Rolls-Royce's CEO. A debonair gentleman in his mid-40s with a full shock of slick gray hair and nifty white suede arm patches on his sports coat, Müller-Otvos was not to the manor born. He told me that he was always a "big car nut," his interest springing from boyhood hours in a friend's garage, where they "pulled his old Beetle to bits." After many years in the BMW sales and marketing departments, he made his name by successfully relaunching the Mini around the same time BMW resurrecting Rolls. This taught him, he says, that "authenticity in a car brand is important. A brand needs to be aligned with its genes."
When I asked Müller-Otvos what his competition was, he said, "Helicopters. Jewelry. Art. Motor yachts. Sailing boats. A chalet in the Swiss Alps. No one thinks of a Rolls when their lease expires and they're wondering what sort of car they should buy. This isn't the sort of business we're in. We are in the luxury goods business. Rolls-Royce is used as a synonym for the best money can buy."
With that, it was time to motor.
A half-dozen Phantoms sat in the driveway of Le Cap Estel, polished to the inch. My drive partner for the day, a dapper 60-year-old Egyptian named Adel Murad, was eyeing a bone-white Coupé as though it were a model under an umbrella at a San Tropez beach resort.
"Let's take this one," he said. "It is the fashion this year."
But of course, I thought.