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“A man tapped insistently at the car window. He looked annoyed. “I told you,” I hissed at my husband. “You can’t just pull up into someone’s staff parking space in a car like this – it looks so … entitled.”
We were in the Suffolk market town of Bury St Edmunds in a 2012 Rolls-Royce Phantom Coupé that engulfed not just one but two parking spots. I’d been lent it for a weekend so that I could see what the world looks like from inside a £350,000 car (better, obviously), but mainly to see how the world might view us, putative owners of an insanely glamorous vehicle.
The answer, it seems, is just plain lucky. The man at the window was not remotely annoyed – that was my posh car paranoia at work. He was excited. “Oh my God! I know you get told this all the time but, oh my God, that is a beautiful car!”
It is. It is also almost comically noticeable. In real life, rather than in the credits of The Apprentice, the bonnet of a Rolls-Royce really is so vast that, viewed from the front seat, the winged “Spirit of Ecstasy” emblem at its head could well be probing another timezone. Football matches have been played on smaller surfaces.
It turned out that the funny and charming man at our car window sold luxury cars; he was used to driving the kind of marques whose list price could buy a fairly comfortable house in some parts of the country. “But,” he sighed, and you could tell he meant it, “this … there’s nothing like it.” I was beginning to understand what that meant. The car had been delivered to my road in London on a Saturday morning; as it was being unloaded from its container, two or three men had come out of their houses and gone back in to get their wives. The delivery driver said he has got used to working in front of an audience.
I hadn’t. People did stare. Of course they did: the car was so highly polished it seemed to be screening some glossier, parallel version of life in an ordinary residential street. The seats were cream, in the kind of leather only the very wealthy can think of using for mere upholstery. The boot was so enormous it ought to pay council tax.
At first, when the car was finally settled at my kerb, I was weirdly shy about going out to it. Small clutches of people paused to check it out. One of my neighbours later said he’d looked out of his window and told his partner that there was either a tank or a Rolls-Royce outside. When I finally emerged (feebly squeaking that it wasn’t mine, we hadn’t won the lottery, etc) a group of Jehovah’s Witnesses happened to be touring the street; one detached himself to smilingly admire the car and wish me a wonderful weekend. He did not detain me with talk of The Watchtower, which was helpful as it was time to get going.
Before setting off, though, I had a date with my neighbour, Thelma: 87 years old and determined to be swept around her local streets in a Rolls-Royce. She presented herself at the door looking, frankly, glamorous. She posed for photos. And no, she did not wish to sit in the back, thank you. She was far better at this than me.
Next, small groups of children were driven around in 10-minute batches. One little girl said she thought it was like a prime minister’s car from 1760. Another, older child swore he had seen a man carrying a white stick do a double take. Then it was off to Suffolk – but not before giving a good friend a ride.
He too had dressed for the occasion, in a cream linen suit (crumpled) and a Panama hat (battered) with which to salute his own neighbours. The week before, I had refused to drive miles out of my way to collect one friend who wanted to annoy her ex-husband by cruising past his home, slowly, in a Rolls-Royce. Another friend’s daughter was distraught that she would be on a school summer trip when there was such a blatant Facebook/selfie opportunity going to waste. My sister was mildly put out when I said I didn’t have time to lurk outside her workplace.
I was surprised at how many people really, really wanted even just a few minutes in the car. I was even more surprised at my screeching “Don’t. You. Dare” tone when, at traffic lights on the way out of town, some squeegee merchants bore down on us. Oh no, were they going to mess with the Roller? Not on my watch they weren’t. Oh dear, I was becoming acclimatised.
So much so that the drive to Suffolk threatened to be over far too soon, though that may have had something to do with the 6.75-litre, 12-cyclinder engine. Or maybe because of the preternaturally smooth ride delivered by the “intelligent” air suspension furiously cosseting away somewhere below all that cream leather. It could also have had something to do with the fact that a Rolls-Royce – at least in my somewhat limited experience – seems to get fair passage on the road. Drivers tend to move out of the way when they see one rising up in the rear mirror – I’m guessing to avoid any chance of being anywhere near an insurance claim on even a scrape. My husband could easily have driven to Scotland and back. Nonstop.
We had a picnic in the back, so we left the main roads for a detour through strings of kempt Essex villages, before pulling up near Tilty church, which we knew had a lot of parking space overlooking a steep meadow falling to a ruined water mill. Even though the only person likely to be around was the vicar, we amused ourselves by retracting again and again the stainless steel mascot (it vanishes into the car so a passing thief can’t snap it off). We had another unsuccessful go at finding the pop-out umbrella that people kept telling us was concealed in the door. In the sun, strains of a village fête somewhere, key to a Rolls-Royce Phantom in your pocket … it was rather delightfully unreal.
We continued on to Suffolk, coasting through villages of thatched cottages and into Bury St Edmunds, with passersby turning to watch. As we were filling up (just over 19 miles to the gallon!), a biker in full leathers came over to admire the Phantom. He patted it, then he stroked it. “Fantastic,” he said. “Fantastic.” Then he was off.
Last autumn, in Italy, I’d seen a pristine vintage Phantom parked in the wine village of Barolo. Young men posed and photographed each other next to it; nor were they shy about leaning on it. I’ve come to realise that if you drive a Rolls-Royce, you have to be prepared to engage in its public persona. Should I ever get one again, I shall boldly front it out and just learn to love the fuss.
Sue Norris is an associate editor of FT Weekend Magazine