James May has a problem. He is allergic to his Rolls-Royce. He doesn’t mean he’s suddenly developed an irrational hatred for his garnet-red 1972 Corniche; he has a genuine allergy.
“It’s got something to do with the seats,” muses the 50-year-old Top Gear presenter. “I used to have a Bentley T2, which is almost the same car under the skin, but a later 1980 model, and they must have used a horse with different hair for the stuffing.” After an hour or two May starts to itch and needs to lie in a hot bath until symptoms abate. “I know someone who’d happily reupholster them but that wouldn’t be very proper. It wouldn’t be as its makers intended.” This is a very May thing to say.
We meet in the underground car park near his west London home where he rents spaces for the Rolls and a few of his many classic motorcycles. He rides around town in a six-year-old Fiat Panda. A bulging diary means he hasn’t seen the Corniche for a couple of months and he’s missing it. “Every time I drive it, I wonder why I don’t use it more often.” Even so he spends the first few minutes checking the paintwork to make sure no blemishes have somehow appeared under its tailor-made cover.
“I hope it’ll start,” he says anxiously, twisting the key then smiling quietly as its mighty 6.75-litre V8 motor answers his call with a rumble of far-off thunder.
You can tell a lot about a car enthusiast by his glovebox. You’ll find no sweet wrappers, sunglasses or Wet Ones behind the hinged slab of walnut on the Rolls’ dash, just an unmarked handbook and a spotless yellow duster. May likes his cars to be clean. “They go much better like that,” he says, only partly in jest.
Although he has owned his Corniche for only five years, he had wanted one for rather longer. “In 1988, before I’d written a word for a car magazine or stood in front of a camera, I was a subeditor on The Engineer. Driving into town one autumn day I flashed my lights to let a Corniche into the traffic. It was a silvery metallic grey, the sun was low and reflecting off the side window. I remember the window lowering very elegantly – it was like watching mercury drain from a tube – and a woman’s hand in a white satin glove all the way to the elbow gliding out and waving gently at me. As perfect moments go, it could only have been improved if she’d been smoking a Sobranie in a Bakelite and ivory cigarette holder. I’ve wanted a Corniche ever since.”
But first he bought a Bentley, a car dating from days when Bentleys were no more than Rolls with Bentley logos. “Back then Bentley-badged cars were so rare Rolls considered dropping the brand altogether, but now there are footballers in Bentleys everywhere and an old Rolls is quite a cool thing to have again.” So the T2 was traded in for the Corniche. It still wears its original paint and has covered just 80,000 miles in the past 40 years.
We drive gently out of town – he believes in driving every car in the manner for which it was designed. “All cars have a natural gait, a speed at which they’re happiest. The Corniche is perfect at around 65-70mph. I did a ton in it once, which was completely horrible. Apparently it’ll reach 120mph, but not with me in it.”
So we waft, savouring the aroma of Connolly hide, listening to the chatter of mechanical instruments and enjoying the imperious view down the bonnet to sculptor Charles Robinson Sykes’ immortalisation of one Eleanor Velasco Thornton, better known as the Spirit of Ecstasy.
“A car isn’t a classic just because it’s old,” says May from behind the thin-rimmed wheel. “To be a classic a car has to tell us something of its time. When you understand it, a Corniche will tell you all about the demise of coachbuilding and Rolls’ determination to embrace contemporary car design. It looks old now but with its aluminium engine and monocoque construction it was a thoroughly modern car. At the time some people hated it for that.”
That’s why he dislikes retro cars such as today’s Fiat 500. “You have to be modern now for there to be history in the future; that way the best of the past is preserved to remind us where we’ve come from.”
May can be philosophical and at times evangelical on the subject, but he is by no means a classic car nut. “There’s this perception that I’ve got this huge collection of old cars. I don’t. I have the Corniche. I guess if I lived in the middle of Wales and had time and space I’d like some exotics like an Alfa Romeo Montreal or Lamborghini Espada.”
In the end, a car’s claim to classic status boils down to three basic qualifications in May’s mind, of which any car must have at least two. “It must be rare and beautiful, beautiful and interesting or interesting and rare. One is not enough.”
Although May drives the Rolls infrequently he uses it properly, taking it on long journeys to Cornwall and Wales. It has never “failed to proceed” though he points out you have to keep on top of high-maintenance items such as its self-levelling hydraulic suspension. He says fuel consumption is “awful when you’re cruising and closer to terrifying around town” before muttering darkly about single-digit mpg figures.
But I don’t think he’ll be selling any time soon. As that white-gloved hand slid gracefully from the Corniche’s interior half his lifetime ago it flipped a switch in his heart. It’ll take more than inconvenient running costs to make him walk away from it now.