The Queen of England owns an armoured claret Bentley limousine, which is very fine. But if you want diamond-fretted paintwork or your zodiac sign on the ceiling in lights, only Rolls-Royce can make it. They have a mood board room in the factory at Goodwood where, like God and man, you design a car in your own image. I don’t like to think too deeply about this: the Rolls-Royce my soul made. I might not like it. It might look like Dora Maar.
The emotional opportunities of bespoke motor cars are something to fear but that is not why I like Rolls-Royces. I like the origin myth: clever, middle-class Henry Royce and charming, aristocratic Charles Rolls, the engineer and the salesman, the Hawksmoor and Vanbrugh of early motoring. Rolls loved cars so much they called him Dirty Rolls at Eton.
I like the military possibilities even better. People who laugh at Rolls-Royces, and they do because they must, or they would cry, do not really understand them. The diamond-fretted paintwork and the silken cushions is not the point of them at all. Under that, which is distracting, I give you – particularly when owners fall to pastels and citrus colours – they are machines of war. Vladimir Ilyich Lenin had a Silver Ghost which he got cheap, at 15 per cent off, because he was buying bomber engines too: which, I wonder, was the afterthought? He customized it with skis and caterpillar tracks and it is still at his dacha near Moscow.
At the beginning of the Great War the Silver Ghosts on the line were procured to make the Rolls-Royce Armoured Car. It looks just like a Rolls-Royce but with a machine gun turret. There were six Rolls-Royce squadrons in that war and T. E. Lawrence had nine Rolls-Royces for the revolt in the desert, which he called “more valuable than rubies”. That is obvious. Rubies aren’t frightening.
I am certain – well, not certain – that the armoured division still exists at Rolls-Royce, because who lets bespoke end at finish when there are so many other possibilities? There are plenty of people who would like a tank with lambswool carpets that plays ABBA. I, just now, am one of them; you might enjoy the pandemic in a tank. It might feel comforting to know you could blow up the shed. But I do not ask, because they will not tell.
Instead I have the Ghost, launched in 2009 and named for the Silver Ghost. It is the baby Rolls-Royce, smaller, faster and slightly cheaper – mine costs almost £283,100 – than the mighty Phantom. It is Black Diamond with a Mandarin trim and it looks smooth and fierce and content in itself. There are no weapons, as I said, but there is an umbrella in the boot which I would be happy to take to a knife fight.
The interior is almost ludicrously sumptuous; has a dog ever set paw in one? Virgil Dog is banned from press cars after he was sick in a Jaguar E-Pace so he cannot know the smoothness of the seats or the depth of the lambswool rugs. It’s not a car you want to leave, ever; in this, it is very unlike a car.
I drive, before lockdown, from west Cornwall to Woodsford Castle near Dorchester on a wet afternoon, for a friend’s birthday party. The roads are sodden but, once I have realized it takes half a mile to stop the Ghost, which weighs 2.6 tonnes, it takes care of me, until I slow down to let a KIA Picanto in, which is mad. I nearly hit a KIA Picanto, I tell the cashier at the petrol station near Exeter, I slowed down to let a KIA Picanto in. Tell me about it, he sighs, I used to drive lorries. In this, driving the Ghost is like driving a shark or Josef Stalin; there is no other predator to fear and people get out of your way.
People say that driving a Ghost is like driving a hotel. This is wrong. It is more like driving a butler (that is also a shark, or Josef Stalin); no hotel would be as responsive. The V12 engine, which takes it 0-60mph at a preposterous 4.6 seconds and will fly at 155mph, is almost completely silent; quite often I do not know if it is on or off. At roundabouts the display tells me which lane to take and, since Dorset is almost without streetlamps, I am grateful.
I drive it all over Dorset: to Lyme Regis, to Thomas Hardy’s horrifying suburban villa Max Gate; to the nude Cerne Abbas Giant, who has a similar kind of charisma to the Ghost. It is not exactly beautiful: it is too solid, and too ambitious, for that. But I do want to be close to it; to touch it; to keep it.