The high heels and patent leather shoes of the partygoers covered the lush green lawns and cobblestones of Abu Dhabi's Fairmont Bab Al Bahr Hotel as their owners chatted, mingled and laughed in the chilly night air. The British ambassador, dressed smartly in a black tuxedo, held court as he moved from group to group, and Lady Elizabeth Anson, cousin to the queen of England and who helped organise the event, mingle about. But even they couldn't represent the Old Empire as well as the real stars of the party.
Bathed in soft, coloured light, sitting around the people and tables and displays of high-end jewellery, 16 of the most diverse, elegant and rare Rolls-Royce and Bentley cars on display were there to represent every era of the storied marques. The black-tie affair, held on March 17, was, quite simply, a celebration of Rolls-Royce and Bentley, with the backing of no less than the Rolls-Royce Foundation and the Sir Henry Royce Memorial Foundation.
"The reason for bringing the event to the UAE is that it's unquestionably a place where interest in RR is at an all-time high," said Peter Antell, breaking away from the festivities to chat. His company, Faircount Media, has organised two previous events for the brands: in Le Montreux Palace on the shore of Lake Geneva and at Goodwood in the UK. But the UAE seemed a natural fit for another show.
"I'm very happy. I think we had an opportunity to display some of the finest Rolls-Royce and Bentley automobiles to be found in the GCC, and I think that's a feat in itself to manage to bring 16 cars to any show here. To have procured them from collectors and museums, some of which rarely see the light of day, to a show like this is an accomplishment I think we can be proud of."
And they were lovely and rare cars: a modern-day Phantom was there on the lawn, but this was perhaps the only place such an imposing car could be overshadowed by others. A 1930 Phantom II, a 1935 20/25 Gurney, a 1951 Silver Dawn and models going all the way up to mid-Eighties Corniches and Phantoms drew more stares and admiring ogles from the crowd.
The cars were collected for the event from around the UAE with the help of Mathias Doutreleau and Gaurav Dar. Doutreleau is head of Project A, which helps organise high-end car events, and Dhar owns Rolling Art Emporium, connecting potential buyers with their dream classics. Both are avid classic car enthusiasts and have extensive experience in the field; and both are passionate about sharing their enjoyment with others. It's a feeling they wish all classic-car owners would have.
"Some people think they own these cars, but they don't; they're caretakers of them," said Doutreleau. "And as such, their duties are to be committed to look after them, and committed to educating people about their heritage. By keeping the cars hidden, it's like me buying a Picasso and keeping it at home. What's the point?
"Of course, you want to see your cars every day, but when you refuse to have them at a well-organised public event, now you're creating a retention of history, a retention of information."
Perhaps few of the well-coiffed attendees really knew how rare an opportunity it was to see these cars. In a country famous for its collections of classics, many owners hide them in private garages away from public eyes. But Mohammad Al Redha feels differently. His 1981 Silver Spirit won the People's Choice Award at the show - it's one of three he owns - and he feels classic cars are more than just sensuous lines and leaky engines.
"These cars are our culture; where we come from," he enthuses. "It says something about who we were. Every car has a meaning. For example, I also have a Toyota Sequoia; why? Because I need the space. My father drives an S-Class because he likes the luxury and technology; it says something about that man at that time. It's nice to trace our roots; we should never forget that. And these cars are a part of that."
Al Redha, who is the head of health information systems for the Dubai Health Authority, is a long-time fan of Rolls-Royce, though he only started his collection in the last few years.
"As a child, I remember them going around Dubai in the Eighties. My uncle owned a couple; he had a nice red one in Bahrain. I'm dying to get the same one now.
"It used to be vary rare to see them; now, you see so many Rolls-Royces on the road. Still, those cars have a uniqueness, then and now."
With the success of the show, the organisers and attendees alike are already planning to host more, and perhaps set up a Rolls-Royce owners group right here in the UAE.
"We feel that we've laid the foundations for an event that has potential for longevity," said Antell. "The feedback that we've got from the owners present tonight indicates a great willingness to get involved in future events and to improve on it. We can see how we might be able to improve it, and we're certainly considering it for the long haul."
Doutreleau, who has founded several classic car rallies in Europe as well as the Quail Motorsports Gathering in California, is confident that, by showing how to properly organise such an event, owners will see that their cars will be treated with the respect and care that they deserve and, as such, will be more willing to get involved.
"As we grow we'll be able to bring out more cars," said Doutreleau. "Give it a couple of years, and you'll have people knocking on the doors asking to join. But it has to stay pure UAE; Kuwait has fantastic cars, Jordan has fantastic cars, Saudi Arabia has amazing cars, but so does the UAE."
Al Redha plans to work towards setting up an owners group, which he finds a good way to share information about finding parts and solutions to problems for these rare cars. And if there is another show, he'd like to be a part of it; perhaps his award this night will result in having something else to display.
"Hopefully," he said sheepishly, "it will make my wife agree that we should find a budget for another car."