x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

Drophead gorgeous

Not even the British weather could dampen the thrill of being behind the wheel of a Rolls-Royce convertible.


Since the moment I set eyes on 100EX, the experimental car that Rolls-Royce revealed to the world in 2004, I have fantasised about owning that car. Well, not that car exactly (since it will never be sold to anyone, at any price) but the Phantom Drophead Coupé, for which 100EX was, effectively, the prototype. But, I wondered, what if I got the dream car but still lived my normal life? Would it make ordinary day-to-day living a lot more fun or would it be hopelessly inappropriate? And how would normal, everyday people react to it?

So, when Rolls-Royce offered me a Drophead Coupé in Britain for a couple of days that, I decided, would be the "test" of my test drive. Forget the clichés - Côte d'Azur, polo, posh hotels, Palm Jumeirah - and bring on the basics. Such as the school run - and taking my 16-year-old daughter, Marina, for overnight leave from her boarding school. Fast forward to late afternoon on a January day that had begun with a crack-of-dawn arrival at foggy, zero-degrees Heathrow (reality check: not exactly hood-down weather) and transformed itself into one of those rare, magically bright and crisp winter days as I collected the car from the Rolls-Royce plant at Goodwood, in the southern English countryside.

Now, with the sun dropping low in the sky, I ease into the driveway of Cranbrook School, in Kent, just as the day's classes and sports matches are finishing. Calls of "Ho!" and "What?!" and "Get that!" rip through a group of senior boys in hockey kit. "I. Want. That. Car." from a fifth-former in her most weepingly operatic drama-queen voice. "But whose is it? Whose is it?" asks another voice urgently.

At the door of her boarding house, where Marina is waiting with a group of friends, any attempt at teenage nonchalance evaporates. "What is that car?" "Oh, wow." "It's amazing." "The most beautiful thing ever." My first task was to drop two of Marina's friends at the gym on our way out of town. It's time to put the hood down, the girls insist. (Oddly, I had felt sheepish about doing that on the drive from Goodwood - something about having acres of cream leather on full view, on an English winter's day. A little conspicuous, perhaps.)

But that doesn't bother the girls as they giggle and wave and queen it up, their classmates swivelling on the heels to watch, slack-jawed as we pass. So the verdict for Round One: definitely a lot more fun. And definitely a lot of (very positive) attention. Round Two: overnight at Hotel du Vin in Tunbridge Wells, a quintessentially English town populated by the prosperous end of the middle class.

We had chosen the hotel carefully: avoiding the clichés of grand and posh in favour of its laid-back and very modern form of luxury (an 18th-century mansion stripped back to reveal its architectural beauty and simply furnished with modern pieces, rather than overstuffed furniture). All style and no snob value, you could say. By now I'm thinking that's not a bad description of the Drophead Coupé, either.

Stepping past the Bentley Continental GT and Maserati Quattroporte already in the car park (it seems their owners appreciate low-key luxury too) the luggage porter smiles and says quietly: "Now you really have a nice car." And that was it from Tunbridge Wells. No fuss. After an exceptionally good dinner, we sleep easily, feeling that we are not on permanent display. Verdict for Round Two: the normal and everyday seems perfectly possible. (Or perhaps the English middle classes simply don't do Public Displays of Appreciation)

Round Three and we wake to discover that England has unleashed a humdinger of a winter storm over Kent. Howling wind, lashing rain. Just the thing for the school run. This is real life of a very British kind. Parking in the most blatantly obvious spot in the school driveway, we wait to see today's reactions as other parents drop their children off. A few heads turn, some wide-eyed stares and broad smiles - but it's mostly the young, not their parents, who seem universally stressed, preoccupied and desperate to get the drop-off done as fast as they can. (I recommend doing it in a Phantom Drophead Coupé; it's really very pleasant, even on such a filthy morning as this.) For most, though, it's heads down as they sprint for the school door, trying to stay dry.

Verdict: attracts attention but not at the expense of other, more pressing preoccupations. Round Four: the supermarket shop on my last morning with the car. This time it's in Marlow, on the River Thames, west of London. It's rock-star country around here (with a fair smattering of hugely successful entrepreneurs) so Rolls-Royces are not unknown. Indeed, a few of the 300 or so Drophead Coupés so far delivered around the world probably make this their home.

The car park proves to be the first test. It's a long, long car to be reversing into a regular space (and after a lifetime of driving by eye, I was struggling to drive by wire, as the combination of limited visibility and supersensitive beepers was having me do). And it's a wide car, with very wide doors. In a standard-width parking bay it's a challenge to squeeze in and out while also putting up the discreet black, silver-handled R-R umbrella (despite its ergonomically perfect storage slot in the front door jamb). Nobody seems the slightest bit interested in the car or my inelegant manoeuvring. And that, frankly, is a relief under the circumstances.

But then comes a magical moment: in the pouring rain an elderly couple stops, turns to face the car directly, exchanges a couple of words then stands for a full minute, smiling at the car and each other, apparently oblivious to the storm. There were many moments in those three days when the car elicited smiles. And some moments when the reaction was unbridled excitement - such as the 20 minutes when the rain miraculously stopped at the very moment when the Cranbrook pupils were streaming into the village for their lunch break (and we had parked strategically in the most obvious spot). And lots of reactions in between - such as the broad grins of a road works gang, and the exquisite politeness of a White Van Man who, contrary to the take-no-prisoners road manners of his ilk, stopped and insisted I go before him, even though he had the right of way.

There were moments of pure comedy, especially the "police chase". As a lunchtime treat I was giving several of Marina's friends a hood-down spin through town, going slightly above the speed limit on a quiet stretch of road near the top of the hill, when a police car passed in the opposite direction. "Oops!," we all chorused - before the fun of the drive took over again. Until I checked my mirrors and saw the police car on our bumper. Immediate best behaviour. Speed: check. Seat belts: check. I arrived back at our parking place, immensely relieved at the absence of embarrassing sirens. Police car pulls alongside. Two grinning faces look out. "That is a really, really pretty car. We just had to have another look. Are you sure you're not too cold with the roof down?...."

And there was the moment that I had been waiting for: as I pulled aside on a narrow stretch of the street to let another car go first, its driver spat a stream of invective at me - of which the only printable words are Royce, Rolls and rich. But there were just as many occasions when I felt no more noticeable than if I was driving a BMW or having to pump my own petrol (a great leveller in the UK; an issue that would simply not arise in the UAE), the disappointment that, in a traffic jam on the M25 it doesn't matter what you are driving - you're stuck; and that struggle in the supermarket car park, this rare and beautiful car could almost work for real life.

But the truth is, I don't care. I am in love with it and I dream on. slane@thenational.ae