The saying ‘good things come in small packages’ is seldom used when referencing anything from the Rolls-Royce stable. In comparison to all other road cars, their size is imposing – almost intimidating – yet the great British marque’s smallest creation, the Ghost, somehow feels positively compact when parked alongside its Cullinan or Phantom siblings. At least, that’s my first impression when seeing the full fleet neatly lined up in Marseille, one sunny autumn afternoon.
Those with a penchant for automobile history will know that the Ghost name predates the current model by a good century. Although the 1900s were embryonic days for the motorcar, Rolls-Royce was quick to carve out a reputation for making designs that were, quite simply, a cut above the rest. On the back of this reputation, Rolls-Royces became hugely popular around the world, with models, such as the original Ghost, proving to be hits in countries as far away as India. Here, the wealthy maharajas were keen to customise their Rolls-Royces, creating the ultimate four-wheeled status symbol with which to cruise around the rough-and-rudimentary roads that criss-crossed their province.
I’ve been lucky enough to drive such an example – a 1912 Rolls-Royce Ghost, more affectionately known as ‘Nellie’, which was once the pride and joy of the Maharaja of Nabha. It is one of the finest examples of a car I’ve had the pleasure of piloting, with its imperious ride, handcrafted wood, shimmering metalwork and pinned-leather wingback-style seats. Even with more than a 100 years passing, both everything and nothing has changed when it comes to the Ghost.
Like its great ancestor, the possibilities for customisation are endless, and the ride remains one of the best in the business. Road trips behind the wheel of a Rolls are an opportunity for rest and relaxation – very few cars can offer a heated, full-body massage to all four occupants while blasting down the French motorways, for example.
As the outskirts of Marseilles fade in the rear-view mirror, we waft north for an hour or so, past Aix-en-Provence and down the narrow, twisting roads to Villa La Coste. Here, the Ghost’s slightly smaller proportions are welcome as we squeeze down some of the more rural roads, on approach to our resting place. The Ghost I’m driving is one of 12 made to celebrate the Amber Roads – trading routes linking the Baltic Sea, where amber was found washed up after storms, to the Mediterranean.
The car’s amber-coloured interior and exterior paint chime in with the autumn shades outside, and a piece of polished amber is subtly set into the central rotary dial. Above my head is Rolls’s trademark starlight headliner, complete with – you guessed it – amber-hued fibreoptic ‘stars’ that glisten and glow. For those doubting Rolls’s ability to match up to the golden age of excess and opulence that characterised the early 1900s, be assured that its personalisation department can still pack a punch.
On approach to Villa La Coste, it’s possible to spot the many world-famous art installations that line the driveway. Inside, it’s a similar story: bronzes by Tracey Emin, canvases by Andy Warhol and architecture by Tadao Ando. You name it, Villa la Coste has it out for all to see – not to mention its very own organic vineyards, olive groves and beehives.
After waking up with views over Provence’s sun-dappled hills, we’re back behind the wheel, heading south to the dazzling Côte d’Azure. Pulling in for a brief pause in Aix-en-Provence, we sample the sights and smells of the city known for its food and perfumes. It’s a couple of hours’ drive between La Coste and our second resting spot, Les Belles Canailles, south of Marseilles. Swooping through the vines and craggy valleys of Provence, the Ghost shrugs off the miles with ease. Few cars can leave you feeling more rested than before you set off – and the Ghost is one of them.
From the Rolls’s art-deco-inspired interior, we move into the beautifully authentic deco fit-out of Les Belles Canailles hotel. Built in 1877, this old mansion was eventually converted into a hotel in the 1920s and takes its name from the limestone rocks that line the coast between Cassis and Marseille.
Eventually, we head back into Marseilles, hand over the keys and line up for a far less luxurious return flight to Blighty. Even though flying was the pinnacle of travel once upon a time, the Ghost is testament to Rolls’s efforts to ensure the car reigns supreme when it comes to crossing countries in comfort.
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