Many years ago, our author was asked to drive a Rolls-Royce and write an article about it. Unfortunately, the story never made it to print. This time, he drove to Liverpool in a Ghost – and did some historical research on the Beatles along the way.
The trip was only a moderate success. But at least this time you can read about it.
Rolls-Royce, ramp and me. Now that’s a story. It was the summer of 2008. High time to put it in writing. It’ll do me good.
I was already writing for this wonderful magazine fifteen years ago. At the time I also happened to be editor-in-chief of an internationally renowned men’s magazine. The German edition, that is. The job stressed me to no end. Our Munich publisher hardly ever paid the royalties on time, so I was repeatedly summoned to the headquarters in New York to get an earful – on top of my already busy work schedule overseeing the whole writing and editing process. One day, with a heavy heart, I made a decision. I picked up the phone, called up ramp and told them that in the future I would have to concentrate fully on my men’s magazine. That I no longer had enough time for their car stories. Michael Köckritz, the founder of ramp, replied, “But I’ve already scheduled you for another story.” – “Michael, I . . .” – “Please, just this one more time. You can do it!”
The story – I gave in in the end – was set in Saint-Tropez. Parked in front of one of the most expensive hotels on the Côte d’Azur in the bright silver sunlight were a Rolls-Royce Phantom Coupé and a convertible with the somewhat misleading name Phantom Drophead Coupé. I remember quite well the gentleman from the British luxury car manufacturer’s press department. The heat that day was stifling, but this man was dressed in a suit and tie and had such fine manners he could easily have been press secretary for the Queen. He asked me to join him on the terrace of the restaurant, where we ate a light midday meal. Below us the Gulf of Saint-Tropez. White yachts floating on the dark blue water. I was free, the gentleman told me, to test drive the two Phantoms against the picturesque backdrop of southern France to my heart’s content. He gave me until the evening of the next day, no mileage limit.
So I did just that. I cruised along the coast in the convertible all the way to Monte Carlo. Since I was afraid of suffering a heat stroke, however, which would send me racing unconscious into oncoming traffic, I decided to close the five-layer top at the push of a button after only half an hour of driving. I made several stops, the first of them in Cannes. I parked on the Croisette and was just about to get out of the car when an entire Polish tour group descended on me. They took pictures of the car and of me from all possible angles. They probably thought I was somebody important. Or maybe, after returning home, they said to their friends and relatives, “Look, we ran into this filthy rich capitalist pig who exploits his employees and shows off in his spare time in Cannes.” In Nice, I went to the beach and swam far out to the open sea like Hemingway. Wearing only my swim trunks, Adilettes and a T-shirt full of holes, I continued my journey to Cap Ferrat, where I conspicuously parked the car in front of a harbor restaurant. I wanted to know: Will they let a guy dressed like this into their establishment just because he steps out of a Phantom Drophead Coupé? They will! Suddenly, someone called my name. To my surprise, it was Derek Bell, Formula 1 driver from the sixties and seventies, five-time winner of Le Mans, one of the fastest sports car drivers to ever walk the face of the earth. He was sitting with some friends at a table in the back of the restaurant. I owe many unforgettable laps in various automobiles from the passenger’s perspective to this very cool and likable Brit. Particularly worth mentioning is the time I rode with him in a Bentley Arnage T on the Killarney Raceway in South Africa (not to be confused with Kyalami). Derek magically taught that 2.5-ton steamroller the lightness of being. Walt Whitman wrote, “To me, every hour of the day and night is an unspeakably perfect miracle.” Well, to me, it was five laps with Derek Bell at Killarney. I would have gladly joined him at the table. However, in his company there was also an elegant lady wearing a sparkling necklace that was probably worth ten times as much as my car. Horrified, she let her gaze slide down my moth-eaten top. I didn’t want to spoil her appetite, so I sat down somewhere else.
The next morning, I took the second Rolls into the wild and rugged backcountry of the Côte d’Azur, where the temperatures were much more bearable. From Pont du Loup, I drove through the gorge with its sky-high rock walls. The roar of the waterfalls – I stopped at a small turnout and cut off the engine – really soothed my nerves. Here, at least for a short time, I could forget the stress in Munich and the hassle with New York. All in all, it was a fantastic two days, and it really would have made a great story.
Would have. Because what I delivered was hard to beat in terms of nonsense. The fact that I was once again completely exhausted and didn’t start pounding away on the keys until three o’clock in the morning is no excuse. I should never have sent this story. The introduction alone was an insult. Read for yourself: “A Fairy Godmother appeared to me in a dream. But she was not young and pretty, oh no, she was old and ugly. In her left hand she held the key for a Rolls-Royce Phantom Coupé, in her right hand the key for a Phantom Drophead Coupé. ‘These two magnificent carriages are yours for two days,’ she spoke, ‘but for the two days after that, you little rascal, you’re all mine, heh, heh, heh.’ I startled awake, drenched in sweat.” The article was never printed.
I started writing for ramp again in early 2021. And now, I’ve finally been given my second chance to write a story about a Rolls. My car, a Ghost finished in Wittering Blue, was waiting for me in Liverpool. Why Liverpool, of all places? For starters, it’s where the ferry to the Isle of Man leaves from, and I had business there afterwards. Besides, John Lennon owned a Rolls-Royce (a brightly colored Phantom V). And Liverpool is the birthplace of the Beatles. That gave me a nice context. But exactly what was I going to do with the Rolls along the Mersey River? Honestly, I didn’t know. But I wasn’t worried about it either. I just let myself to be inspired by Clint Eastwood, who must at least once in his career have said, “I ride into town; everything else just falls into place.”
I should mention that my friend Michael Macho would have loved to have been there with me. But the son of Austria’s former general Rolls-Royce importer and owner of an exclusive English menswear store in Vienna gave up flying long ago. The renowned gourmand “can’t stomach the grub they serve on board”. Michl might have set off on foot, but at a pace of eight hours a day, he wouldn’t have reached Liverpool until December 2025 at the earliest. In the end, he was there in spirit, not wanting to miss out on the opportunity to outfit me with a shooting jacket, tightfitting knickerbockers and ankle-high Tricker’s (“Macho style”). I looked more British than Sean Connery and Sherlock Holmes put together. Time to hit the road.
Stepping out of the terminal at John Lennon Airport, I was greeted by a fifty-foot model representation of the Yellow Submarine. The right-hand drive Ghost was waiting in the parking lot. An employee from Goodwood got out, handed me the key and wished me a good time. When I started the engine, the Ghost lettering appeared on the illuminated dashboard, framed by more than 850 stars. Above, on the ceiling trim, even more (LED) stars flickered to life. Is that really just LED? Or is an LSD trip kicking in? Did they put something in my coffee at Frankfurt Airport? The cool white ambient lighting – a light strip at the bottom of the dashboard, optionally available in warm white – sent me over the edge. I felt as if I was lost in space! I wanted to get back to Earth. But I couldn’t figure out how to turn off the artificial light madness that has afflicted our entire world. On the way to the city center, however, the firmament above me suddenly made sense! Because in a Ghost, you’re not driving, no, you’re literally floating along. One of several reasons for this overwhelming feeling are the road-scanning cameras, integrated into the adaptive suspension, to detect even the smallest bumps. To maintain a smooth ride, a command goes out to the dampers: “Correct for uneven road ahead!” Almost silently, the Ghost floats along. A hundred kilos of acoustic insulation make you forget that under the hood there’s a Herculean 6.7-liter V12 engine with 563 hp calling the shots. To notice the gears shifting in the eight-speed automatic gearbox, you’d probably need the sensitivity of a dragonfly. Such light-footed acceleration from a 5.5-meter-long two-and-a-half-ton vehicle – crazy!
Hardly any traffic lights, mainly traffic circles. And surprisingly little traffic on the streets of England’s third-largest city – on a perfectly normal weekday. Is it because Liverpool is one of the poorest cities on the island and people can no longer afford a car? Deindustrialization and austerity in social welfare have taken their toll. The port no longer plays a significant role as an economic factor. I drove to the Hilton Hotel, across from the docks on the waterfront. There was no parking lot and no doorman. So I left the Ghost in front of the entrance and went inside. A very charming lady greeted me at the front desk. I asked for a comfortable room with a bathtub. “And a place to park my car would be smashing,” I added. I was in luck, she said, there was a small space a little to the left of the entrance. I smiled mildly, turned slightly to my right and pointed out the door with my thumb, “I think a small space is out of the question?” – “Oh, is that a Rolls-Royce?” she asked, delighted. “No, it’s the new Dacia Logan, it’s almost twenty feet long now.” – “Sorry?” – “Dacia Logan.” So much British understatement pleased the lady enormously. She grinned and said, “Feel free to leave your car standing right there.” – “All the time?” – “Yes, sir, your Rolls complements our hotel perfectly.”
Later I drove to 251 Menlove Avenue, a 1930s-era semi-detached property in a middle-class neighborhood (at least by Liverpool standards). John Lennon grew up here with his aunt Mary “Mimi” Smith. This is where he wrote “I’ll Get You”, “Please Please Me”, and “I Call Your Name”. He moved out at twenty-two. I had imagined the following interaction taking place here: I ring the doorbell. Someone opens. The current owner. Perhaps a somewhat older gentleman. I greet him cordially, introduce myself. In the background, the man sees the Ghost. He immediately associates the car with the former resident of the house and is relieved to discover that I’m not just some crazy fan, but a wealthy, well-mannered gentleman. His wife joins him, curious. I greet her as well and ask if I may enter. It would mean a lot to me to walk through rooms where the – and now I make the only hidden reference to my ride – ghost of one of the most famous people of all time would surely still make its presence felt. But of course, the two homeowners say in unison, come on in, come on in! With tea and biscuits, the three of us sit in the living room. They have a record player. The man puts on John Lennon’s second solo album. At the first song, “Imagine”, his wife asks me to slow dance. I step on her feet twice. She pushes me aside and continues dancing with her husband. I watch them, my mind halfway to Forthlin Road. Of course, reality was quite different. At the front gate to the house, a sign that says: “No direct entry. For information about tours and to book tickets . . .” followed by a web address and a phone number. The property is preserved by the National Trust. Preparation and research were never my strong points.
On to number 20 Forthlin Road, just a few blocks away, a simple row house, brown brick. Paul McCartney lived here with his family from 1955 to 1963. Thirty Beatles songs were written behind these curtains, including “Love Me Do”, the first single released by the young moptop band. But as in Menlove Avenue: no one there. These sacred walls have also been turned into a museum, to be visited by appointment only. In the neighboring house, some movers were at work. They paid no attention to me, they didn’t even care about the Rolls-Royce. I could have asked them if they were from the area and if they knew how many people visited this pilgrimage site every year. But it didn’t seem important to me, it was enough for me to stand here dreamily as the only pilgrim at the moment and to imagine the inconceivable: that, of all places, such a charmless, bland location could be the incubator for the most successful band in the history of music and the starting point of an almost boundless hysteria.
On the second day, after a visit to the Walker Art Gallery, I went to Chinatown, home to the oldest Chinese community in Europe. Liverpool’s Chinatown is small and not much to look at. But it was teeming with wealthy Chinese straight from the Middle Kingdom. They came cruising along in SUVs from Porsche and Mercedes. The Chinese have money like hay, as we say in German. Half of Africa already belongs to them. They’ve bought up 24.9 percent of a container terminal in the Port of Hamburg and are now making inroads into South America. But my Ghost was the only Rolls-Royce here. I glided slowly along with the window open. They could gaze at me all they wanted. It couldn’t hurt to bring the sons and daughters of the future global powerhouse down to earth a little, I told myself, to make them believe in something higher. I parked on Nelson Street, got out as coolly as I could, leaned up against the car with my arms folded, and let my gaze wander over the row of houses. The Rolls and I got the Chinese all flustered. Walking along on the sidewalks, they slowed their pace and stared at me. I took out my cell phone and pretended to make a call. I spoke loudly as I said something like, “Maybe I’d better tear down all these shacks here and put in a shopping mall.” To be clear: I’m not one of those people who’s into China-bashing. My mother collects Ming vases and I even once had two Chinese girlfriends at the same time – in the much larger New York Chinatown, where there was no danger of the two running into each other. As I said, nothing against the Chinese. Just one thing: they don’t know how to drive. I know this from a reliable source. Lots of car manufacturers invite the Chinese motor journalists to the international driving presentations of new models only at the very end. Because when the Chinese drive their cars, they’re a total write-off. You have to pull them out of ditches, sometimes even haul them up out of ravines, and hope that there’s still some sign of life behind the wheel. No kidding.
One thing kept nagging at me, all the time this question was there, haunting the back of my mind: What’s with these extremely low-profile tires. Why on this car? Wheels like that, with their low sidewall height in relation to the width, are the right choice for a sporty, aggressive driving style. They hardly deform under load, which significantly improves steering response. Acceleration and braking forces can be brought more directly to the road. Only the clueless say, “Tire height decreases about as fast as stupidity increases.” Later that day, I was sitting in the lobby of the hotel, facing the entrance. There it was, the Ghost – and suddenly it hit me: They put those tires on there just for me, it had to be, they knew who they were giving this car to! I went to my room and waited until it was just before midnight. At the witching hour, the lady from earlier was on duty at the front desk again. I told her, “If I’m not back by two o’clock, I’ve been arrested. In that case, extend my room indefinitely.” She got a puzzled look on her face and wanted to say something in reply, but I just turned around and left.
It was clear to me that this was not going to be an easy thing with all that weight and the all-wheel drive. At least I was able to deactivate the electronic stability program, which I couldn’t have been sure of at all. I sat down in the car and dialed a number in America on my cell phone – that of Derek Bell, by now a “Member of the British Empire” and living in Florida. It was seven o’clock in the evening for him. The question I had in mind was: “What do you think, my fast and famous friend: Can I get a Rolls-Royce Ghost to drift? If yes – how?” It rang and rang, but he didn’t answer. I was on my own and rolled off toward Childwall. There’s a big, notorious traffic circle there in the southeast part of town known as the Childwall Fiveways roundabout. During the day, people crash there all the time. At this time of night, Liverpool was deserted, the streets were mine. I was listening to “Penny Lane” from sixteen speakers of the best car audio system in the world and had fabulous goose bumps. The song contains a reference to a traffic circle: “Penny Lane is in my ears and in my eyes . . . Behind the shelter in the middle of a roundabout, a pretty nurse is selling poppies from a tray.”
Then I was there. I did ten laps to get warmed up – with the stability control still activated. Every time I rounded the circle, I steadily increased the speed. The centrifugal forces began to push me hard to port, and the last vestiges of my sanity seeped away somewhere in the outer left of my skull. Nevertheless, I still possessed enough cognitive reasoning to recognize the greatest danger in the upcoming experiment: that you don’t feel the road in this wondrous flying carpet. So the full force of 2.5 tons could catch you cold and make you look pretty stupid. But that’s just an occupational hazard. This dynamic stability control for wimps simply had to go. Bang! And it was gone. My firm resolution: I won’t stop here until I’ve managed a complete lap drifting all the way through – no lukewarm compromises, even if I spend the rest of my bloody life at the Childwall Fiveways roundabout and take the spinning Ghost with me to my grave. The real culprits are sitting at Goodwood! If only they had put normal tires on the car!
At first, nothing happened. The Ghost remained stubbornly on track. More gas. Still nothing. I continued to rev it up. How much faster? After countless laps, the car started to slide slightly beyond all four wheels, which, however, had nothing to do with drifting. I had to pour oil on the fire (another German proverb) and add a bit of jerky steering. Finally, a revolt in the rear ranks, but only of short duration and rather puny. I failed to get the rear into the desired position. At least now I knew that it was possible. Several more laps passed. Sometimes I had to stop because a car was coming. I was already feeling slightly dizzy, so I fixed my gaze on the silver “Emily” in her flowing robe. This was not a solution, however, because when I did that, I couldn’t see enough of the road. My condition worsened, compounded by a sinking feeling in my stomach. Giving up was out of the question, however. I pulled myself together and resorted to a drastic measure. I told myself, “If I don’t get a drift in this Rolls-Royce, I’m going to get cancer.” That kind of motivation has helped me many times already. Before my driving test, I told myself, “If I don’t make it on the first try, there will be an earthquake in Vienna tomorrow and my whole family will be buried under the rubble.” I made it, barely. And, friends, I also managed the drift in the Childwall Fiveways roundabout! It took until about the 190th lap, but then: slick sideways action in the Rolls-Royce Ghost around the entire circle! Everything was spinning in my head, but no matter. At half past one, I returned to the hotel. “I was worried about you. You’re all pale. Are you not feeling well?” the lady at the front desk asked me. “I’m fine,” I said in a weak voice, “believe me, I’m actually doing very well.” It was the truth, although it really didn’t show on my face. I hurried into the elevator, rushed into my room and bent over the sink. This was going to make a good story.
Text: Kurt Molzer
Photos: Matthias Mederer for ramp.pictures
ramp #62 Wild Things
Just heading along, the journey itself a wonderfully blank page that presents itself to us with a cheerful unpredictability, as an inspired playing field for trial and error, for curiosity and spontaneity, unexpected surprises and flights of fancy. Wild and untamed. Just like life itself. Find out more