Picture the most comfortable chair that you’ve ever sat in. It might have been a modern item made by moulding a material you’ve never heard of into a shape you couldn’t possibly describe. Or maybe it was metal and sculptural, bent and welded as it would have been in 1952 but selling today for a small fortune. I bet it wasn’t, though. I bet it was old and ugly and unethical. A great big leather thing, perhaps – polished to a shine and partially collapsed, but completely irreplaceable. And I bet it didn’t come with 24-way adjustability.
You see, comfort doesn’t have to be complicated; and car manufacturers used to understand this. In postwar America, imaginations ran riot with polished chrome and pastel colours and every kind of marketing gimmick. Oldsmobile brought us its ‘Safety-Vee’ steering wheel, which wasn’t so much a feature as a courtesy – the removal of anything sharp from in front of the driver’s face. Buick’s Roadmaster would buzz when you reached a predetermined speed – because, of course, you couldn’t break the law if you couldn’t bear the noise. And other brands convinced us that cars could become something else entirely. Rotate the seats in your Imperial Crown Coupe and you’re in your own little ‘rolling office’. Fold the seats in your Nash Airflyte and you have yourself a ‘twin bed’, or a ‘cabin in the woods’. That’s what the Mad men said. But the seats themselves were actually quite simple. They were big and they were pillowy and perfect for a long, gentle cruise on the country’s new interstates.
Today, though, that just won’t cut it. We want our seats to be safe, soft and supportive all at once, because we want our cars to work on back roads as well as boulevards. We want to be soothed, to be excited and to be saved when we’re stupid, and that means swapping out the bench seat for bony, body-hugging bits of equipment instead. Of course, one size won’t fit all, and so the new seats are articulated, too. They slide and squeeze in every possible direction – which is great in an Aston or an A-Class or an X5. But in a luxury limousine? I’m not convinced.
The first problem is purely anecdotal: I’m not a fan of ‘infinite adjustability’. My watch strap, for instance, is a stainless steel band that’s fastened to the face on one side, fed through a clasp on the other and fixed in place at any point along its own length by a magnetic end-piece of opposite charge. In theory, it allows you to find the perfect fit. In practice, it means that you’re never quite satisfied. It’s always just a little less comfortable than you know that it could be. I’m sure that chauffeur-driven VIPs have the same concern in their cars.
In any case, this practical flaw has a philosophical counterpart. It’s often said that less is more when it comes to modern luxury, but the automakers must have missed that memo. Take the Lincoln Continental as an example. Though the model made for JFK was essentially a sofa with wheels and running boards, it looked majestic and unflappable, like the man himself. The latest one is trying much too hard, however. Its driver’s seat alone adjusts in thirty different ways (about twenty-five too many) and would look more at home in a chiropractic clinic. But don’t be thinking that its European alternatives are much more sensible. I pushed one single button in the back of a 7-Series last year, and I thought I was about to be swallowed up. It seemed as though every surface was whirring and moving. And I didn’t feel relaxed; I felt like I was at the dentist.
Clearly, what began as marketing guff has now become an industry standard. We seem really to believe that cars should be a cross between the boardroom and a business jet. And seats aren’t the only casualties of this conceptual confusion. The very ethos of luxury itself is undermined as soon as tech takes precedence over taste and refinement.
In this respect, the Mercedes-Maybach is something of an embarrassment – a two-tonne, twelve-cylinder faux pas from a company that ought to know better. Quite besides the fact that it’s basically an S-Class with an inferiority complex, its approach to opulence is almost immature. Its alloys are obnoxious (imagine satellite dishes dipped in chrome). It has more screens than a small-town movie theatre. Its upholstery has been piped here and perforated there, and buttoned and embossed and diamond-stitched; it looks like an apprentice’s experiment. And then there’s the infotainment. Must we always be inundated by images and information? Rear-seat passengers can watch a film or read the news or check their route or surf the Web – all of which would be impressive if we didn’t already have these features on our phones, in our pockets, all the time.
The Maybach, then, is not a bad car. It is a well-engineered, beautifully built and wonderfully cosseting product. The problem is the way in which it presents itself. It’s just too gaudy, too gimmicky to be taken seriously – especially inside, and especially at night, when the light show begins. A vodka-bar ambience is all well and good in something silly like a G-Wagon, but a luxury business barge ought to be sober. It should be restrained and dignified. Instead, the Maybach makes Las Vegas look subtle.
And maybe that’s the bottom line: the Maybach would work well in Sin City. It would blend right in outside the Venetian Resort or New York-New York, because it is itself a slightly awkward facsimile – a tribute act to true luxury. All the right ingredients are there, but there’s something missing, a certain purity perhaps.
If you really want to ride in a gondola, you’ll have to go to Venice. And if you really want a true luxury car, you’ll have to go to Bentley or Rolls-Royce. Both offer all the same witchcraft as Mercedes, Audi and BMW, but they package it differently, more modestly. The new Flying Spur has Bentley’s rotating central screen, which means that when you’ve taken what you need you can simply dismiss it as you might an obedient butler. It swivels away to be replaced by an exquisite trio of analogue dials or a perfect panel of wood: the choice is yours.
The Rolls-Royce Phantom goes further. When the screen retracts, you can stare instead at the so-called ‘gallery’ – your own little art exhibit in the facia. The intricate controls are out of sight until requested. The LEDs come in one colour and recreate the natural beauty of the night sky. Rear-seat passengers need never know what gadgets lie before them. And the seats (oh, the seats!) are fantastically traditional. Sure, they can play all kinds of tricks if the car in question has an extended wheelbase, but the standard ones are really quite simple. They’re soft and substantial and they stay where you leave them.
In other words, Rolls has built a car that’s not pretending to be anything else. For all the innovation under its skin, the latest Phantom is what its predecessors always were – the most exclusive, most indulgent means of road transportation for the most privileged of clients. By refusing to pollute that purpose with needless complications, it reminds us that driving ought to be a freedom both physical and intellectual. The Phantom is the perfect space in which to pause, reflect, process without distraction – or, better still, do nothing. Just sit back, switch off, and watch the world go by as you’re whisked, silently, from one place to another.
If that isn’t a luxury in this caffeine-fuelled, computerised age of ours, I’ll never know what is.