A Hungarian journo lost at a Rolls-presentation
The meeting of two worlds with unprecedented consequences
By the summer of '95 I had been an automotive journalist for a year or so already. By that time I had the pleasure to have been invited to a few international press meetings – I tested the Skoda Felicia in the Czech Republic, the Audi A4 in Munich, the Fiat Barchetta in Spain, the Ford Escort RS Cosworth in Luxemburg and the odd BMW-bicycle nearby a lake the name of which I can't remember. Maybe there were even more of these occasions by then, I just can't recall everything. But this particular event in Southern France turned out to be one of the most hilarious of them all.
Rolls-Royce Automotive was largely a self-owned company at that time, there were no news of BMW or anyone else taking over the firm whatsoever. It was just a very small manufacturing site in Crewe, bolting together finely crafted but incredibly old-fashioned cars for the chosen few having more credit cards in their wallets on the travel than pairs of socks in their suitcases.
As I said, Rolls-Royces were old fashioned to the point that with an average knowledge of cars, one would have guessed they still had a separate chassis under their fat bodies. Rollers and Bentleys looked exactly the same then, and all of them were made to chug along by the thirty-something year-old 6.75-litre V8. Officially they didn't have any horsepowers either; because when you asked the guys in the know about the capabilities of the engine, you received the polite, albeit non-too-informative, answer: adequate.
It must have been one of the first and certainly one of the last press events when journalists from Hungary were ever invited by Rolls-Royce – and that invitation was just for one person, mind you. For some unknown reason the brand had an official importer at that time called Valent Motors. Now this company had an impeccably presented showroom with red bricks as walls and a perfectly mowed lawn outside, a fireplace, green carpets and burgundy leather armchairs inside. Imagine this wonderful scene lying in the middle of the disheartening rubble of one of the worst uptown districts of Budapest.
The tension between the hidden showroom's incredible Britishness and its ghoulish surroundings was near physical. Add to this the fact that there had been no signs pointing to the dealership anywhere on the main road running nearby, ridden mostly by huge lorries, so either there was somebody telling you about the place, or you'd never have found it. You can picture the otherworldliness of the whole place.
In 1995 there already was a well-trodden scheme to how journalists were taken to press events. You met the PR-person at the airport at some unnervingly early time of the day, received the plane ticket (for a seat in the business class, oh, ye ole bygone years...). Then you did some flying, transfer, had a good run at the airport, did some more flying, arrived, drove a test car for two-three hours, took a bunch of horrible pictures, had a cocktail party, slept through never-ending press speeches, gobbled up a dinner, had some drinks at the bar, then fell half-dead into your bed. After a short sleep, a breakfast, two more hours of test drives, a bus to the airport, again some flying, then transfer, then flying, then a taxi, you hit your own bed late at night – completely dead. All costs were paid by the importer and the mother company – the first one bought the plane ticket to the place of the air transfer, the latter paid for the other plane ticket, the hotel and all the rest.
We knew that Opel and Ford usually spend a lot of money on these occasions, the Japanese events are further apart but when they take place, you are treated like kings. The French, especially Peugeot tend to take you to exciting places like Egypt, Israel, but you have to accept that these trips could be a bit nomadic at times, sometimes to the point of being helplessly stuck in the middle of the desert for days.
It was taken for granted that real homely comfort and the best food is provided on Fiat events, but every second time you could be sure that you'd have missed the connecting flight for one reason or another. Some companies, like the VW-Audi-Seat-Skoda-Porsche importer and the BMW importer liked to cut back on their spending, so instead of flying the journalist to the spot they gave them cars to travel with. We had to drive with these to places 1000-1500 kilometres away. These importers loved to pretend that this was fine chance for a test drive, but we knew they just traded our time for their money. You had four instead of two days away from work. Remember, the words internet and Google hadn't been invented then.
More often than not, we couldn't even guess if we had to take some local money along or not. Hungarian credit cards were rarely accepted in Europe in those days and the Euro only existed in secret drafts in Brussels yet. And when you were abroad you rarely had the time to look for a bank to change the money you had. Let's just say this used to be a major problem for most Hungarian journos of the time.
One day – I think it was a Wednesday - the phone rang. It was the editor-in-chief at the other end.
“Zsolt, would you have time to attend a press trip tomorrow? I just got a call that there will be some Rolls-Royce press event abroad.”
“Umm, I think yes. How long is it, two days? And where am I going? What kind of car is being introduced?” (Me, surprised, since these events were always announced at least a month earlier, but could anybody say no to an invitation from Crewe?)
“Listen, I know nothing only that it will be abroad. Take a big suitcase along, stuff it with all kinds of clothes, a proper suit and photographic equipment. You know it as well as me. It could be a week; nobody has ever been to a Rolls-Royce event from Hungary yet. But I heard the name of France mentioned, so it could take place there. By the way, do you have any French francs? What about a few rolls of positive film?”
“I have some francs, maybe 10-15 shots in my Minolta, will that be enough?” (It was late in the evening, there was no place you could buy camera film in Hungary at those hours, I had to leave early, so there was no other solution).
“It should be enough, they will give you press photos anyways.” (those were used up by the magazine for the article, and I discovered later that I only had maybe four shots, that is why there are so few pictures here). “You pick up your plane ticket at Valent in the morning. Don't bring a shame to our magazine, be smart.”
I didn't know what kind of car am I to test, where, for how long. Cool. I stuffed everything in my big white suitcase, got the farewell kiss from my girlfriend and found the showroom of Valent after an hour's struggle. I was let in the premises by an unseen attendant – the big gate opened, I just drove in. I entered the showroom; I took a seat on a leather armchair in a far-away corner and waited. Raindrops kept gently knocking on the window panes; an Aston Martin DB4 GT was pressing its nose to the cold glass at the other end of the showroom. We might have been two survivors of a nuclear war. The rain kept on knocking.
But, ho!, I could suddenly hear the creaking of a door far away, traces of a nervous argument drifted to my ears, then the door slammed, silence. Again nothing happened apart from the rain drumming its theme. The creaking, arguing, slamming thing was repeated a few times more during the next hour.
I would never have thought that I would find myself in such an Agatha Christie-esque situation in the middle of the day in Budapest, in a very nice showroom full of great cars. In the author's books the killer is bound to arrive in such situations. And if he came, he'd find nobody else but me to kill. There would be no witnesses either, because those too were missing. Shocks, Kati, my girlfriend would have a hard time with the detective, that's for sure...
I nervously slithered around on the fine leather. I undid the top button on my shirt. Sweat was forming on my forehead although it wasn't hot at all. Well... there is nobody to ask... they have forgotten about me for sure... umm, well, and then I'll just leave, please forget about me, I really don't have to attend all these car introductions...
I fumbled for my keys. I imagined what a great weekend we could have with Kati, maybe go to the movies, have a nice lunch on one of the days, we could visit two, no, maybe even three of our friends. I could even take a look at my old Mercedes that I took to the welder's workshop two weeks ago – maybe the craftsman had already started working on it...
Suddenly a nervous attendant appeared from nowhere, his back was bent from humiliation and not-too-well concealed fear. At least that's what I thought – I was feeling more and more like a participant in a David Lynch movie.
“Good morning Sir, are You the one who is travelling to Paris” (I could definitely hear that he was saying “sir” and “you” with a capital letter, but now at least I knew my short-term goal was to get to Paris).
“Oh, yes, when is the plane leaving?”
“Here is your ticket; you have all the details on it. Do You happen to have any French francs with You?” (This franc-thing was becoming an obsession to everyone, couldn't they just skip it?) “I don't know if there is anybody waiting on you at the airport, but in case, here is the address of the hotel.”
It was just a Hilton, so maybe they're sparing my life for a bit longer. I somehow imagined that in France, a country with such beautiful castles, one doesn't get murdered in some average hotel. If I have to die, make it at least interesting – I thought.
This I how I landed at Charles de Gaulle airport at seven in the evening, where another attendant was waiting on me in a suit darker than a black hole in the universe, his back also bent in half from humility. He was also holding a ‘Mr. Csikos, Rolls-Royce” sign. I quickly looked around to see how many people are watching and when no one was looking, I jumped to him and forced him to lower the sign. I tried to shake hands, but he kept his eyes glued to the ground and instead of reaching out for my outstretched palm, he grabbed the handle of suitcase and started pulling it out of the hall.
Well, we're not making any new friends tonight, I accepted that and I set out after him. To my sorrow he didn't take me to a Rolls-Royce, just to a measly Mercedes W124, although at least it wasn't a diesel and it was black. As you may know, the W124 isn't the most spacious of cars, especially in the back, but in this car I could hardly reach the backrest of the guy's seat with my outstretched legs. He was a very short guy, but to make things worse he pulled his seat so far forward that I was worried it would come out of its rails at the front end. This way I had a complete dance floor to myself in the back, Travolta-style.
We started our seemingly never-ending journey on the busy, complex, intertwining motorways encircling the airport. After a quarter of an hour we made our way back to the arrivals area. He started again. Fourteen minutes passed, we were there again. But my driver proved to be unnervingly persistent, so without a twitch on his face he rebooted the system and started again. We were like that guy in the Jack London novel who loses his way in the Alaskan snowfall and keeps on going round and round, always finding his own footprints after a while. Now I just hoped that in the pleasing warmth of the Merc we would miss that fate of freezing to death under a tree with that last unlit match in our cold, frozen to solid fingers.
When the third round started I produced the note I scribbled down at Valent and took a look at the address. It was just the airport Hilton, mind you. When we were deep in the fourth round, I started to clear my throat. When I saw the “Hilton” script on that big building for the fifth time, I put up the question in a determined voice if he also noticed the large neon sign. I could have been talking to a tamagochi on flat batteries.
By the sixth round I was knocking on his shoulder which was a tough job since he was glued to the wheel. I was pointing like crazy but I didn't even get a compassionate look. I tried to produce some French words from the deepest vaults of my memory hidden there since the fifth grade, my first year at the American school I went to, at the time when I couldn't even speak English yet: “l'otel, ici, exit s'il vous-plait”. All this to no avail.
By the ninth round the driver was bathed in sweat and he would have been even more so had he known that in at the next round I would have kicked him in the head, strangled him with the seatbelt, stuffed him in the glove compartment, shut the lid on him and have driven to the hotel victoriously myself. But his wretched life was saved in the last moment, lucky guy. He rolled up to the hotel's driveway.
I didn't have time to reach for the door handle, because in about half an eye's wink he was out of his seat, at my door, tore it up and reacquired that strange, humiliated, bent position. By the time the sole of my left shoe touched the Hilton's pavement, my suitcase was in his hand. We waded to the reception together, but all I had was three crumpled and wet 10-franc bills. I really needed that, but this guy had extra sensory perception. He faded in a second, together with the ballroom-blitz Mercedes.
To my surprise they knew my name and I got a key. I could just hope that Rolls-Royce is paying the costs from here, because all of my money wouldn't have proved enough for a camping site for a single-person tent. And this was the Hilton.
“Where are the Rolls-Royce guys?” I asked, since I didn't have the faintest idea when to wake up next day, what the program would be, whether we have to check out from this hotel or if I can leave my stuff unpacked. In reality I didn't even know if I was a Bedouin virgin at an African initiative ritual or just the little Zsolt Csikós from class 4/b.
”Try the bar, maybe some of the people are still there,” said the receptionist. I rushed to my room, threw my suitcase to the ground, and since I stank like hell from the long day packed with near-death anxiety, I smeared huge wads of deodorant all over myself through my unbuttoned shirt. Having restored the human being in me, turning into a gentleman again, I set out to find the others.
There was near darkness in the bar, I couldn't see anybody, let alone groups of people. I went from wall to wall like a bat in an anechoic chamber. In the end I found three people, a British journalist and two PR-guys.
“I'm the Hungarian journalist, good evening.”
“Oh yes, we've been waiting for you, please have a drink. Did you have a good journey?”
I finally felt that rails are creeping back under the wheels of the train of my life that by mistake was sliding into a quagmire all through this nightmare of a day.
“Of course, it really was fantastic, and yes, a Chivas please.”
We had a small talk, the first glass of the whisky evaporated, and then another too. I learned that the press conference takes place at nine in the morning and we'll have a whole day of driving afterwards. And of course we have to check out.
With all this knowledge I retired to my room. But I forgot to ask one thing.
In the middle of the 90's, at normal press events you still had to wear a suit at press conferences, the minimum was a dinner jacket and a shirt. This has changed since, now even the most conservative of them all, the Koreans, have given up this habit. Press conferences always took place in the evenings, but this one was at the beginning of the day. And there wasn't a single company which asked you to stay in a suit all day. What shall I wear?
I had no idea. Today, landing in the same situation I couldn't care less, but in 1995 I was young and had little experience. And a Rolls-Royce press event looked like something big to me.
I surmised there would be mostly British journalists at the conference. And since I was already a regular reader of Autocar, Top Gear and What Car at the time, I knew that it was unimaginable for a British journo to get suffocated in such clothes for the best part of a hot French day. So I put on my jeans and T-shirt, got out of the elevator at the lobby level with suitcase in my hand at 8:55, and...
...there were about a hundred, maybe even a thousand people in smart suits, I couldn't see a single guy in shabby clothes like me. “You idiot!” I swore to myself and hit the button to my level. I rushed into my room, tore my suit from the suitcase, threw proper clothes on, put a knot on my tie in about five seconds and even managed to close my suitcase, although it became somewhat disordered in the process.
At 8.59 I left the elevator in the lobby in complete dignity, turned towards the “Rolls-Royce presentation”, and I opened the door after being two minutes late.
It was already brimming with people. There were only two seats left in the foremost row. And as I made my way through the crowd, I noticed an unnerving thing. Everybody had jeans, T-shirts and jumpers on, the only person who didn't was yours truly. This is when the brainless, cultureless, uncivilized monkey from the Balkans tries to blend into Western society that has evolved and has been refined through hundreds and hundreds of years in which time this mindless guy's ancestors had just poked the ground with knobbly sticks and forgot to learn to speak. Well, here he is, dressed in a ties and a pair of creaky black shoes from head to toe. I was having a burn like a freshly assembled, home-modded, extinguisher-less Golf GTI on its first run.
I dragged myself to the front seats while I was pulling my suitcase after me like Christopher Robin did down the stairs with Winnie-the-Pooh. Well, here are twenty people who will not become my friends, what's the deal. Damn them, how did they know how to dress, and how did I not? But my situation is still way better than to be stationed in a German lager in the second WW for example. I just have to keep myself together for three, maybe four more days.
During the course of the press conference I secretly removed my tie that had a then fashionable, vivid puke pattern on it and stuffed it into my pocket. I also unbuttoned my shirt. I tried to look like somebody intentionally over-dressing the others by a bit, I had no other choice, you see.
All good things come to an end and this conference ended after all. I learned that the Bentleys are to receive a new dashboard, a bit more power (this was one of the first instances when they disclosed numbers), a little flatter mask – this is why we all had been called together. And they also told us that Rolls-Royce doesn't usually organize press events like this, but they are willing to try this kind of promotion, and if it works, there'll be more of it coming (I haven't attended a Rolls-introduction since then, although BMW would probably have the money for such luxuries now).
We were then led to the area behind the hotels where the cars were parked. Bejeez, here's Zsolt from class 4/b and there was a distant reality that I could be driving a real Rolls-Royce soon – maybe even a Bentley. I was wandering around like a hungry dog waiting for a chance to grab a slice of meat. Everybody seemed to know everybody else; I was the only odd guy without a partner. I knew my fate – I was to be stuffed into a car as a third person which isn't a very happy situation. In the end I asked two older gentlemen to let me use the back seat of their car while they have a good chat up front.
Imagine that. I tried to see things through rosy spectacles: me in the regal seat in the back, them, the well-known old journalists up front where the servants usually sit. In a crappy Bentley to add it up.
They were mostly talking German in the beginning, but through an unexpected wave of empathy from them they switched to English when they discovered how bad I am in their language. One of them was the editor-in-chief of the mighty Swiss Automobile Revue (the magazine that puts together the Bible of all automotive journalists, the thick Automobile Revue catalogue distributed at the Geneva Show) magazine and he had a really old Bentley as I remember. The other man was also a very prominent person of a major German car mag and they had known each other for forty years.
There were a few remarks about the changes that took place from the previous model; a word was dropped about the old Silver Shadow having been not so much worse. Luckily there were ankle-deep blue lambskin carpets in a Bentley and armchairs that could swallow your whole body, so when they reverted to German, it wasn't hard for me to fade into oblivion. I suddenly found myself in a world that I only read about before in Harold Robbins novels.
We drove about three hundred kilometres south, the seniors stopped to have a smoke. Then they put up the question – wouldn't I want to drive, too?
“Oh, well, erm... sure, I mean if hrrm... it doesn't cause any inconvenience...” And my knees were shaking. Because it is quite alright to become a local pro in a small country by testing Seat Ibizas, Suzuki Swifts and Skoda Fabias and even get behind the wheel of an odd Mercedes E-Class, but to drive a Rolls was something that one didn't get a chance to do very often in my world.
This is how I suddenly found myself behind the steering wheel of a Bentley Turbo having 2000 kilometres on the clock, then after switching cars into a similarly fresh Rolls-Royce Silver Spirit III. It was an interesting experience. The Bentley is a much, much better car. This one with a turbo was moving like a steam locomotive on NOx. There were all kinds of instruments in the central binnacle that looked as if a crazy genetic engineer had combined a handful of second WW airplane instruments with my grandmother's cupboard that she keeps the crystal glasses in. Without the sound of breaking glass, of course. In fact, that's almost how it was made.
The Bentley had real road-holding, so it had felt like guiding a huge, well-mannered living room at Porsche speeds with a touch of safety. A very strange, slightly unnerving but greatly majestic experience that was. And they said the only difference was the stronger engine fed with a turbocharger, the tires with stiffer sidewalls and the instrument pod in the middle.
When we traded the warp-speed cupboard for the Roller, I instantly felt the change. It turned out to be much weaker, much less stable; its instrument panel looked like a desert after the Bentley's and Emily delved into a shrieking contest with the tires. Emily, the old lady on the bonnet, was doing her stuff in the straights at speeds above anything like 100 kph, and the rubber on the wheels in turn, switched into screeching mode in almost all of the corners. Had I the possibility to chose one of them, I would have never thought of the Rolls. And there was one more horror: the Silver Spirit had its steering wheel on the right, we were in France on small country roads and I had never driven a car from the wrong side... To tell you the truth, there was the odd nervous twitch in the corner of my mouth at times.
Those two in the back really forgot about the whole journey, but luckily they didn't forget I was there, too, so they kept speaking English. It seemed that it didn't matter to them if they had to speak English, German, French or Italian – it only mattered to me. I felt a bit uneasy about this. Suddenly my tolerable English and those bits and pieces of German amounted to nothing in their company. I tried to disappear in the driver's seat again and did my best to drive as if the car was riding on the palms of gods.
And I heard some interesting stories.
“You know Paul, I just recalled the other day when we were at the launch of the facelifted XM, what an unbelievable car the DS was in the autumn of '55. They were to take the car to the Salon next day, and they had left its space empty behind the cordons, everybody thought that they would show the successor of the 2CV. And my magazine was to be on the streets on the third day of the Show, that was the first public day and the new Citroen had to be in it – driven. So Citroen gave me a car to drive at night on the empty streets of Paris. I was surrounded by police on BMW motorcycles, I was driving amongst them and it really was an unnerving journey. Ahh, the DS was a wonderful car then and it still is today. And the secret had been kept so tightly... Then the magazine was put on the newsstands when the DS was being lowered to its place and the visitors went crazy. I would still like to have a DS today, but I just don't have enough space in the garage...”
If I turn on my dictaphone there and ask him to talk more I could have lived off from his stories for years. But like all people with short memories I can't remember anything else from that conversation on the back seat of the Rolls. The other older journalist also had lengthy stories about all sorts of classic car rallies he attended and organized. He was talking about cars whose names I only knew from books and didn't even know how they looked like. There wasn't a thing like Google picture search and Picasa then. If you're reading this, sorry guys for not remembering more, it's all down to my fault.
We arrived to our hotel in the magnificent but very much vintage car-like Rolls-Royce. I dare to write this, but even my then 23 year-old Mercedes felt a bit more modern than that. The place in fact wasn't a hotel but a chateau. We checked in, our hosts said the afternoon was free, we could sleep, work or if we would like to freshen ourselves up a bit, there was a pool in the park. At least I have a picture of this.
Well, a few hours before I didn't even know where I was going, so you can guess that I hadn't even thought about packing my swim trunks. I also forgot to bring any magazines with me, so I had nothing to read. We were before the time of the internet and WiFi, so I couldn't work either. And I was too moved by all that had happened to put my head to sleep. I wanted to be where everything was happening. So I took a flight downstairs to the lobby.
“Is it possible to buy some swim trunks around here? I left my own at home.”
“Of course it is, there is an Hyper Marche about ten kilometres down the road and you'll be able to buy anything there.”
“But how do I get there?”
“Well, here are the cars in the garage, feel free to take one.”
This is how it happened that the journalist from the very inappropriate East Europe who was probably invited by mistake (I just felt like little Zsolt from class 4/B) blipped the remote on the brand new Rolls at the chateau, got in, drowned the throttle in the lambskin and hopped over to the supermarket in rural France.
The car was a sensation even for the locals. Peasants stared and had a fit of hiccups, cows forgot to give milk that day, a rusty Renault R4 hit a Citroen Visa with faded blue paint at the crossing that I passed, an old lady stumbled and fell to the ground, it was a perfectly normal day for a drive in a Roller. I parked the car at the Hyper Marche, blipped the remote again and made my way into the store. The question always arises at these instances – since that first one I've been through many – if the onlookers notice that you're wearing a cheapo, ready-made dinner jacket and shoes from Deichmann. Well, it's not easy to adjust your standards on a Hungarian journalist's income to the level of Western Europe, especially to that of Rolls-Royce owners.
But the Rolls gave me such an entrée that nobody became suspicious. I was the prodigal millionaire from a P.G. Wodehouse novel who takes his Rolls-Royce to the shops even when he's just buying some swim trunks and two pairs of socks. Because I also happened to put the latter on the counter as well.
Another blip on the exit, the alarm was off, a twist of the small key, the V8 rumbled reassuringly, stick to R, I reversed and exited the parking lot, still processing the looks of the petanque-playing and Peugeot 305-driving locals frozen solid in my wake. It wasn't bad for one experience, although it felt so surreal that I'd have felt it to be as authentic if the whole story was told by someone else while sipping some real Absinthe.
Following this I tried to make friends with the British journalists laying by the pool (no, Jeremy Clarkson wasn't there) with minor success (they were probably lost in the joy of having some real sun on their skins) then it was time for a change to dinner dress code.
This was one of the first press trips of my life at which no Hungarian journalists were present, and to tell you the truth, I loved it that way. There was no forming of small groups, all trying to sit beside the table in a way that the guy from the company inviting us would get a place by some other wretched soul who will have to speak all night in a foreign language that nobody speaks well.
In fact, we had a round table with a mixed bunch of journalists and Rolls-Royce people. I felt very small and unimportant, but I loved the situation just the same. Well-prepared journalists openly questioned the company guys about the most sensitive things and to my surprise, the company guys gave honest answers and nobody turned sour. The chat was honest, straight and was verging on the border of being a bit rude sometimes.
“Tell me Chris, why are Rolls-Royces so crappy nowadays, has the company run out of money? Their steering is plain awful, you probably noticed but the engines are weak as autumn flies, too.”
“Don't make me laugh Steve, we just found fifteen more horsepowers, we have the measurements from the dyno, those should be convincing if nothing else is. The only thing we touched was the insulation.”
This was the manner the conversation was carried on through the night. As bottles were emptied the talk turned to more personal matters, about houses, cars, et cetera. The owner of the chateau was also sitting at our table. The guy from the Swiss RR-dealership put up the question:– “Tell me, where did you find the craftsmen who could fix your stuccoes so well? I don't have anyone to renew my French windows either... I just bought a chateau similar to this one two hills down the road last year, but the first batch of repairmen spoiled everything, I'd need a reliable team...”
Some time later I also found out that most of the journalists had a Rolls-Royce in their lives, some of them even not one, but many. There were names like Porsche, Aston Martin and Jaguar flying in the air like moths going berserk near a neon sign. From here on I really tried to stay unnoticed. I didn't have any of those, and probably never would, although a Porsche 924 could have been put on the horizon.
At that time I was in the final run to get a loan from the bank to buy my first, 30 sqm, one-room apartment on the ninth floor of a concrete building estate at the outmost part of Budapest. I was to put down almost half of my wage each month to pay the instalments for the next few years.
I didn't have a Rolls-Royce either. I had crappy old Fiat 850's and 127's, ladybug-like Steyr-Puchs, an Alfasud Sprint, and an old Seat Ibiza until then. The high point in my ownerships was a10 year-old, 110 PS Renault 5 Alpine Turbo and the car I had at the time – a 1972 220 D Mercedes residing at the body shop. As a soon-to-be-owner of my own apartment and a real owner of a Benz I could be a king at home, but here I felt like an amoeba living on rubbish seeping from the liver of a man having Hepatitis B.
As a sign of democratic thinking the idea was made that everybody around the table should talk about himself. And the baton landed on my lap.
“Where do you come from, and where do you live? How' bout your car?”
This was the question the wife of the chateau-owner asked with not a hint of malice in her voice.
“Well, erm, you see, I have this classic stacked-light Merc (I was showing it with my hands, since I remembered that the big W108's having large engines are looked upon as favourable things by collectors, but I really didn't want to lie), it is a bit boxy, but...”
“Oh yes, I know it, one of my friends has a car like that, it's the 280SE 4.5 with that nice Kugelfischer-injected, 200 horsepower V8, isn't it? That German engineering, that power, those thick leathers inside...”
“Yes, yes... “(me nodding in resignation, thinking of my 60 PS 220D half rusted away, with its cloth seats torn by the sun, the whole car waiting for some cheap resurrection)
Luckily they didn't ask about the place I lived in, because dessert came and went, and the chateau owner announced that he is a great lover of fine wine, and there is a 1.5-kilometre vault system beneath his chateau that we could visit. We all jumped from our seats and swarmed down the steep stairs.
”This here is a 1951 Chateau this-and-that, a cuvee made of the following grapes...”
And everybody twirled the glasses, sniffed a lot, sipped some, and then spat in the pitcher supplied. I didn't spit it out. This was a 44 year-old wine, something nobody that I know ever had the chance to taste. It's going down the hatch even if I die...
Then there came a bottle from '48 after the '51 cuvée, then a '62 and then ten other years and types. I drank them all, because my father taught me never to spit anything out (except for chewing gum), and my friends taught me that if there is expensive free alcohol, you should drink as much as they give you because you never know what comes the other day. So everybody twirled glasses, sniffed, sipped, spat, then asked for some mineral water. I did the same, but I didn't spit.
I kept repeating just to reassure myself - I'm from Hungary, so I can drink more alcohol than anyone else here. Well, you see, I have the same genetic map as anybody else on the Earth, so in reality I couldn't.
After bottle no. 10 the cellar around me started revolving. I somehow still had the ability to register that almost everybody is sober around me, but I'm starting to stumble on the words, I'm also losing my balance a bit, so I said farewell to the company. On the way out I happened to step on my own tie on the stairs, I tried to avoid some offensive door frames without any success and due to some wonder I found my own room almost right away. I don't remember the rest of the night, but I'm sure I didn't have any sex.
I wasn't prepared for what was coming the next day, but in the course of days I somehow got used to being not prepared for anything coming. We drove to a nearby village with the million-pound convoy (the organizers dared to trust me with the keys of one of the cars, so either I had been good at acting the night before or they were drunk too), we filled up and then, after 45 minutes of driving we landed on the Le Mans circuit.
As I found out, each car brand that has ever won a Le Mans race is allowed to circle the track a few times with some of its vehicles before the race commences. I first took in the experience on the back seat of a Turbo R, then from the second row of an Azure with the roof down. Have you ever been Sophia Loren? Well, I had the chance to be her, although I had been pretty bald by then.
Then we all gathered in a room above the pit stops, from ours you could look down on Mazda's repairmen and engineers doing their job. We had an unlimited supply of sandwiches and booze, but after the incident a night before I took care of myself like all the other RR-guests in the room. We could watch as the turbocharger was changed in the Mazda below us from about a distance of two metres.
At four in the morning there was a separate bus taking us around the circuit in case we wanted to take some moving shots of the cars on the track. I was relieved from these duties having run out of film half a day earlier.
We took the TGV express train to Paris the next morning. By that time we all became friends; it is very difficult to avoid this if you're in a company of 25 people closely locked up in the same situation for three days. We must have slept one more in France, because I can faintly recall an early morning start at the airport.
That pattern of life's extremeties – just as of any journalists' life from Eastern Europe, I suppose – still stayed very much the same in my later years as well. I already live in my own house (very much unlike a chateau) but I still haven't driven too many Rollers, although I had the chance to sample two Silver Shadows and a 20/25 HP from 1930 in the meantime. The press trips are still present in my life, although we always fly abroad, but in turn only on economy class. But to show that some things never change: I still use a similar 1972 Mercedes 220 D to the one I had 18 years ago, although this one is green, it doesn't have a sliding roof, but it also has got somewhat less rust on it. Oh yes, and it has turned 41 this year. See, now I wouldn't feel ashamed had I have the chance to sit at that round table in that chateau in southern France.