Far below, Cap Ferrat juts into the Mediterranean. The water sparkles brightly in the clear, late-morning light. Down there somewhere is a fabulous early 20th-century villa built by Beatrice Rothschild, of the famed international banking family. I squint against the glare, but fail to spy the pink-painted place.
Around 20 years ago Mercedes-Benz staged a new-model launch there. I can’t recall for sure what it was. It may have been that bob-tailed abomination, the C-Class SportCoupe. Whatever it was, it was clearly forgettable.
What I do remember with absolute clarity is the spare-no-expense flavour of the event. Mercedes-Benz during the reign of Jürgen Schrempp – CEO of Daimler-Benz from 1995 to 2005 and mastermind of the disastrous DaimlerChrysler merger – was often like that.
One sight in particular remains very vivid. It’s the image of the costumed performer suspended in a harness beneath a balloon, her manoeuvres aided by tether-holding assistants hiding in the shrubbery. The sole aim of this graceful routine was to provide a few moments of visual entertainment for the guests as they walked through the villa’s extensive gardens in the gathering dusk. But that was long ago...
This time we’re at the modern Villa Bayview in Villefranche-sur-Mer, just to the east of Nice. Again it’s a Mercedes-Benz event. We’re here for a preview, under strict embargo, of the Mercedes-Maybach GLS 600. I step onto the villa’s terrace and scan the sky, but there’s no-one twirling in a tutu overhead.
Ultra-expensive mega-SUVs for the super wealthy aren’t things that excite or interest me in the slightest. They’re ostentatious , inefficient and, for the vast majority of driving humanity, utterly irrelevant. Still, the event wasn’t a complete waste of time.
In a downstairs room at Villa Bayview, Sabine Engelhardt is hosting a workshop. She’s a futurologist who, for the past 20-plus years, has analysed the social forces and cultural trends that will shape the car industry in coming years. Her work guides decision making on overall strategies and product plans for all Daimler’s brands.
But she’s here to talk about her sideline activity in the arena of aroma. Engelhardt works with perfumers to design car scents, including the 11-strong range developed specifically for Maybach. It’s a well-known fact that the rich are very picky about what goes up their nostrils, after all.
It’s a topic well outside my zone of interest, but Engelhardt is the kind of specialist who can make their subject accessible. She’s able to outline, in language I can understand, the basics of scent design. It’s more complicated than you’d think, partly because the perfume industry works constantly to develop new synthetic molecules with previously unsmelt aromas. Some are so powerful that they can only be used in minute proportions.
As a futurologist, Engelhardt has ideas which way the scented wind is blowing. Expect a revival of ’70s favourites like patchouli and musk, she tells me.
In the meantime, I’ve taken to checking what’s in the aroma dispensers found in the test cars I drive at launch events. The names are often much less subtle than the contents. My favourite so far? ‘Gingery Mood’, found in a Mercedes-Benz GLE 53 Coupe at the international unveil in Austria.