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Cannes Film Festival in a Dartz Prombron

  1. Robert De Niro was Jury President. Mel Gibson, currently circumnavigating the ocean of rumour surrounding his mental state by starring in a film about a toy executive who communicates via a beaver hand puppet (it’s called The Beaver), turned up. Nutty Danish auteur Lars von Trier said something deeply silly about Hitler. Yes, 2011’s was a vintage Cannes Film Festival. Apparently, there were even some quite good films.

    TopGear’s mission at Cannes isn’t so much impossible as improbable. With absolutely none of the correct accreditation and barely 48 hours to organise a 12-hour round trip, this is a classic TG operation in all but a handful of key respects. 

    Words: Jason Barlow
    Photography: Lee Brimble

  2. Firstly, our presence on Cannes’ famous Croisette has nothing whatsoever to do with any films. Secondly, I hadn’t actually heard of the car I was heading to the French Riviera to drive - the implausible-sounding Dartz Prombron Iron Diamond. Thirdly, said vehicle comes with some interesting optional extras.

    In no particular order: a kilo of top-quality caviar, a $1.3m bottle of vodka and last, but most definitely not least, a custom-made dildo. Marketing types like to refer to a car’s clever little extras as ‘surprise and delight’ features. This gives new meaning to the concept.

  3. So, the Dartz Prombron Iron Diamond. It’s difficult to know where to begin. It may not come as a total shock to discover that this is a Russian vehicle. Whether it’s mega-yachts, football teams or energy supply, Russia’s emergence from the Cold War as a titanic global financial force is one of the defining factors of our complicated age.

    Who knows what Marx or Lenin would have made of it all. A century-long struggle for the perfect society, and you end up with President Putin and a load of Croesus-rich oligarchs who might fancy an armoured car with a sex toy in the glovebox. Or maybe a sex toy with a giant SUV thrown in. Either way, I’m not sure if this is what Gorbachev had in mind when he ushered in perestroika.

  4. Never mind. We like extreme stuff on TopGear, and it doesn’t get any more extreme than pointing an armour-plated SUV into the heart of the world’s most famous film festival and hoping for the best. If you detect a strong whiff of Hummer to the Prombron, you wouldn’t be far off. It uses a giant GM L18 Vortec V8 lump whose 8.1 litres translate into roughly 340bhp and 455lb ft of torque.

    The base vehicle is made in St Petersburg by Kombat Armouring, and rather than having its roots in the Soviet military, the Kombat’s existence is a bit more mercenary than that. Literally. Private armies run these things, no doubt pleased with the combination of a double-steel monocoque, a composite armour that uses ceramic inserted between the vehicle’s steel skin, and the fact that it’s apparently the world’s fastest armoured SUV (110mph top speed).

  5. As well as Russia, various versions of the Kombat T98 have turned up in the Middle East, the US, China and South America. We’ll get onto the armoured possibilities in a moment, but it’s probably best not to dwell on this particular customer base. People who like to feel… secure. Yes, let’s just leave it at that.

    All in all, then, a hell of a USP, and one that St Petersburg-based entrepreneur Leo Yankelovich was keen to exploit. Amongst other things, Leo has business interests in window safety film, which led him into the booming market supplying vinyl wraps for cars. A connection led him to a company called Dartz, pretty much a French Riviera-based equivalent of LA’s famous West Coast Custom outfit. Dartz is co-run by Igor Daleckis, a Latvian by birth, who moved to Paris first before heading south to make his fortune in the car business.

  6. From where I’m standing, things seem to be pretty good. Tucked away in an industrial unit to the north of Cannes, the Dartz guys are working on two BMW X6 Ms the day TopGear is in town, one of which is packing 21in wheels and 650bhp. It’s the first time I’ve ever watched a vinyl wrap being applied, and needless to say it’s a highly skilled job.

    Igor also works closely with the firm next door, MS, whose workshop currently features a Rolls Phantom, Porsche Panamera, Bentley GT, and a matt-black Ferrari 458 Italia with a carbon roof. Apparently, there’s a Mansory SLR McLaren downstairs, and a flick through the paint and trim swatches suggests anything goes, but not everything would get a thumbs-up from the taste gendarmerie.

  7. Selling the Prombron to the Riviera’s rich is a newish sideline for Igor. Leo knew Igor’s parents, who used to run a successful business importing American, French and Italian underwear into the Baltic area. Igor clearly shares some of their entrepreneurial energy.

    “Leo is crazy. He is always having ideas,” he says of his business partner with a mixture of disbelief and admiration. “Once he starts something, he always finishes it. It might take years, but he will finish it. There aren’t many people like him. Who knows how it will go, but if you never try, you never drink champagne after…”

    I’m not sure the Dartz Prombron Iron Diamond will make Igor’s fortune, but as we inch this gold-plated behemoth through a perilously tight gap, I can’t fault his enthusiasm (or width judgement).

  8. “Russia has a very different mentality,” he says, his Eastern European accent effortlessly cutting across some Europop. “If you want to do a new beer, a new water, a new Coke… you can do anything. It’s the same with the car. The Kombat gives this possibility to Russian guys. We will make it more luxurious, but still with a strong security element.”

    The Iron Diamond, of course, also has a strong sex-toy element, but this is just a showcase for, er, what lengths Dartz will go to for a customer. On this version of the car, you pay $1.3m for the vodka and marital aid and get the Kombat thrown in. A clever headline-generating ploy; lesser Prombrons start at $700,000, and take between three and six months to build.

  9. And though this is the supposedly ‘luxury’ Prombron, no one is going to mistake it for a Range Rover. Yes, there’s leather on the seats, bits of wood trim, and a gigantic TV and audio system can be specified. The ride is inexplicably good, the sheer mass of the thing simply obliterating bumps, and it even sort of handles.

    But it feels like a giant bank vault on wheels, it has girders where its windscreen pillars should be, and feels so thuggishly well screwed together that a bomb could go off under it and you wouldn’t notice.

  10. Which brings me onto the security question. Depending on what level of armour you’ve specified, a bomb actually could go off underneath it. You would definitely notice, but at least you’d survive to take out a hit on whoever was responsible. (That was a joke. Honest.)

    The security industry grades armour plating B1 to B7; B1-3 gives you thin armour plating, four doors, and opening windows all round. B4 onwards upgrades the thickness of the armour, restricts the bodyshell to three doors, and permits only the driver’s window to open. Our ‘test’ car is B5-plus, so you need two hands to pull the doors shut, sitting in the back ironically increases your anxiety because it’s so claustrophobic, and the driver’s window is a thumping five centimetres thick.

  11. “About 70 per cent of the people want the armoured material just because they can,” Igor says, “and maybe 20 or 30 per cent of them really need it. The market we’re really interested in is Brazil. Everything in Brazil is bulletproof. Even the Smart cars.”

    While rumbling up and down Cannes’ famous Croisette promenade, it suddenly occurs to me that we could wreak untold havoc on this place and probably get away with it. Anarchic thoughts of parking our Russian tank on the festival’s red carpet give way to simple, pathetic posing; although this is primarily a forum for film producers to buy and sell their wares, it’s also where Europe’s rich - idle or otherwise - have come to see and be seen.

  12. In the marina, we discover that there are some forms of transport that even a giant Russian SUV can’t compete with, and on the far end of the jetty, a super-yacht waits to decant its owners into a waiting Rolls Phantom and Ghost, and not one but two McLaren SLR roadsters.

    Back on the promenade, the premiere of the festival’s eventual Palme d’Or winner, Terrence Malick’s grandiose The Tree of Life, draws the stars out for the waiting horde. As it happens, we’re dropping some old friends, film-maker Mark McQueen and producer James Mann, to a party. The Prombron is not ideal limo material, but an amusing foil to the fleets of dreary official Renaults.

  13. At one point, I find myself cheek by jowl with the world’s most powerful media baron, Rupert Murdoch. A potential Prombron man, if ever there was one. Ten minutes later, photographer Lee Brimble and I wade through the masses who have been waiting all afternoon to catch a glimpse of Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie. We’re there no longer than five minutes, and Lee gets his shot.

    And that’s TG’s Cannes in an armour-plated nutshell. The stars, a ridiculous but curiously enjoyable car, in 12 hours. There’s only time now to tank it back to the airport. And for the first time ever, we actually have a tank in which to do it.

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