By day, l’Opra-Charles Garnier’s neo-baroque opera house that was built between 1857 and 1874 and is now one of the prime tourist attractions in Paris-is almost permanently obscured by parked tour buses. In the evening it gets swamped by an endless stream of music lovers. After performances, the stairs in front are littered with people smoking, drinking, and arguing. That’s why we’re here in the twilight zone between five and seven in the morning, when la Cit still belongs to the street sweepers, the bakery delivery drivers, and the first hobos emerging from their sleeping holes.
We park the Rolls in front of the opera house, the haunt of the antihero of Gaston Leroux’s 1910 novel, The Phantom of the Opera. Of course, the book has faded into obscurity, and the story is now better known as the plotline for an Andrew Lloyd Webber blockbuster musical. L’Opra de Paris was the place where the beautiful chorus girl Christine, the charming and attractive Vicomte Raoul de Chagny, and the tragically disfigured phantom experienced their amour fou.
Our journey starts at Goodwood, where Rolls-Royces are built. We then head for the port of Dover, where the customs officers take so long to search the car that the lunchtime train leaves without us. Once we’ve crossed the channel, Calais to Paris is an easy two-hour-plus run, providing you keep your eyes peeled for hidden radar traps, unmarked police cars, and random speed checks on the approach to the many toll barriers. While they may turn a blind eye to a leadfoot in an antiquated Renault, the French police switch to zero-tolerance mode as soon as the mighty Phantom wafts into sight.
After only 225 miles, the fuel warning light recommends an early stop at a gas station, where we happen to be the only customers. The 26.4-gallon tank takes so long to fill that we have time for a couple of cafs au lait, and it costs so much that we would not have been at all surprised to see the owner board up the place and go fishing. The average fuel consumption works out to 10 mpg, which is rather anti-Greenpeace by Toyota Prius standards but not so bad for a 5577-pound wall of chrome traveling at 100 mph.
Our run down the autoroute confirms that you cannot simply judge a Rolls-Royce by universal standards. After all, this is a $320,000 castle on wheels, a statement of affluence that’s even more overt than a diamond-studded de Grisogono watch, and an unabashed symbol of capitalism. If the Vicomte de Chagny were reborn really rich in 2005, he wouldn’t even consider a Maybach or a Bentley.
Speeding in a straight line, the Phantom rarely bothers the driver with its considerable dimensions. The surrounding bulk makes you feel like a knight in shining armor, riding a long-legged horse, strapped into the most comfortable saddle leathercrafters could form. The car’s real charm is its intriguing mix of contemporary and old-fashioned. It’s convenient, for instance, to have navigation, an in-car phone, and a sound system that’s good enough to qualify for Lloyd Webber’s personal seal of approval. But it’s equally important to have a set of truly timeless instruments and the most exquisite woodwork this side of a Chippendale living room. Unlike the visual cul-de-sacs BMW is building under its own brand name, the Phantom is an awe-inspiring piece of street furniture. Its portly proportions and the bold detailing are totally in sync with the car’s main mission, which is to throw the longest shadow and to generate the brightest shine in the superluxury segment.
As we get closer to Paris, the Double-R begins a strange transformation. It may be a splendid commuter from one gated driveway to the next, but in heavy real-world traffic its status quickly erodes to fish-in-shoal level. The same beaters that duly vacated the passing lane only thirty-five miles ago are suddenly snapping at our meaty heels and elbowing our flanks. In a habitat where battle-scarred Renault Twingos and fearless Peugeot 207s rule, not to mention panel vans, taxis, and buses, the Phantom feels like a prize bull crossing a piranha-infested river. Suddenly there are no rules anymore: they all seem to be out to get us, and with every wrong turn the polished cathedral on wheels moves closer to Armageddon. The worst nightmare of a Rolls-Royce chauffeur is an ancient underground parking garage like the one close to l’Opra. Handicapped by an epic turning circle of 45.3 feet and a width of 6.6 feet with the mirrors folded, this ship needs the help of a certified captain to dock in such a confined space.
While the car is taking a well-deserved nap, we tour the opera house, climbing the opulent staircase, descending toward the mighty stage, browsing through the semicircular auditorium. In here, it’s easy to picture a dark figure hiding behind one of the giant columns, or to imagine a network of subterranean passages and keeps, or to understand the dangerous double role of the female protagonist. Tonight, Cos Fan Tutte is playing: we give it a miss and go back to the Rolls, which emerges from the catacombs like a submarine rising for air, majestically parting the waves of the mid-afternoon traffic. What music do we select as we leave? The original 1986 London cast of Phantom, volume turned up.
We flow with the flock downriver, slowly zooming in on the Eiffel Tower. Soon it’s stop-and-go again, giving plenty of opportunities to marvel at the dazzling dashboard or to play hide-and-seek with a navigation screen that flips over to turn into a clock. This cockpit is all about false bottoms and trompe l’oeil effects: the phone hides in a pneumatic drawer, the power seat controls are concealed beneath a leather-covered lid, the doors pull themselves shut automatically, the parking brake and starter are button-operated, and the light switches look like carry-over items from a vintage Silver Ghost. Like the Bugatti Veyron, the Phantom sports a power gauge, but its calibration is in subtle percent, not brash horsepower. The Lexicon sound system converts the land yacht into a rolling concert hall. Massive resonating chambers under the front seats create enough acoustic pressure to pop your eardrums. With the exception of iDrive, the ergonomics require neither a sixth sense nor programmed fingertips.
Like a gondola through the canals of Venice, the Phantom glides gracefully through the geometric grid that forms the streets in the heart of Paris. We move gradually away from l’Opra to explore new quartiers and arrondissements. Avenues become boulevards, squares diffuse into rues, portes alternate with quaies. Going west means Herms and Fauchon and Hdiard; north means Les Galeries Lafayette and Le Printemps; south we find museums and government buildings; and east means bistros, bars, and brasseries. The sidewalks are dotted with men in dark coats-some of whom even wear berets like they did way back when-but the only masks we see exist in our imagination. There are also plenty of young blondes pretty enough to pass as Christine, the phantom’s pupil and sole desire.
After a day and a half of zigzagging through Paris and it suburbs, the Rolls needs fuel again. Filling up draws a crowd. We pop the lid, and half a dozen heads bend over twice as many cylinders, a 453-hp, 6.7-liter V-12 that still tries to be quieter than the clock. The slushmatic cuts the 531-lb-ft torque pie into six juicy slices. In top gear, 1000 rpm equal 39 mph, so if the Priphrique-the ring road surrounding Paris-were a racetrack and if the engine would spin to the nominal 5350 rpm, one could max this thing at 209 mph-but of course there is insufficient power for that. Although the top speed is electronically limited to 149 mph, the acceleration is inspired, with 0 to 60 mph taking just 5.7 seconds.
In case you didn’t know, the phantom never got lucky. Holding Christine captive was a rather dumb idea, so when he did let her go, she was Raoul’s for the taking. The man with the mask disappeared from whence he came-“a mystery never fully explained,” which produced goose bumps and long queues at the box office when the first movie came out in 1925. That same year, and fifteen years after the book was first published, Rolls-Royce released the Phantom I, which was followed by five successively numbered iterations. The Phantom VI, the last of the classic body-on-frame behemoths, remained in production until 1991. The seventh Phantom is the one you see here: a radically modern sedan developed from scratch by BMW and built in a brand-new factory.
We drive to the relative seclusion of the Bois de Boulogne to familiarize ourselves with the attractions of the rear passenger compartment. Behind drawn curtains and under dimmed light, this would have been the perfect place for the phantom to seduce Christine. The ambience is a mixture of the east wing of Buckingham Palace and a villa straight from the pages of Architectural Digest. But even this splendid passenger compartment has its faults. The rear gates don’t swing open wide enough, the distance between the seat and the sills is too vast, and the door opening has been cut a little too low. As a result, one needs to assume an uncomfortable crouched position before venturing to waddle more or less elegantly to an upright or seated position. A London taxi radiates only a fraction of the street cred, but is so much easier to climb into and out of than a Phantom.
When the sun and the moon get ready to change their guard, we start looking for a quiet spot off the Alle de Longchamp to hop in the back, raise the footrests, pop open a couple of Cokes, and watch Joel Schumacher’s The Phantom of the Opera. The optional DVD-based entertainment system features two adjustable monitors housed in the backrests of the front seats. It’s smooth and easy to operate, with good sound and a decent picture, but the two screens are a little too far away for short-sighted or impatient viewers. It is an entertaining film nonetheless, and we stay tuned in until the phantom and Christine sing their famous duet, which contains the line, “the bridge is crossed, so stand and watch it burn.” This seemed like an apt cue to hit the road, find a rustic restaurant with an outsize parking lot, and consult an old-fashioned map for the pending night drive back to England.
The fact that Rolls-Royce builds only a few hundred of these mega-expensive luxoliners per year suggests that the general interest in factory-fresh, high-visibility, high-end motor cars is limited. If you want to be seen, if your wealth is an open secret, and if you’re not too worried about kidnappers and terrorists, the Phantom makes a more impressive statement than anything but the Queen’s Bentley or an armor-plated stretch limo. But these days, even the very rich tend to wear their furs inside out, specify their Rolex Daytonas in stainless steel, and take a cab to town. Although these people still have money to burn, they are wary of the extroverted opulence of such a big ship. That’s why the company is talking about making a reincarnation of the Silver Shadow, which would sell for around $200,000 and go on sale in 2010. This would be a Rolls-Royce one can actually take to the opera-and park around the corner without leaving a minder behind.