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.