When her royal yacht was rocked by a wave some time back in the 19th century, Queen Victoria sent a stern message to the captain: "This thing must not happen again."
When I took the wheel of the 2011 Rolls-Royce Phantom, I could see where the Queen was coming from. Encased within the Phantom's hushed, 6000-pound mass, the bustle and the strain of the everyday world seemed far away. The Phantom absorbed bumps like a $480,000 Beautyrest, and I wouldn't have hesitated to set down a champagne flute on one of the flip-down wooden trays.
When I actually felt a tarmac imperfection, it struck me as a grave intrusion, as if a begrimed commoner had somehow thrust his way into the receiving line at a state dinner. Smoothness and calm were now my accustomed state, and I realized that the Phantom was not so much a car as a projection of a bygone British Empire.
At nearly half a million without tax, the Phantom is the most expensive car I'd ever driven, and I was curious to see how different it would be from a plebian ride like a Mercedes or BMW. The answer: different, but not vastly so. This was clearly a case of diminishing returns, and it explains why Rolls-Royce sells only about half a dozen Phantoms in Canada each year.
But if you are one of those individuals who can afford to spend an extra $300K or so for those final few degrees of luxury, the Phantom provides a unique ambience. Looking out over the long, hand-polished hood, I imagined myself being chauffeured to a changing of the guard.
The back seat was voluminous yet cozy, and it was easy to see why the Rolls-Royce has been the choice of so many aristocrats and rock gods - what better place could there be to host a countess or a few supermodels? (The floor mats are made of soft lamb's wool, perfect for stockinged feet.) The rear doors have a bank vault feel, each equipped with a custom-made umbrella that can be instantly withdrawn, like a sword from its scabbard.
The hand-selected seat hides have the deluxe feel of expensive ladies gloves, and the dash is fitted with polished chrome knobs modelled after the ones on a cathedral pipe organ. Although the Phantom is equipped with a host of high-tech accessories, including a GPS system and a back-up camera, they are all hidden from view and appear for duty only when summoned, like royal butlers.
Back in the old days, Rolls-Royces were built almost entirely by hand at the company's factory in Goodwood, England. Rolls-Royce workers inherited their jobs from their fathers (or their grandfathers) and adhered to the highest standards of craftsmanship. Body shells were hammered into shape over wooden forms, much like a medieval suit of armour, and wooden dash panels were shaped and finished by master carpenters who could slice a section of burled oak like a chef trimming sushi.
Today, Rolls-Royce uses robots for most of their cars' fabrication and assembly, since they're more accurate than even the best-trained and most fastidious human being. But Rolls-Royce retains its traditional human touch through key details, including hand-buffed paint, and pinstripes applied by a craftsman with a tiny brush and exceptionally steady hands.
I normally judge a car on its driving dynamics, rating steering feel, cornering power and acceleration. The Phantom was certainly capable in these respects, but subjecting to the standard tests seemed as wrong as putting Queen Elizabeth in a swimsuit competition. And so here are my test scores:
Paint Finish: 10
Quietness: 9.5 (I managed to hear the whistle of a passing train)
Envy Inducement: 10
Affordability: Zero (but you already knew that.)