ROLLS-ROYCE PHANTOM; BIG AND BOLD, BUT BEAUTIFUL?
I remember that the howls of outrage which greeted this car when it was first unveiled were especially strident in this area where a lot of people at Crewe were still smarting from the then recent divorce between Rolls-Royce and Bentley.
Dismissive cries of `It looks like Lady Penelope's car' were widespread and at an emotional level one understood the sense of anger and almost betrayal that a much-loved marque was apparently in danger of being badly damaged by its new owners who didn't appreciate that Rolls-Royces had to be elegant and graceful.
And yet when we listened to those new owners, BMW, explaining it had deliberately given the Phantom its extraordinary styling to draw a line between it and all the previous cars built at Crewe and to emphasise that Rolls-Royce was entering a new chapter in its history, then suddenly the car began to make sense.
More than that though, BMW wanted the Phantom to be exciting, to be modern and dare one say it, to recapture the mantle of the Best Car in the World which Rolls-Royce used to proclaim for its cars but which hasn't been true since the Silver Ghost of the 1920s.
I was one of those prepared to stick my head above the parapet and declare that I liked its looks and having been a passenger in one, was unstinting in my praise of its as a piece of engineering too. Last week I experienced the Phantom from behind the steering wheel and can only say my appreciation of this remarkable machine has deepened, not diminished, as a result.
By any measure it is an impressive creation. The first thing to strike you is its size because the Rolls is just gargantuan. In isolation it seems big but among other traffic it seems to be a scale up on anything else. And yet it has a certain appeal. Looked at in profile you can see the high front/low rear which a previous Rolls-Royce designer, Graham Hull, once described to me as being a characteristic of the marque and supposedly reminiscent of a motorboat powering along as it wafts by you.
Certainly the car has huge presence and much more drama than had the Crewe-built cars. It is not a shrinking violet and perhaps a degree of flamboyance is required to be an owner but in terms of using styling to make a statement, the Phantom is certainly a success.
It's impressive in other ways too. After all, it is not every day that most of us get to drive a car which by the time the VAT has been added costs more than £250,000!
It is easy to see where a lot of the money goes because the interior is just sumptuous. When Rolls left Crewe to take up residence in its new factory in Sussex it was able to tap into a rich reservoir of talent in the local boat-building industry and apparently, a thriving antique restoration industry down there too. The upshot is that the craftsmanship used to tailor the wood and leather is every bit as good as that turned out by Bentley at Pyms Lane.
The Phantom has an extra touch though in its unusual, rear-hinged doors. These open at the back, rather than at the front as is the way for every other car bar the Mazda RX-8, and make access so much easier.
Being ignorant of such things I climbed into the rear compartment head first in the conventional manner but was informed by a Rolls man that the more elegant method is to enter derriere-first and then sink back into the seats. Thanks to those doors, getting out is even easier than getting in.
It was up front though that my attention turned this time as I got behind the steering wheel, a traditional three-spoked affair and with a remarkably thin rim, and stared down that broad expanse of bonnet towards the Flying Lady, surely sharing with Ferrari's Prancing Horse as being one of the two best-known motoring emblems in the world.
Mechanically, the Phantom has a V12 engine of 6.75 litres which, as it happens, is exactly the same capacity as the V8s used when Royces were made at Crewe. Coincidence or clever marketing? No one's saying.
There is a slight rumble but absolutely no vibration as you press the starter button and watch the dials spring into life. Your attention is invariably drawn to the gauge to the left of the steering wheel labelled `Power Reserve'. This is in place of the rev counter and as its name implies, shows you how much power
you are using and how much you have left.
In reality, the gauge will tend towards the higher end of the reserve because it is so powerful and the Phantom so surprisingly quick that you can't use all the engine output.
Despite its dimensions, there is a lot of aluminium in the car which makes it relatively light and the benefits of this are soon apparent. It seems a little crude to talk of 0 to 60 times in such a car but for the record, and to give you some idea of what it is like, the Phantom needs a whisker over 5.5 seconds to get to 60 which is mightily impressive.
Behind the wheel this seems to be achieved without drama. Your eyes tell you of the acceleration as does your body as it is pressed back into the seat but the big Rolls is barely ruffled. Effortless performance? This car delivers it in abundance.
Thanks in part to its enormously strong frame, the ride is of the very highest quality. Part of my test took place on some notoriously rough surfaces but the Phantom just smothers any bump or rut, providing the perfect insulation for those inside. By the same token it is whisper quiet, even at well into the three figure speeds I had it up to on a test track.
It also achieves that remarkable trick of the very best big cars of appearing to shrink when on the road. Given its dimensions and how agile it is on the road, this is an achievement of some magnitude.
I had but a short time to drive it but did enough to gain more than just an inkling into the magnitude of this remarkable vehicle.
Rolls-Royces used to have an air of conservatism and of restrained superiority. The quality and the luxury are still there but there is a new energy, a new spirit of daring which I find refreshing.
The Best Car in the World? I don't know about that - but I think it is a car that Sir Charles Rolls and Henry Royce would have been proud of were they alive today and that is more than could of been said with the last of the Crewe-made cars.
0 to 60 mph 5.7 seconds
Top speed 149 mph
Average fuel consumption 18 mpg
CO2 385 g/km
Service intervals 25,000 miles
Warranty three years, unlimited mileage.