I always thought the best way to tour Europe was in a first-class seat on the Orient Express.
When I spend an all-too brief trip on the classic train from London to the English Channel, I wanted the journey to roll on forever.
But forever is a long time and things change. I thought I would always be a Coke man, but now I prefer Pepsi. And my devotion to Allan Moffat and Ford eventually flipped when I became a friend of Peter Brock and drove the best of his hot-rod Commodores.
Just this week my passion for the Orient Express was overturned by a car. But not just any car.
As I wafted across France in the latest Rolls-Royce, the new $1.1 million Phantom Coupe, I honestly could not think of any better way to travel.
And to put that price in perspective, you have to keep remembering that this car’s buyers are not slaves to any of the commitments of the life you and I live. A mortgage? Not likely.
A Rolls-Royce owner typically has about $80 million available for a snap purchase, owns at least two houses and has a garage with four or more cars in the Ferrari and Porsche class. So we're talking about Lindsay Fox or Nicole Kidman or John Laws.
To them, a Phantom Coupe — even with a seven-figure bottom line before you tickle it with rear cupholders at $8000 or custom paint at who-knows-what price — is just another nice car.
To us, the wage slaves of the world, it is an unbelievable extravagance.
Why would anyone happily pay $1.1 million for a car that does the same basic job as a $15,000 Hyundai Getz, with about the same cabin space as a $35,000 Holden Commodore and less performance potential than a $70,000 FPV Falcon F6 turbo?
That was why I was sitting in the foyer of the Rolls-Royce factory at Goodwood in Britain as an $8 million cavalcade of Phantoms, from six new Coupes to a long-wheelbase limousine to follow with the baggage, was assembled for a small group of lucky journalists. This was an episode torn from the pages of lifestyles of the poor but influential.
But do not think for a second that the Phantom Coupe is perfect. Or that life in this world is so far different from suburban Australia.
The cupholders in the British beauty are useless and the first roundabout sent two bottles of water skidding under the pedals to give me a nasty fright.
And not even the Spirit of Ecstacy on the bonnet can clear the early-morning commuter traffic on the road to the cross-Channel train.
And when you drive a Phantom Coupe on to the tunnel train, you have to share space with trucks . . . because the Rolls-Royce is so enormous.
Minutes later we were also sharing the new Coupe with a dozen schoolchildren, all excited at the sight of an amazing car. And that was a powerful reminder of the importance of Rolls-Royce and its place in the world.
ON THE ROAD
The next reminder came at the end of the day. We had been driving for close to 12 hours and had covered more than 600km, yet it felt as if we had been going for about an hour.
That's the best thing about the Coupe. It is a little more lively than the four-door Phantom and noticeably crisper any time the road starts to wander, and considerably quieter than the Drophead convertible.
But, compared with any ordinary car, it's a serene cocoon that crushes kilometres without any apparent effort. It gives the sort of regal ride the maharajas would have enjoyed on the back of an elephant in the days of colonial India.
You can see and feel the serenity in a Phantom Coupe. The seats are armchairs, the car is so quiet you can talk normally to your passenger without strain, there is plush luxury in everything you can see and touch and smell and hear, and yet the car will easily twist the speedometer from 80km/h to naughty-naughty with one firm call on the throttle.
As we motored along we struggled for words to describe the tour group. We were wafting almost effortlessly, just as the Titanic would have done before the iceberg. Not that we were thinking that way. Perhaps a cavalcade? Or a parade? Or just a flurry, a flock or a fantasy of Phantoms?
But reality returned with a rush when the sky turned grey, then black as the first splatters of rain turned to an incessant torrent and the clouds became thick fog.
This final run to Geneva should have been the time to discover if the Phantom Coupe really can be a sporty car and deliver on the brand's impressive promises. But there were too many trucks and turns, and the road was slick and a serious threat to a $1 million machine.
So I was forced to look at what I had, and what I had learned. This runs to underdone cupholders and satellite navigation that is well behind the times, and a package of luxury knick-knacks that falls well short of a Lexus LS600h. There's a slightly sharper response, but not of the sporty feel of a Porsche or even a Calais V.
The Roller also needs sharper steering, a smaller wheel, some form of manual transmission control and more-supportive seats to sustain its sporty claims. And the view out of the rear window is second worst this year behind the stupidly flawed BMW X6 four-wheel drive.
But, as the sun broke through and we turned into another five-star refuge to complete the trip, I was still won over by the Phantom Coupe.
You can apply all the logic you like, and ask all the hard questions you like, and be as cynical as I like, and rate the car as an overdone relic with a grand past and no real future.
But some things in life exist only because they can. And because we have to have standards. The Phantom Coupe is not perfect, but is one of the world's best cars. I like it.
And, at the end of the day, would you? I would, and you would too if you had taken the English express and also won the lottery.