Roller skating on thin ice

Car manufacturers like Rolls Royce are trying to revamp their brands with updated models, but Hugh Pearman doesn’t even want to steal a peek at the Phantom

Certain cars always represent a kind of currency, out on the street. In the early 1980s in Hackney, Ford Cortinas had valuable wheels. I would look out of my window in the morning and see a couple more Fords teetering on piles of bricks. My Citroen Visa was pointedly ignored.

Other car brands give you information of their imminent demise. A few years later in north London, the arrival of a Talbot Solara was always your signal to phone the council’s abandoned-vehicles department. If it was a Solara, it had just been dumped. Simple as that. And fully understandable. Bad from the start, those cars lost value quicker than you could drop your wallet down a drain. They made the Morris Ital, Giugiaro’s biggest mistake, look good.

Today in my street, I know two things about cars. If it is an old Vauxhall Cavalier or Nissan Bluebird, it has no value, no tax disc, and its owner has vanished. And if it is a new or newish Volkswagen Polo, then it will shortly be broken into. Probably tonight.

There is something about Polos, clearly. They must have some sexy, readily fenced radio/CD in them. It’s certainly not anything to do with being easy to break into. All car alarms are useless at 4am. You just have to smash the window and reach in. But right now, on my street, the cars with the windows being smashed are nearly always Polos. I had to leave my own car unlocked many times before anyone bothered to ransack it, and then they only took a small torch with a dead battery, and closed the door behind them. And this somehow got me wondering about the new Rolls-Royce Phantom.

The Phantom is a BMW, of course, just as Bentleys are now VWs. You’ll have seen pictures of it in the newspapers. It is a hideous, brick-shaped lump of metal with a radiator stapled on the front. I’ve always rather liked ugly cars, though I prefer those that are consciously ugly, like the old Renault Four or Austin ‘Landcrab’ 1800, rather than those that mistakenly believe they are really good-looking, like the new Rolls. Still, it won’t cost much more than a quarter of a million. How would it play on my street?

It would be, I think, unstealable. Nobody keeps a new Rolls on any street, because anyone who can afford to buy one has several garages. Those who break into cars are creatures of habit, as Polo owners will testify, so they wouldn’t touch it. And if they did steal one, who would buy it from them? Nobody. People probably wouldn’t even bother to vandalise it, because they wouldn’t recognise it as a BMW, in which case it would be fair game.

Why am I saying all this? Because unstealability is the only virtue I can find in this ludicrous rehash of an automotive brand. It will be the first time ever that a car’s factory – in this case, by Sir Nicholas Grimshaw, at Goodwood – is better designed than the products that come out of it. This German/US design for the Phantom is like the risible uniforms of cord trousers, waistcoats, blue-and-pink checked shirts and ties that the Rolls workers will apparently have to wear – an outsider’s fatally inaccurate idea of English aristocratic trappings, the equivalent of Dick van Dyke playing a cockney chimney sweep. Whereas, of course, real Royces were made by an Ealing-comedy set of men in boilersuits in Crewe, smoking Woodbines, with stubs of pencils behind their ears. Try making a fashion statement of that.

What was BMW thinking of? We’re told a small, crack team of car designers was based in a former bank in Kensington, then in an old bookshop in Holborn, to do it. This was somehow meant to inspire them in a way that a design studio in Bavaria would not. And the result is that Lady Penelope’s six-wheeled pink Thunderbirds Roller stands as a better stab at taking forward the brand than this one.

I suspect I don’t have to urge you not to buy this car. Other factors a

part from price may lead you to the same conclusion. A two-and-a-half tonne, 5.7 metre-long 6.75l car, that does 11.5mpg in town and carries the same number of passengers as the much better looking Ford Focus, may seem to some of you to have drawbacks, even though no one will ever break into it. Instead, consider a cheaper way to ensure your car’s security. Get an old Nissan Bluebird, well dented and rusted, with bald tyres and a coat hanger instead of an aerial. Don’t bother with a tax disc. In fact, don’t bother to drive it at all. You’ll be in good company: most Rolls owners don’t.

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