The top bidder in our charity auction won a Rolls-Royce Phantom - for the day. John Simister cadges a ride

What does it feel like to drive a quarter-million-pound car? Wonderful, embarrassing, shocking, heavenly? One reader of The Independent, Tom Reah, was so keen to find out that he outbid all others in our charity auction last Christmas.

There were just two downsides: he and his wife Sue, from Burley in Hampshire's New Forest, could borrow the Rolls-Royce Phantom for just one day; and they would have to put up with your motoring correspondent for the morning.

No, make that three. The Independent had to pay an insurance premium of no less than £5,000 to guard against Rolls-Royce's loss should the worst happen. It might have been nice if that amount could have gone to charity, too.

At least it showed how much expense in parts and labour has gone into the Phantom. The factory, on Lord March's estate in Goodwood, Sussex, is no less extravagant with its glass walls and light-sensitive shutters, its grassed-in roof (to make it invisible from a South Downs vantage point), its lily pond and its country-pile access drive.

We leave a wood-panelled meeting room for a swift factory tour. Even the buttonless, non-scratch coats we have to wear have a Savile Row look to them, making us match most of the 450-strong workforce as we venture via the staff restaurant (no canteens here) to the assembly area.

Here, in surprising silence, Phantoms take ghostly shape as they are wheeled down the track to acquire more parts. The bare aluminium bodies, the BMW-derived V12 engine and many of the other mechanicals come from Germany, but they are painted and the cars - make that "motor cars" - are built up here in Britain.

There is little outward evidence that BMW owns today's Rolls-Royce enterprise. The wood shop and the leather shop have the expected teams of craftspeople, and there are regular exhortations not to touch because fingerprints are bad for nascent Rolls-Royces. The leather offcuts are sold to the fashion industry, by the way.

But what is this? A ripple on the leviathan bodywork? I am afraid so. Many of the just-minted Phantoms have less than perfect flanks on their front wings, panels which are not aluminium but composite. On a dark colour, in the factory's bright lights, it shows. Be aware when you place your order.

Will the Reahs place an order? Tom, a theatre and film producer and occasional actor, looks along the lines of the Madeira Red Phantom that will shortly transport him and Sue. This is a seriously large car, with vast wheels and the appearance, from a front three-quarter standpoint, of erupting slowly out of the ground.

It does not seem so large to Tom, though, who once thought about buying a Bentley Turbo R. "But it didn't do much for me," says the man who now divides his driving between a Lexus SC430 and a customised Chrysler PT Cruiser.

"It's very smooth," he observes as we drive off, "and very quick." Unwieldy, though, surely? "No, it doesn't feel large. I expected old-fashioned steering, as though turning a huge spring with no feel, but this is very nice."

Sue is relaxing in the ample rear cabin, enjoying the Chesterfield-like back seat. I am at the wheel now, seeing if I can get the "power reserve" meter down to zero. You probably need to tow a caravan up an Alpine pass to make it do that, but then Rolls-Royce for many years described its engines' outputs simply as "adequate". This is clearly more than that, because I cannot get below 12 per cent as we storm near-silently up the hill towards the Goodwood racecourse.

I bid farewell to the Reahs, and leave them to their auto-sybaritism. They have until 11.30pm before the Phantom turns into a pumpkin.

A couple of days later, Tom telephones with the day's tales. One involved a crowd gathered round the parked Phantom, for which a parking ticket had mistakenly not been bought.

The crowd included a traffic warden: "I think you had better go before anyone notices," he said, waving the Reahs off.

Tom sums up the Phantom thus. "I'd never understood how anyone could spend so much on a car, but I'm close to understanding now because it's so beautifully built. I couldn't get used to the iDrive, though" - indeed, who can? - "and the boot should have had automatic closing."

But did it meet expectations? "It went a little way past them. We did a couple of hundred miles on all kinds of roads and it was great. I couldn't get the power meter below 25 per cent, though."

Thanks to Andrew Ball at Rolls-Royce Motor Cars

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