7 February 2007

1927 Rolls-Royce New Phantom Brougham de Ville

The word “phantom” evokes images of something elusive, visionary, abstract or ideal, and the regal Rolls-Royce Phantom embodies the word perfectly. The Derby, England, company – from its Manchester beginnings in 1904 – built a world-renown reputation for handcrafting supremely refined “motorcar” chassis. In 1904, Charles Stwart Rolls, the dashing aristocratic 28-year-old son of Lord and Lady Llangattock (whose ancestral seat was at The Hendre in Monmouth) met with 41-year-old car-builder Fredrick Henry Royce, the son of a miller and a student of precision (the English equivalent to Henry Leland). The wealthy Charles Rolls was considered one of the finest motorcar drivers (in competition events) in England, and had a dealership in London – with partner Claude Goodman Johnson – that specialized in importing luxury cars from Belgium and France. Royce agreed to give Rolls exclusive rights of selling his cars, in addition to adding his name to the automobile. Johnson, an intricate member of the new company, is often considered the hyphen in the Rolls-Royce name. 

While the first Rolls-Royce motorcars were extremely well-built, it was the Silver Ghost, introduced in 1907, that set the precedence for the company’s signature traits – it was luxurious, fast and quiet, becoming the most famous Rolls-Royce ever. Disaster struck just three years into Ghost production, though, as Rolls, ever the playboy, died when his airplane fell apart in mid-air during an air show in 1910.

Royce and Johnson continued to produce the Ghost on through the next decade and a half, but sensing its impending obsolescence, a “baby” 20hp car was added to the lineup in September 1922 (distinguished by horizontal rather than vertical grille slats). By the end of 1925, the now long-in-the-tooth Ghost was finally fully replaced with the New Phantom (internally referred to as the “Silver Ghost 40/50 and codenamed EAC – Eastern Armored Car) but hardly anyone noticed. It shared the same basic components and chassis as the 40/50hp Silver Ghost, but was fitted with a new 7.7-liter six-cylinder powerplant (horsepower was around 110), and because bodies were always provided by custom coachbuilders, styling just followed current trends. It turned out to be a stopgap chassis, as the New Phantom was replaced relatively soon thereafter when the all-new Phantom II arrived on the scene in September 1929 sharing the same basic but updated 7.7-liter engine.

With such a short span of production, there were just 2,212 New Phantom chassis built in Derby and another 1,241 coming out of the Springfield, Mass., plant. Before World War II, numerous coachbuilders specialized in supplying discerning Rolls-Royce clients with whatever they wanted on their Rolls-Royce chassis. Sometimes, though, customers gave very little direction in the building of their vehicle, even though they’d be spending more money on the completed vehicle than most people were paying for their home… much more.

Such was the case of the original purchaser of our featured 1927 Phantom (Chassis # 76TC, engine # RT25), a Brougham de Ville bodied by Charles Clark & Son, Ltd. Clark was a firm in Wolverhampton, England, that began in 1839 by an old-world craftsman, and in the 20th century, built some luxurious automotive bodies. By the time 76TC was fitted with coachwork, the company was owned by J.H. Barnett, who began his apprenticeship in 1902 with Herbert Austin at the Wolseley Works in Adderley Park, Birmingham. Barnett stayed with Austin for several years and was “the first man on the ground” at Longbridge when Austin founded the Austin Motor Company. Like Rolls and Royce, Austin was a man who did not consider cost when the question of the highest quality workmanship was a concern.

Barnett, when he took over Charles Clark & Son, decided to carry on with the body-building department concentrating only on high-class work. Under his direction, Clark built several bodies for one of the directors of England’s franchise of the F.W. Woolworth & Co. This man introduced Barnett to C.W. Gasque, the franchise’s American financial director. Gasque’s wife was related to the Woolworth family, and Gasque wanted to give her a car that would be “different to anything else, and also better.” In a 1958 letter to Stanley Sears, then-owner of the car, Barnett said that Gasque would not stipulate exactly what he wanted except to say that it must be French and that he was giving Clark carte blanche to do it. Barnett was taking a risk in accepting the order, and probably thought it strange – as Gasque refused to look at the car while it was being built.

With his foreman and small staff, Barnett was in a quandary as to what to build. Hoping for inspiration, he visited the Victoria & Albert Museum in South Kensington. He spotted a sedan chair with a painted ceiling (a sedan chair is an enclosed chair that is borne on poles and carried by two bearers on foot). While “sedans” were also used as taxis, the luxury of being carried by others was normally reserved for emperors and high nobility –the 18th-century example in the museum belonging to Marie Antoinette.

With the sedan chair as his model, he chose Louis XVI style (Louis XVI married Marie Antoinette) for the interior and sketches for a fiacre-type body were immediately drawn up. All of the woodwork for the interior, panels, cabinets and window trim was done in the Clark shop, but some of the more elaborate carving was done in London with the elaborate paintings of cherubs on the headliner done by a Frenchman living there.

The Aubusson petite-point embroidered upholstery was another risk that Barnett took, as it would take nine months to finish and needed to be ordered before the coachwork could begin. World-renowned Aubusson tapestries began with the arrival of weavers from Flanders, who took refuge in Aubusson around 1580. Tapestry styles have changed through the centuries, from scenes of green landscapes to hunting events. The specimen in the Gasque car cost Barnett £500, which today would have a purchasing power of roughly $75,000.

Barnett commissioned Elkington & Co. to produce hallmarked silver interior hardware appointments (to Barnett’s specific design) for the Gasque car, with much of it gilded. Elkington, founded in Birmingham in the 1840s and also world-renowned for its excellence in artistic quality, pioneered electroplate (silver plating), electrotyping, Sheffield silver and other products. The company supplied flatware to the luxury dining sections onboard the Titanic and other ships in the White Star Line fleet.

Given carte blanche to build the brougham, it is believed that the final cost, including chassis, was around £6,000 (roughly $30,000 at that time and $1 million today). Barnett related that the work was intensely interesting, but did not show great profits. With this car, it became obvious to him that the demand for such coachwork was waning and he closed the bodybuilding department of his company shortly thereafter. Around 1954, Charles Clark & Son was sold to A.G.B. Owen.

Ownership history of this car, according to Edward Fallon of Cave Creek Classics in Phoenix, is a story itself. Gasque, born in 1874, died on October 12, 1928, just 1½ years from the recorded delivery date of 76TC. Even though the car remained with Mrs. C.W. Gasque until her death (sometime between 1949-1951), the car had been placed in storage in 1937.

Stanley Sears of Sussex, England, purchased the Rolls from a dealer who had purchased it from the estate in 1952. Sears was a prominent figure in the Rolls-Royce collectors’ world and owned more than 64 great automobiles in his life while regarded as one of England’s great Rolls-Royce experts. Feeling that the all-black Rolls looked too funereal in its original appearance, Sears added the straw-colored basket-weaving caning to the coachwork. In addition, he replaced the 23-inch wheels with a smaller variety, since the large tires were no longer available, and had them painted the same straw color.

Sears owned the car until 1986 when a Japanese collector (a Mr. Takihana) acquired it. Several people in Japan had owned the car by the time Fallon found it in December 2001, then owned by Akira Takei. It took some convincing on Takei’s part to get Fallon to go see the car, which was several hours away from where Fallon was staying in Tokyo. Fallon was in Japan for other car business and didn’t want to “waste” a whole day to see one car. Takei prevailed, and after careful inspection, Fallon told Takei that he needed to get back to Tokyo, “now!” After a flurry of phone calls, faxes and e-mails, the Rolls was sold to prominent Pennsylvania collector Jack Rich.

In Rich’s hands, the car was shown at a few concours d’elegance events around the United States. At Pebble Beach in 2002, the Rolls received the Lucius Beebe award; from there, it went to Radnor Hunt where it was given the People’s Choice and Most Elegant Closed Car; at Castle Hill (Crane estate) north of Boston, it won First in Class; and at the Greenwich Concours in 2003 it was given the Chronos Award for Timeless Excellence. The last show in America was the 2003 Burn Prevention Concours where it won a Star Award, along with Most Elegant Interior and People’s Choice.

Still largely an unrestored car, according to Rich’s automotive caretaker/curator Mark Lizewskie, preserving the car’s fragile original features was a logistical nightmare. During many of the shows in which it was being displayed, rain fell, and with the varied humidity changes, it was slowly taking a toll on the car’s condition. Rich was not interested in having a garage queen, and had no problem locating a buyer in England – Charles Howard, who had wanted it for more than 30 years. So for a few short years, a few fortunate people in the States were given the privilege of seeing this car first-hand.

Under Howard’s ownership, it was fitted with wheel disc covers and shown at Retromobile in Paris. It was also featured on Barry Meguiar’s Car Crazy television show. Rumors have it that the car is now owned by someone in Russia. Let’s hope it is in the hands of someone who appreciates its originality, and can care for it properly.

West Peterson is editor of Antique Automobile, the official publication of the Antique Automobile Club of America.

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