Rolls of honour

Bonhams Magazine

Issue 52, Autumn 2017

Page 22

If you want to stage the motoring event of the decade, where better to hold it than Bonhams? Mark Beech reveals what happened when Rolls-Royce unveiled its new Phantom

It is the evening of 27 July and, in a hushed room at Bonhams, a black-tie audience await what many have called the automotive event of the decade. The lights dim, music surges. In front of us, a spangled cage rises... and there is the first sight of the iconic Rolls-Royce radiator grille, now bigger and more imposing than ever, blending seamlessly into the front of the New Phantom. There are gasps, then applause from the onlookers.

This was Rolls-Royce's biggest announcement in 14 years: that is how long it has been since the marque last updated its flagship limousine. The maker sees Mayfair, with its associations with luxury, as a spiritual homeland, so Bonhams was the obvious location for the grand unveiling.

The new car is spectacular, with huge presence and a plush interior. It has a new all-aluminium 'Architecture of Luxury' spaceframe that will be used on all future Rolls-Royces. The 6.75-litre twin-turbocharged V12 engine has an 8-speed ZF automatic transmission. The quality and good breeding are something to shout about, yet the car is reputed to be even quieter than its predecessor.

The new car is certainly built without compromise, but then it stands on the shoulders of giants, which is why The Great Eight exhibition displayed it along with notable examples of each of the seven previous generations of Phantom – a breath-taking look at automotive history. These huge, imposing machines are simply the finest iterations of the best car in the world.

From its debut in 1925, the Phantom has played its part in history's defining moments, from the signing of treaties to occasions of state. Each Phantom is unique, and many have illustrious owners – the wealthy, the famous, the heads of state. The riot of colours says it all, with every owner bringing their own personality to their vehicle: there are some 44,000 paint colours on offer.

John Lennon's Phantom V started in Valentine Black – it was the car that took the Beatles to Buckingham Palace to collect their MBEs. He had wanted it all black, even the radiator grille, but that was not possible. So he had it repainted in a swirling yellow and floral pattern. Sir Malcolm Campbell, famous for his Bluebird speed records, preferred a pale blue for his Phantom II Continental, while Field Marshal Montgomery stuck to a simple black for the Phantom III on display. Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II's Phantom VI State Limousine has a royal claret and black livery, and the Phantom IV commissioned by the Aga Khan III is in a deep green.

"Mr Lennon decided the original paintwork needed a change," says Dr Lorne Hammond, Curator of History at the Royal British Columbia Museum, where Lennon's Phantom is now kept. "Rumour has it he was trying to get one up on his manager, Brian Epstein. The car then moved to the United States and it later sold for $2.29 million to Jim Pattison, who owned the Ripley's Believe It Or Not! franchise." The inspiration for the paintwork is variously credited to a fairground visit and even the poster that inspired the song, 'Being for the Benefit of Mr Kite'. The interior is dark, with its blackened windows; the Sony television set has been removed – it is the same sort of portable TV as can be seen on the sleeve of Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, the album now celebrating its 50th birthday.

Over at the Sir Malcolm Campbell display, Don Wales – the grandson of the speed-record holder – puts on white gloves to open the door for admirers. He proudly points to the lustrous bodywork. That pearlescent glow? Apparently it was achieved, he notes with a smile, by "Rolls-Royce's use of ground herring-scales in the paint." Wales adds that the car is capable of 95mph – very modest by Campbell's standards, but head-spinning for a car weighing almost two-and-a-half tons.

These cars tell the history of Rolls-Royce. The Phantom was developed in secrecy, with the project code-named 'Eastern Armoured Car'. This suggested it was intent on producing the kind of military vehicles used in the First World War, most famously by Lawrence of Arabia.

Sections of armour plate were left lying around to confuse curious competitors. The Phantom I was an instant success. The new 7.668-litre straight-six engine put a spring in the car's step. An example is the 1927 Phantom I Towncar, originally owned by Fred Astaire. In these early days, customers would buy the car and get the coachwork added – in this case, Astaire commissioned Hooper of London. He also asked for a travel trunk, and this was specially created for him by Louis Vuitton.

The Phantom III was to be Sir Henry Royce's last project. He died in 1933, aged 70, about 12 months into development. The finished model, with its V12 engine, was unveiled two years later and production lasted from 1936 until the Second World War.One Phantom of this era on display was owned by Field Marshal Montgomery. He was known as 'the Spartan General' because of his ascetic lifestyle, but there was one area in which he demanded the very best: his personal transport. His preference was for Rolls-Royce, and used his cars to communicate "permanence, solidity, reliability and, naturally, Britishness". The Rolls-Royces were a signal to his men that he was "there to stay". Monty's cars were used to drive both Churchill and Eisenhower.

The Phantom IV of 1950 was intended as one-off for Prince Philip and the then Princess Elizabeth. However, it was such a success, a further 17 were produced, exclusively for other royal families and heads of state around the world. Fitted with a straight-eight engine, it performed superbly at low speeds – essential for taking part in ceremonial parades – and featured the kneeling version of the famous 'Spirit of Ecstasy' bonnet mascot.

The royal connection continued with the Phantom VI (1968-1990), notably with the Silver Jubilee Car that was presented to the Queen in 1977 by the British motor industry to celebrate her 25 years on the throne, and later used at the wedding of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge. This is also on show – a car remarkable for its raised roof, which supports an enormous expanse of toughened glass. It is a state car, so it needs no number plate.

The story continues with the first Goodwood Phantom, the Phantom VII, marking the revival of the model name in 2003. It was made at the Rolls-Royce site in West Sussex near to the motor-racing circuit.

Which brings us back to the New Phantom. One final impressive detail is the instrument panel, where owners can add any piece of art they desire. The car looked perfectly at home at Bonhams during the launch, as the flashbulbs popped and video cameras zoomed in. Queues quickly formed of guests keen to sit behind the wheel of a most remarkable vehicle, perhaps imagining what masterpiece they would display on its polished dashboard.

Mark Beech is an author, journalist and the editor of Dante magazine.

Related auctions