Friday, December 20, 2013

A Fine Old Rolls Royce

LCLW9 - The red and black Wraith

1954 Rolls Royce Wraith LCLW9 at Robison Service
I first came to know this old Rolls in 1995, when Yankee Candle founder Mike Kittredge purchased it for $85,000 at the Barrett-Jackson auction.  We see fine Wraiths sell for more today, but eighteen years ago that bid price made this car the most expensive postwar Wraith sold to that date. 

I last saw this car in 2007.  At that time, it remained one of the nicest postwar Wraith limousines in existence.  The cosmetic restoration (which we didn't do) was stunning, and we'd built on that with a lot of mechanical work, including an engine overhaul and extensive chassis upgrades.  It had appeared in shows all over New England, including the prestigious events at Newport, Greenwich (Connecticut), Hildene (Manchester, Vermont) and Stowe, Vermont (The British Invasion.)

Unlike most show cars of this age the Wraith drove to most shows under its own power.  It would cruise all day at 50, and even stop and turn if you had plenty of room.  The inline six cylinder engine, vintage front end, and mechanical brakes were straight out of the 1930s.  Only the automatic transmission - sourced from General Motors - was current.  Rolls Royce was a strong believer in tradition.  Others described that trait as "bullheaded resistance to change."

Another tradition the Rolls Royce people developed was the use of the chassis number to describe a car.  They knew license plates changed, and bodies could be swapped, but the chassis number would always remain the same.  This particular vehicle left the factory carrying the number LCLW9.

When it wasn’t on the show circuit LCLW9 was the centerpiece of the Yankee Candle Car Museum in South Deerfield, Massachusetts.  The car was admired by thousands of museum visitors during those years. When the museum closed in 2002 Connecticut collector Don Colburn bought the car.  He'd owned a succession of Bentley Eight and Turbo R cars, and he decided it was time for an antique Rolls to compliment his more modern fleet.

He showed it at Newport in June of 2004, where it won the Rolls Royce class.  Unfortunately, Mr. Colburn died a few years later without showing the car again.  When his estate was liquidated we arranged its sale to Gull Wing Motors, and I lost track of it from there.

What’s left is its history . . .

In the fall of 1953, Broadway producer Blevins Davis decided he wanted a new Rolls Royce.  Mr. Davis was a former school teacher from Independence, Missouri who grew up with Harry Truman.  Davis achieved considerable success in Independence, building a large mansion that was the site of many events in the years before World War II. In 1946 Davis married Margaret Sawyer Hill, heir of James Jerome Hill, builder of the Great Northern Railway. When she died three years later he inherited nine million dollars.  Armed with that money, he became a well known patron of the arts, producing plays such as Porgy and Bess, Rhapsody, Skipper to God, and A Joy Forever.

Davis became interested in Rolls Royce cars after his marriage, and bought several in rapid succession.  He ordered this car on November 12, 1953. He requested an "all weather tourer" body, which today would be called a 4 door convertible. Fitted with side mount spare tire and the big lights, the original incarnation of this car must have looked like a Rolls-Royce tourer from the Silver Ghost era.

At that time Rolls Royce offered three models. The Silver Dawn was their smaller car. Though custom variants were available on special order, most Silver Dawn models were "standard steel saloons." By that, Rolls Royce meant the cars had standard assembly line steel sedan (saloon) bodies. The Silver Dawn was Rolls-Royce's first production line car.

The larger cars - the Silver Wraith and the Phantom - were quite different. These magnificent cars were referred to as "coach built," which meant Rolls-Royce built a running chassis consisting of a rolling frame and drive train. They delivered the chassis to a coach builder, who built a body. A vanished breed, these builders were descendants of the horse drawn carriage builder. These coachbuilders - Freestone & Webb, H.J. Mulliner - are largely forgotten today.

Using hardwood framing with sheet metal skins, these bodies were built one at a time, piece by piece. Every one was unique. Some cars were completely unique - built to a sketch drawn up between the buyer and builder. Others were built from a standard plan. Even those, though, differed subtly from car to car. Mr. Davis chose Freestone & Webb, one of the smaller builders, to produce the body for his Rolls-Royce.

Eleven months were required to produce this tourer, which was a "one of a kind".  Most of today's new car buyers are accustomed to picking options off a list.  Rolls Royce didn't do things that way.  There were no predefined options - just requests for customization - and the Company billed you for the work when done.  Here's how they defined this car (from the factory record)

Automatic gearbox x53-226.
Extension speaker to radio.                             Auto altimeter.
F.B.A. headlamps with yellow bulbs.            Bonnet locks.
Silver Dawn sealed beam headlamps. White wall tyres (removed).
Dunlop Guardian tyres (fitted).                      2 RD 7470 foglamps.
Spare wheel mounted right front wing.           2 wing mirrors.
Power operated windows and hood.              Left hand door locks.
Pyrene bumpers (no fog lamps).                    Bar type footrest.
Mascot made thief proof.                               Small G.B. plate.
Emergency window handle.                            Under car aerial.
Folding windscreen to rear.                             Hood Valve Key.
"Made In England" plate.                               2 rubber mats; 1 wool rug.
Extra cushion for driver seat (deleted).           Drawer under dash.
Frame to be specially strengthened per AFM/GB's instructions.
Blinker indicators (flasher to be supplied and fitted in U.S.A.).
Exide battery, installed 7/8/54                        Radio, serial #14 11559

On September 12, 1954, Rolls-Royce delivered the new car to Ferryfield Airport, located at Lydd, near Dungeness in Kent. The car was flown to Le Touquet, France, where Mr. Davis was waiting. With its exclusive casino and beaches, Le Touquet was a popular resort.  Its casino was said to be the setting for one of the early James Bond novels.

Mr. Davis paid $16,340 for the Wraith, plus air freight and tax.  That was enough money to buy a good house in those days, when a Cadillac Eldorado - one of the most expensive production cars in America - sold for $4,500 and a good used car was a few hundred bucks.

Presumably the tourer style was not to his liking, because only two months later, on November 11, he returned the car to Rolls-Royce to be re-bodied as a closed limousine. This time he chose H.J. Mulliner to build a body for the car. The rebodied car was returned to him in France on May 18, 1955 by chartered air transport.

In May of 1957, after two years of use, Mr Davis sold the car to his neighbor in Cannes – Col. Jack Trevor – author of The Trouble With Harry and a number of other popular books and screen plays.  Davis then moved to Peru, where he lived for the next decade.  Col. Trevor returned to England and brought the car with him that fall.  Trevor subsequently went bankrupt and the car was sold.  Sometime in the sixties or seventies the car made its way to America after, where it was shuffled from one owner to another and accumulated somewhat over 100,000 hard miles.   

The car next surfaces in public records when it was sent to auction in the fall of 1993.  The listing said, Dark Blue-black/blue leather; P100 headlamps, divider window; poor older repaint, cracking badly, otherwise all original including good interior.

The car was bought and restored by an un-named American collector.  He certainly restored its original grandeur from a cosmetic perspective.  The faded blue and black color scheme was replaced with red and black.  All the leather was replaced, and the wood was refinished.  Other than the change to the color, this car looked just the way it was re-bodied fifty years before.

Unfortunately the 1993 restoration was only skin deep.  When Mike Kittredge got the car he discovered the engine smoked and barely ran. The steering was so sloppy you'd be afraid to go over 25, and there was a hole in the floor where you stuck you boot down to assist the brakes. The worn out drivetrain had been beautifully cleaned and painted but nothing had been done to correct the decades of wear and neglect.  Fine black paint made for a nice museum piece, but Kittredge wanted a car he could drive.

That, of course, is my longstanding philosophy too.  I think there's something wrong with restorations that do not function as good as they look.

Over the next five years we remade this car in that image, going through the engine, transmission, suspension, brakes and running gear.  When we were done it drove better than when it was new, thanks to some modern improvements and careful tuning and balancing.  It was a big hit everywhere it went.  I can still remember gliding into cruise night at the local Burger King, and parking the massive Wraith next to a little T-bucket Ford from the 20s!


I wonder where LCLW9 is today?   If you know, drop us a line . . .

John Elder Robison is the general manager of J E Robison Service Company, independent restoration and repair specialists in Springfield, Massachusetts.  John is a longtime technical consultant to the RROC and other car clubs, and he’s owned and restored many of these fine vehicles.  Find him online at www.robisonservice.com or in the real world at 413-785-1665

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