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I fired her up on the lawn, and to my surprise the most enthusiastic onlooker was an unfortunate chap whose entire picnic I had blown away

1931 rolls royce phantom ii merlin special

Chassis 64GX left Crewe as a standard Phantom II saloon, but in the late 1970s, Rolls-Royce collector Nicholas Harley of London decided to create a showcase of British engineering might. The restoration that ensued spanned approximately seven years, during which time the Phantom II frame was lengthened, reinforced and fitted with this lovely Gurney Nutting-inspired body constructed by Wilkinson's of Derby, and a 27-liter Mk I Merlin V12 engine was fitted, fed by two fuel pumps delivering 100 gallons per hour.

Upon completion, the aero-powered Phantom II was tested at Donington Park, where is was pitted against a 1958 Vanwall Grand Prix car-amazingly, the Rolls-Royce out-accelerated the racing car. In the 1990s, the Rolls-Royce made its way Stateside and, in 2000, it was sold to a well-known Florida collector.

In 2007, this car was acquired by its current owner, who has since embarked upon a mechanical overhaul. When the car was first constructed, the tremendous torque and power caused transmission and clutch issues, so during the mechanical overhaul, the transmission was converted to a Jaguar unit with high-strength gears. In addition, the Merlin engine was tested and tuned.

In 2008, following its meticulous rebuild, the Rolls-Royce was invited to the Pebble Beach Concours d'Elegance, where it was displayed alongside a number of 20-plus-liter automobiles, earning the Rolls-Royce a class award. The Merlin remains in exceptional condition. Beyond its remarkable engine bay, one of the most evocative aspects of this car is its overwhelming instrument panel, which would not look out of place in a Spitfire airplane.

Unlike other examples of aero-engined automobiles, this Rolls-Royce stands apart in its impressive presentation and loyalty to original details. This Merlin-powered Phantom II is ready to draw crowds wherever it goes, and its new owner should be capable of experiencing the unbelievable feeling of piloting a WWII-era fighter plane down the road.

{analysis}{auto}1429{/auto} This car sold for $451,000, including buyer's premium, at Gooding's Scottsdale Auction in Scottsdale, Arizona, on January 22, 2010.

With its Spitfire motor and a host of auction appearances under its belt, it's tempting to call this car a frequent flier. Christie's sold it at Beaulieu back in July 1969 for $13,956 as a normal saloon (SCM #7326). RM sold it post-Merlin transplant at Monterey in '99 for $605,000 (SCM# 22226) and again in Florida at its Al Wiseman Collection auction in 2007, this time for $412,500 (SCM# 47743).

Young oligarchs and sheikhs cruising the boulevards of Moscow and Dubai in their bling'd-up Veyrons may think they have a monopoly on 1,000 horsepower, but younger kids in a rather more demanding profession-RAF pilots-took it for granted 70 years ago. Often they were piloting one of history's great fighter aircraft, no fewer than 27 liters of Rolls-Royce Merlin engine stretching out past the gunsight in front of them and anything up to 2,000 horsepower at their bidding.

England, home of the eccentric

In fact, the Merlin didn't just power Spitfires, Hurricanes, and Lancaster bombers, it saw service in MTBs (motor torpedo boats) and tanks. So successful was the Merlin that 149,659 units were built, some 37,000 under license by Packard in the U.S. Lord Tedder, Marshal of the RAF and the man charged with development of aircraft during the Battle of Britain, attributed victory to "three predominant factors: the skill and bravery of the pilots, 100-octane fuel and the Rolls-Royce Merlin engine."

It's debatable, however, whether even the most inventive boffin would have thought of a Merlin as suitable power for a motor car. Thankfully, England is the home of the eccentric ("Mad Dogs and Englishmen," as Noel Coward noted), and one man did.

The catalog credits veteran English dealer Nick Harley-the man who bid $10 million for the Bugatti Royale at auction in 1987 and now enjoys life in his fortress-like retreat on the Côte d'Azur-with the creation of this "special-to-trump-all-specials." However, a quick call to Harley reveals there's more to the story.

"In the early 1980s, I used to do business with the late Stephen Langton, sadly killed racing at Brands Hatch. Stephen was a quick driver of the 'keep the foot firmly on the loud pedal and sort out the rest with the steering wheel' method. In fact, that's pretty well how he lived his life. On one visit, I was particularly smitten by a tow car he was building to trail his Lister to meetings. This device consisted of a Rolls Phantom II Continental chassis stripped and fitted with a Merlin aero engine at one end and a ball hitch at the other. The bits in between he was sorting out as he went along, Langton style. The ball hitch was clearly part of a farm gate. Alas, it was not to be, and in 1987 I phoned Stephen's widow Liz and bought the project."

It would take an hour to list the engineering solutions

It took eight years and involved re-designing almost everything. "It would take an hour to list the engineering solutions," Harley recalls, "but we did everything to Rolls-Royce standards and no detail was overlooked." The chassis didn't need lengthening and the Merlin engine, he says, was a 1938-vintage Mk 3, not the less reliable Mk 1 as cataloged. "Ferrari restorer Terry Hoyle had an old boy working for him who'd served in the aero department at Rolls, and he rebuilt the engine. We tested it on Terry's dyno and it peaked at 1,200 hp with 1,350 ft-lb torque at 2,800 rpm. Terry still complains about his broken dyno."

"When we first fired the engine up in the car, we'd put the plug leads on the wrong way. The resulting explosion blew the exhaust system straight out the garage doors." Plug leads re-ordered and much perseverance later, the aero-engined behemoth was developed into a car which actually worked. Harley took it on various tours before completing a road trip from New England to Amelia Island. At three miles per gallon (the trunk conceals a 55-gallon fuel tank), America and the Middle East are probably the only places someone could afford to run it. "At the concours, by popular request, I fired her up on the lawn to a huge round of applause. To my surprise the most enthusiastic onlooker was an unfortunate chap whose entire picnic I had blown away with the initial exhaust blast."

So was it a good deal at $451k? The concept of "specials" as we Brits call them is not dissimilar to the U.S. hot rodding tradition, and both are now accepted in collecting circles-as proven by this car's invitation to Pebble Beach. Usability is increasingly important in determining the appeal of a classic car, but again, while the Spitfire start-up routine might intimidate the novice collector (prime Ki-Gas on dash; petrol into manifold; hand-crank dash mag; expect a cloud of black smoke as it fires), it has at least shown it can be driven. Harley reports lapping Milbrook consistently at 120 mph, and the Vanwall story is true, by the way...

The seller, a prominent Texas collection, was making room for recent acquisitions-their new Porsche 550 Spyder would probably fit under the hood of the Rolls-Royce. The buyer, a young collector with a passion for cars and aircraft, had looked at it before and this time took the plunge. David Gooding told me this was the nicest aero-engined car he'd seen, and even though the price was 14% more than the car sold for at Tarpon Springs in 2007, I'd call it well bought.{/analysis}

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