|Vehicle:||1931 Rolls-Royce Phantom II Merlin Special cabriolet|
|Years Produced:||1931 (modified in 1987)|
|Original List Price:||n/a|
|SCM Valuation:||$451,000 on this day|
|Tune Up Cost:||n/a|
|Distributor Caps:||n/a (magneto)|
|Chassis Number Location:||Plate on firewall|
|Engine Number Location:||Engine block on left side|
|Alternatives:||Any proper motor car with 20 more liters than necessary|
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.