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On the trail of the Abu Dhabi Phantom

When Mohammed Luqman Ali Khan came across a 1960s photograph of a Phantom V in the Gulf, it sparked a long obsession with tracking down this iconic and important automobile

The year 2018 marked the centenary of Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan (1918–2004), the ruler of Abu Dhabi and the principal driving force behind the creation of the United Arab Emirates (UAE). I was researching for a book about Rolls-Royce motor cars that had been supplied to wealthy Arabs in the Gulf, the Middle East and North Africa and, while flicking through the pages of Memoirs of the Emirates, published by the National Archives of the UAE, I stumbled upon an Eastman colour photograph showing the unloading of a classic Rolls-Royce Phantom on Arabian shores. As a motoring researcher who has lived in the Emirates for 10 years – and been visiting the UAE for more than two decades – several questions immediately came to my mind. Whose car was this? Does it survive? If so, where is it now? These questions, combined with the fascinating sight of a right-hand drive, seven-seater enclosed Rolls-Royce limousine landing in the Gulf, triggered my mission to find out more about this car and – if possible – to locate and acquire it.

Those initial questions turned into something of an obsession, and my research led me down a veritable rabbit hole. I started making enquiries and mobilized my friends in Europe and beyond to find out more about this car and discover if it survived. My search took me to the RREC archives at the Hunt House, to the official Rolls-Royce manufacturers’ records and to car enthusiasts around Europe. It eventually led me to writing a book and making a film about this car, finding its owner and – ultimately – purchasing this remarkable car for myself.

I have been researching Rolls-Royce and Bentley motor cars for a while now, especially for my book Automobiles of the Nizams. I inherited the loss of three vintage Rolls-Royce vehicles from my family, namely chassis numbers 61CW (a 1920 Barker-bodied Silver Ghost), 83SC (a 1926 Phantom I Connaught Tourer) and 12NC (a 1926 Phantom I Hooper Cabriolet). All had been owned by my great-great-grandfather Nawab Rasool Yar Jung Bahadur of Hyderabad, who was part of the Muslim aristocracy that served the Nizams who ruled the southern Deccan Plateau in southern India. While my quest to know their whereabouts continues, I think all three were most likely scrapped in Hyderabad back in the day. I wondered if the Rolls-Royce pictured in the Gulf in the 1960s was the victim of such a fate?

After much exploration I discovered that this vehicle was a Rolls-Royce Phantom V, chassis number 5VE15, and was bought by the Abu Dhabi royal family. The vehicle is listed in the leading books on the marque, such as Lawrence Dalton’s Rolls-Royce: The Classic Elegance, Andrew Pastouna’s Rolls-Royce State Motor Cars, and Martin Bennett’s Rolls-Royce: The Post-War Phantoms IV, V, VI. It was first displayed on stand number 160 at the 1965 Earl’s Court Motor Show – a photograph of the car at that event appears in Davide Bassoli’s Under the Spotlight. There are also images of the car in the National Archives in Abu Dhabi.

The Phantom range has always been the preserve of the high and mighty, the epitome of Rolls-Royce power and performance. Only 832 Phantom Vs were ever produced and the list of owners includes many big names – from regal entertainers like Elvis Presley, John Lennon, Liberace and Elton John, to leaders such as President Tito, Imelda Marcos and Nicolae Ceausescu, to royalty such as Her Majesty The Queen, the Queen Mother, the Shah of Iran, the King of Jordan, the Emir of Qatar and King Abdul Aziz Ibn Saud of Saudi Arabia.

Nowadays it seems only natural that an oil-rich Gulf sheikh might choose to purchase a Rolls-Royce Phantom V, but in 1966 this was an audacious purchase for the ruler of Abu Dhabi. It was staggering for an Arabian country, steeped in tradition and still battling poverty, to have a Rolls-Royce as a state motor car in the 1960s. We expected this in the developed western countries or even the wealthy erstwhile princely states of the Indian Maharajas, which, by then, had ceased to exist. But, in 1966, most of the world still had little idea of the newfound wealth in Arabia and the transformation that was on the horizon. Back then, nobody knew that Abu Dhabi would, in a few decades, be one of the richest places in the world. So I felt overawed and overwhelmed by the scale and significance of this discovery. The enormity of it didn’t sink in until much later. It is not often that you discover a state motor car, and rarer still that you learn it is the most important motor car in the history of the nation.

In my pursuit to unearth more on the history of 5VE15, I flew to the UK with my family in March 2019. I drove to Paulerspury with my wife Maria and kids Amaan, Hana and Affan (this was before the birth of our fourth child, Furqan). We were received warmly at the RREC by Sharron Bland, the then records manager at the Hunt House archives. With the help of RREC staff and the archive – as well as from Phantom owner Anton van Lujik and historian Hans Porrio – I discovered that chassis number 5VE15 was coach-built by Mulliner Park Ward and purchased from Jack Barclay Ltd, the central London dealership that sold Bentley, Rolls-Royce and other luxury vehicles. This Phantom with Arabian specifications was delivered new in January 1966 to His Highness Sheikh Shakhbut bin Sultan Al Nahyan (1905–89) who was the ruler of Abu Dhabi from 1928 to 1966. My research suggests it is very likely that it was the cousin of Sheikh Shakhbut, a top official in the government named Sheikh Hamdan bin Mohammed Al Nahyan, who may have played an important role in ordering this car for the ruler. As a car-lover he frequented the Earl’s Court Motor Show, as evidenced in a Pathé News film from 1966. In a separate news film Sheikh Zayed himself is seen trying a few motor cars at the Paris Motor Show. There are numerous films and photographs that show the car in the use of Sheikh Zayed and Sheikh Shakhbut. One historic photo shows Sheikh Zayed in this very car with his young sons Sheikh Sultan bin Zayed, Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed (the present crown prince of the UAE) and Sheikh Hamdan bin Zayed, with the three young princes occupying the occasional seats.

After using the car for around six months, Sheikh Shakhbut stepped down, having ruled for 38 years. He made way for his successor, his young and dynamic brother His Highness Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, who was crowned the new ruler of Abu Dhabi on 6 August 1966. The Phantom V was used extensively by Sheikh Zayed during his reign. Photos from the 1960s show the car parked alongside guards at the Al Bateen Airport in Abu Dhabi to welcome foreign dignitaries. For many years it was maintained and serviced by A A Zayani, the Rolls-Royce dealer in the region.

In the 1960s, Abu Dhabi was one of several small, separate British colonies in the Gulf, known as the Trucial States. By the late 1960s, the British government had made it clear that it wanted to withdraw from the region, and Sheikh Zayed was a key figure in the movement for independence. When two of these former British colonies, Bahrain and Qatar, became independent nations, the seven other emirates – Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Ajman, Fujairah, Ras Al Khaimah, Sharjah and Umm Al Quwain – united to form a federation that became the UAE. Sheikh Zayed was the driving force behind this federation, and Zayed’s Phantom V was a constant presence during this tumultuous period in the history and birth of a new nation. The car was reportedly used during the inauguration and parade of Sheikh Zayed as the newly crowned ruler of Abu Dhabi in August 1966. There is a photograph and video that shows Sheikh Zayed being transported in this Phantom V to the conference of the nine Emirates (which included Bahrain and Qatar) held in 1968 at Al Mutheef in Abu Dhabi, the year the British agreed to withdraw from the Gulf states. The royal car was guarded by gunmen holding AK47s as the old Abu Dhabi flag fluttered on its bonnet and wings.

Fitted with huge desert tyres, it reportedly transported His Highness Sheikh Zayed to the border of Abu Dhabi and Dubai in 1968, where he met His Highness Sheikh Rashid bin Saeed Al Maktoum, the ruler of Dubai. That year they both agreed to join forces to form a federation that eventually became the UAE. A few years later it transported James Treadwell, the first British Ambassador to the Emirates, to the ceremony when the UAE was formally established on 2 December 1971. It is also reported to have transported Her Majesty The Queen during her state visit to the UAE in February 1979.

The car is said to have made its way out of the UAE through Colonel Edward “Tug” Wilson, who reportedly received it as a gift from Sheikh Zayed. I wouldn’t be surprised to discover that Colonel Wilson drove this Phantom by road all the way from Abu Dhabi to the UK, given the dauntless military man’s penchant for adventure. He also participated in the Peking to Paris race – I wonder if this Phantom was his vehicle of choice for that rugged contest?

Wilson was born in 1921 in Hartlepool, in the north-east of England. He trained as a wireless operator before being selected for officer training at Sandhurst in 1945, later serving in the Malaya Emergency and the Korean War before taking part in the Berlin airlift. Tiny in height, but tall in might, he commanded respect and had a will of iron. While seconded from the British Army, Colonel Wilson was the first commander of the Abu Dhabi Defence Force (ADDF), a forerunner of the UAE’s current armed forces. He held this post until 1968, after which he was recalled from the Gulf and served as an instructor at the Royal Naval College in Greenwich.

Wilson retired in 1971 but was later invited back to Abu Dhabi by Sheikh Zayed and was tasked with the running of the royal stables. He shared a love of racehorses and falconry with the Sheikh, and he clearly relished the beautiful thoroughbred horses owned by the Abu Dhabi royals. He died in Abu Dhabi after a short illness in January 2009 and was laid to rest there.

Through my research, I tracked down the history of the Phantom V, from the production line up to the present day. I traced its footprints from the UK to France, Holland and eventually to Austria. It turned out that chassis number 5VE15 had been used for many years as a chauffeur-driven luxury wedding car in Europe, the fate of many of these limousines. Through my research I received details of the owner in Vienna, who I tried to contact in July 2018 but without success. I had to park this pursuit temporarily, as I had to rush to California the following month to preview my first book Automobiles of the Nizams at Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance, which complemented the featured class “Motor Cars of the Raj” at that particular concours. Upon my return from the US, I revived my quest for the Abu Dhabi Phantom.

In January 2019, my persistence paid off and I received a positive response from the car’s owner in Vienna. We entered into conversation and, after much persuasion and lengthy negotiations, a deal to purchase this car was finally agreed. I hopped on an Emirates plane and flew to Vienna to see the car up close and personal, before finally test-driving it on 19 February 2019.

Palpable nervousness preceded my first meeting with what had become my muse for almost a year. Sitting next to the owner in his BMW, we approached its location by road, heading from Vienna towards Mödling and finally stopping in Münchendorf, a small town around 12 miles south of Vienna. The owner’s son waited at the location to open the tall, cast-iron gates of the Phantom’s hideout. As he unlocked and pushed open the gates, there she was – tucked away in an obscure and nondescript garage, parked unceremoniously, sandwiched between an off-road truck and a caravan, rarely used and gathering dust.

The seller and I signed papers at a government-appointed attorney’s office in the city centre of Vienna. Having entered into an agreement and armed with the purchase contract that specified the terms and conditions, I flew back to the UAE elated, with a sense of “mission accomplished”. I was on the cusp of acquiring the most historic motor car in the history of the Emirates.

The funds were transferred and the transaction completed on Christmas Eve, 2019. Then began the herculean task of exporting the Phantom out of Austria. The former owner was scheduled to go on a winter vacation not long after Christmas, so a lorry was despatched on Boxing Day – never the easiest time to hire transportation services – travelling from the UK to Austria by road. On a bitterly cold morning in Münchendorf, the Phantom came out from her garage and glided smoothly into the lorry. Once loaded she was wrapped, strapped and latched for her journey back to Britain where she was born. The stringent EU rules governing the movement of heavy-goods vehicles through cities, and the limitations on the number of hours each driver could drive, all had to be taken into consideration, but the Phantom arrived successfully in the UK before the new year. She had been shipped there with a view to restoring her, but the pandemic thwarted my plans.

Following the acquisition of 5VE15, I arranged invitations for the Phantom to be shown at leading automotive events such as the Concours of Elegance, Salon Privé, the British International Concours d’Elegance – Auto Royale, and Concours Virtual.

I still intend to restore the car to its original theme and livery – Valentine’s Black with fine gold lines. I also intend to revert the upholstery to tan leather and beige cloth, as was delivered new. Since acquiring it with its woeful whitewalls, these have been flipped to face the inside and two new magnetic flag poles have been affixed. The sill mouldings are missing on both sides, which I hope to find and reaffix in due course. The car has been serviced recently and is ready to transport royalty once more. I have been preparing a pictorial history of the car, entitled Sheikh Zayed’s Rolls-Royce 5VE15, and I am also making a film about it.

Once readied, I plan to showcase this most significant car in the history of the UAE at the Expo 2020 Dubai – a world fair that has been delayed until October 2021 – so that visitors from around the world can see up-close this automotive heirloom. Incidentally, 2021 also sees the 55th anniversary of the car’s delivery to the UAE. To recreate a scene from yesteryear, I would love to photograph the car at Qasr-Al-Hosn (the oldest and most historic castle on mainland Abu Dhabi), where the car was delivered new. I would also love to see it displayed under the central dome at the Qasr-Al-Watan (the presidential palace) where it technically belongs. Imagine how great it would look as a permanent exhibit at the soon-to-be-opened Zayed National Museum – the ideal home for this car.

The year 2021 is a perfect time to bring home this most historic motor car, as the nation is gearing to celebrate its golden jubilee – the 50th anniversary of the formation of the United Arab Emirates. It is only befitting that this royal Phantom returns to Abu Dhabi, an emirate that has become the top seller of Rolls-Royce motor cars in the world.

Mohammed Luqman Ali Khan is a UAE-based author, curator and motoring historian. He is the author of “Automobiles of the Nizams” and is currently working on “Sheikh Zayed’s Rolls-Royce 5VE15”, “Automobiles of Sheikh Zayed”, “Rolls-Royce in Arabia” and “Nizam’s Throne Rolls-Royce 2117”