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Restoration drama

From barn find to regal return, the faithful rebuilding of Edward VIII’s Phantom I is a tale of good fortune, skill and dedication. Words by Richard Charnley

The handsome, charming and womanising Edward, Prince of Wales – later King Edward VIII and known within the Royal Family as David – enjoyed a hedonistic lifestyle of nightclubs, parties and dancing during the immediate post-war period of the Roaring Twenties. He relished the pursuit of dangerous pastimes such as steeplechasing and flying, had perilous affairs with married women, and became a serial owner of Rolls-Royce motorcars throughout the decade.

The prince acquired at least six Barker-bodied Silver Ghosts for his stable: the enclosed limousine and Olympia Show car 9-LW and the High Speed Alpine Eagle 31-PP, both in 1920; the enclosed drive cabriolet Alpine Eagle chassis 58-UG in 1921; the long frame chassis enclosed drive cabriolet 60-LK in 1923; the cabriolet de ville 17-TM in 1924; and the 1924 all-weather tourer 127-AU, which he added in 1929.

Edward was a regular visitor to Burrough Court near Melton Mowbray, a grand country house where the smart hunting set used to meet. This was the home of Lord Furness and his wife Thelma, with whom the Prince of Wales had an affair in the early 1930s. In fact, it was at Burrough Court that Thelma introduced him to Wallis Simpson, who he went on to marry in 1937.

During some of these early visits, the prince left his Silver Ghost 9-LW at the Works in Derby, just 30 miles away, saying he was disappointed with the performance and issuing instructions that it should be able to achieve 70mph. The Repair Department tried everything but to no avail – the heavy coachwork meant the car would not go above 65mph. Following its final visit to Derby, the limousine mysteriously broke the 70mph barrier. The prince was delighted but in 1979, Rolls-Royce engineer Bill Gibson revealed at the RREC Historical Research Day that the Experimental Department had solved the problem by fitting a “special” gear wheel for the speedometer that, in effect, meant it was over-reading.

Following his string of Silver Ghosts, the performance of the prince’s 1927 Phantom I 14RF is unlikely to have disappointed, thanks to its new push-rod overhead-valve, 7688cc, six-cylinder engine with detachable cylinder head and lightweight, fabric-covered Weymann-type saloon body by Gurney Nutting. He continued to use the car when he became King Edward VIII in 1936, following the death of his father George V, and it remained in his ownership for 10 years until it found a new home with Mrs Beatrice Fry in Southampton. After Mrs Fry’s ownership, the trail goes cold until the early 1980s when Essex-based Rolls-Royce and Bentley specialist Ted Overton came across a pile of rusting chassis parts by chance.

“Back in those days I was building a series of Bentley specials,” says Ted. “I pooled all the money I could find and set out to buy as many Mark VI and R-type chassis as I could.” This search led him to a Suffolk farmyard that was piled high with old agricultural machinery. Among all the Massey Ferguson, Fordson Major and New Holland parts were a number of Bentley relics he was hoping for. “At the same time, I spotted another chassis, which I recognised as being a Rolls-Royce,” Ted explains. “I asked whether it would be possible to include this in the purchase but the farmer said ‘no, that’s the King’s car’. Apparently, it had been found in a field near Southampton with a pile of farming equipment and the gentleman I was dealing with knew just what it was. However, he did show me the crankcase and I was able to make a note of the engine number – OM85 – before returning to work.”

The next day, Ted carried out some research in the Phantom I Register and discovered that the engine belonged to chassis 14RF, which had been commissioned by Edward, Prince of Wales before he become Edward VIII. Armed with this knowledge, he returned to Suffolk to discover how many other parts might be hidden in the farmyard and to see whether he could persuade the farmer to strike a deal.

“The farmer told me that all the parts for the rolling chassis were around somewhere and said I was welcome to spend as long as I liked searching for what I wanted before we came to a price,” says Ted. “He was very good and gave me a free hand to go back and forth for almost three weeks until I could find no further parts. The number OM85 was clearly stamped and engraved on nearly all the engine parts – it was the only Rolls-Royce engine in the heap so l was able to identify everything easily enough and laid out all the parts I could find across the barn floor. He watched me unearthing various components and never said a dicky bird.”

At this point, the farmer announced that he was going away for a week but told Ted to help himself to any other parts he came across, provided he put all the farm machinery back into one pile. While he was away, Ted and two apprentices went through everything once more to ensure nothing had been missed.

“Seven days later, the farmer rang to ask whether I had finished hunting for parts and I said I had,” recalls Ted. “I went back the same day to make payment and that was when he asked me whether I had been into the lower stables. ‘What lower stables?’ I asked. He then took me into a shed behind the farmhouse and I could hardly believe my eyes. That’s where all the really good stuff was. All the brightwork and instruments were there, along with the electrical parts such as the magneto and dynamo all carefully packed in boxes. Everything looked in good order. Then I noticed the radiator and found the original chassis plate in a folder with some pictures of the car outside St James’s Palace. I was speechless at the sight and the farmer just couldn’t stop laughing.”

All the parts were transported to Overton Vehicle Overhauls’ workshop for cleaning and preparing, however, more pressing work commitments meant that the Phantom I restoration had to take a back seat while the building of Bentley specials and routine Rolls-Royce and Bentley servicing took priority. During this time, the local newspaper published a story about 14RF, which resulted in a visit from a gentleman whose father had been chauffeur to the Prince of Wales. “He came to visit us a few times and brought some family photographs showing his father with the car,” says Ted. “This helped a great deal when it came to establishing the proportions of the body and researching the original fittings.”

The chauffeur’s son recounted many stories about the car and how his father spoke about taking Edward and Wallis Simpson to Paris in 14RF, but apparently he didn’t get on very well with Mrs Simpson. And Mrs Simpson didn’t like the Rolls-Royce. She preferred an American car and apparently that’s how the couple ended up with a Buick.

“Work on the chassis did not re-commence in earnest until the late 1980s,” says Ted. “By that time, all the components had been cleaned and measured before being laid out in the engine shop. Obviously, they were very dirty at first, but the engine components were in remarkably good condition with only a 10 thou cut on the crank required. The bores were good, too. We were fortunate to have a set of original pistons of the correct size and everything went together very well. The transmission took a lot more time to complete, even though all the gears and final drive parts were in good order.

“The chassis was completely stripped and crack tested and was found to be in exceptionally good condition – none of the anchor brackets were loose and all the rivets were secure. After shot-blasting, the chassis was painted and the overhauled front and rear axles were mounted along with the steering and other components. Once the engine, gearbox and axles were reassembled, a seat was mounted onto the chassis, which was then road tested with a temporary radiator cover to control the engine temperature.”

The original shutters were missing and it took five years to track down a replacement. “Where do you go to buy a set of original Phantom I radiator shutters without buying the rest of the car?” asks Ted. “It’s not the sort of thing that gets scrapped – luckily we had the shell. The Rolls-Royce and Bentley Specialists Association (RRBSA) came to the rescue. I had been a member from the early days and I believe another member sourced the shutters in the USA.”

With the rolling chassis now complete, it was time to start on the coachwork. “My father was a skilled carpenter who built the fuselages for our racing cars,” says Ted. “He also built a Morris lorry, which we used as a transporter for them, so he stepped in to build the body. Sadly, he passed away before the job was finished, but we were able to call on various acquaintances to continue the work. They were professional carpenters but not necessarily coachbuilders.

“However, a coachbuilder from Bolton who was familiar with Weymann-type bodywork was also kind enough to help us out with the reconstruction. After a few detail changes, the new body looked very similar to the one in a photograph taken when the Prince of Wales visited Gurney Nutting to see the construction of the original.”

The RRBSA also helped to source a pair of front road wings from 1928. These weren’t quite the correct shape and didn’t include the original’s sidelight nacelles but were soon altered to match the contemporary photos of the car. The rear wings had to be made from scratch, as did a suitable rack for the trunk.

The headlight dipping mechanism was also tracked down via the RRBSA and worked perfectly. Attention to all the lighting, such as the lower scuttle lights and pillar light, took some time to sort out and Ted was fortunate to locate an original lamp identical to the one in the photos. Sadly, the original mechanically operated trafficators could not be located so very old electrical units were fitted instead.

“This was enough of a challenge, but the Britannia mascot on the radiator was something else,” he says. Around 1920, an unknown sculptor carved a bronze statuette of Britannia standing on the globe and an apprentice made a smaller bronze copy that was coated with nickel for use as a hood ornament for King George V. When the prince acceded to the throne as Edward VIII in 1936, the Britannia mascot was fitted to 14RF to signify that this was now the King’s car.

“We knew from period photographs that 14RF once carried this on its radiator – the current Prince of Wales owns the original and gave permission for a reproduction,” says Ted. A sculpture of the mascot is kept at Beaulieu, and Ted was taken downstairs to a locked vault that the caretaker said he had seldom entered – despite having worked there for 20 years.

“We took a huge number of measurements and photographed it up hill and down dale,” he explains, “but we did not know how it compared in size with the actual mascot now on Prince Charles’s car.” Through a friend, Ted got in touch with a mechanic at the Royal Mews, who passed the request on to Prince Charles. Prince Charles sent word back that the mascot was 200mm high, half the size of the Beaulieu sculpture.

“Then we took this information to a company that produced the reproduction with a 3D printer,” says Ted. “The first attempt wasn’t very good. The next try was better but it took three goes to get it right.”

Despite enormous care and attention to detail, it is not, however, an exact replica. It is better. Britannia is wearing sandals but the details of the individual toes were hard to make out in the sculpture. Also, her hand holding the trident was in an unnatural position so this was adjusted into a more natural pose with the individual fingers and toes better defined.

The company tweaked the details on her face, reduced the size of her nose and added detail around the eyes. The result is a mascot that looks exactly like the original, except that when you look closely you see it has additional detail and other improvements.

Once completed, Ted covered around 1,000 miles in the car, including an early trip to the RREC Annual Rally. “I was involved in the mechanical judging that year and just put it in the car park because nobody knew anything about the restoration. When I returned to the car, I enjoyed overhearing comments about it by various coachbuilders – after all, a mechanic had built this body! I was pleased because, without this restoration, the car would have simply disappeared. It would have been the end of the road for 14RF.”

The restoration of 14RF was a long job, taking more than 30 years from the discovery of the chassis parts in the Suffolk farmyard through to the royal Phantom I being put back on the road. Sadly, neither the farmer who stockpiled the various components, nor Ted’s father, who was responsible for much of the coachwork restoration, lived to see the result of the King’s car returned to its former glory.

“The annual rally trip was pretty much the first time I drove the car and, blimey, it really does go and has nice long legs. I did 60mph easily on the way there,” smiles Ted. “I don’t think the Prince of Wales would have been disappointed by the speed.”

The photography in this article appears courtesy of Vintage & Prestige Cars, www.vandp.net