1926 Rolls-Royce Phantom I Bougham de Ville. Photos courtesy of Bonhams.
For over a century, the name Rolls-Royce has been synonymous with luxury. That’s not to say that all Rolls-Royce models are equally opulent, as demonstrated by a 1926 Phantom I with a Brougham de Ville body crafted by coachbuilder Charles Clark and Sons. Ordered new by Clarence W. Gasque for his wife (and Woolworth heiress) Maude, the “Phantom of Love” boasts a Louis XVI-style interior that may well be the most extravagant ever designed for an automobile, and on December 4, this remarkable token of affection will cross the auction stage at Bonham’s Bond Street sale in London, England.
For American executives working at Woolworth’s offices in London, England, a Rolls-Royce was the motor car of choice. Charles Clark and Sons, owned by John Barnett, had bodied several examples for Woolworth management, including a no-expense spared Silver Ghost created for buyer John B. “Surefire” Snow. His Silver Ghost would form an odd point of reference when Gasque decided to purchase Rolls-Royce’s latest model, the Phantom (later referred to as the Phantom I) for his wife.
Introduced in 1925, the Phantom carried over the same frame as the Silver Ghost, but used a new 7.7-liter overhead-valve inline-six engine instead of the 7.4-liter side-valve inline-six used by the earlier model. While the previous 7.4-liter six had been rated at 80 horsepower, Rolls-Royce adopted a new measure for the Phantom, simply declaring it “sufficient.” The semi-elliptical spring front suspension and cantilever spring rear suspension carried over, and servo-assisted brakes, optional on the Silver Ghost, became standard on the Phantom.
Maude Gasque was reportedly a lover of all things French, from history to design. Using little else for a guideline, Clarence instructed Barnett to craft a Rolls-Royce body of unparalleled luxury, fancier than anything constructed for “Surefire” Snow, in a French theme. With little else to go on, Barnett visited the Victoria and Albert Museum to find a defining “French” style, and, captivated by a sedan chair with a painted ceiling, ultimately settled on an interior fit for the palace of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette. Perhaps looking to limit his personal liability, Clarence refused to even inspect the car under construction, instead deferring all decisions regarding his wife’s car to Barnett.
The bulk of the woodwork was produced by Barnett’s own shop, with only the intricate carvings farmed out to third party vendors. Upholstery came from French carpet maker Aubusson, world renowned for its tapestries, and reportedly took nine months to create, at a cost of £500 (for comparison, the average house in England cost £619 at the time). Much of the metal hardware on the interior is silver plate, created by Elkington and Company, and other distinctive appointments include hand-painted cherub artwork (giving the car its Phantom of Love nickname) on doors, ceilings, and the ornate liquor cabinet (which also conceals a pair of tapestry upholstered seats); an ormolu clock; and a pair of porcelain vases filled with gilded metal and enamel flowers.
Once completed, the as-delivered cost was said to be £6,500 pounds (roughly the equivalent of $677,500 today), with £4,500 (roughly $469,000) spent on the interior alone. Just 18 months after presenting Maude with the gilded Rolls-Royce, Clarence died at the remarkably young age of 54. Maude continued to use the Phantom until 1937, when the car was put into storage, and it remained in her possession at the time of her death in 1959.
Purchased by a dealer from the Gasque estate, the Phantom of Love was soon acquired by marque collector Stanley Sears, who adorned the then-black car with the woven cane it wears today. Sears owned the car into the mid-1980s, selling it to a Japanese enthusiast in 1986. Since then, it has been owned by a series of collectors across Japan, the United States and Great Britain, making the occasional concours d’elegance appearance during its time in America (including Pebble Beach and Radnor Hunt in 2002, and Greenwich in 2003).
Given the ornate nature of the Phantom’s interior, it remains largely unrestored, yet in remarkably well-preserved condition. Well-known among Rolls-Royce enthusiasts, the Phantom of Love is expected to sell between £500,000 and £700,000 ($609,000 – $852,000) when it crosses the auction block.
For more on the upcoming Bond Street sale, visit Bonhams.com.