A Pop Art Icon
He may have been a “working class hero”, but John Lennon also owned one of the most distinctive and celebrated Rolls-Royce Phantoms in history
By John Lewis for the Rolls-Royce Enthusiasts Club Book, 2014
“You swine!” shouted one old lady at a junction in Central London in 1967. “How dare you do this to a Rolls-Royce! How DARE you!”
The focus of the woman’s rage, so the story goes, was a Phantom V that belonged to Beatle John Lennon. Instead of the sombre, funereal shade in which it had been purchased, Lennon’s car had been painted yellow and painstakingly decorated in the style of a Gypsy caravan – an array of flowers, leaves, ribbons and flourishes that chimed with the psychedelic spirit of the age.
Shocking at the time, it has since become one of the most celebrated Rolls-Royce vehicles. When it sold for $2.5 million in 1985, it was the most expensive used car in the world, while experts think it could sell for anything up to $15 million were it put up for auction today.
“It still drives like a dream,” says Jim Walters, a Rolls-Royce specialist in Canada who has been responsible for the car’s upkeep for more than 20 years. “It’s smooth and silent, even on the roughest roads. And it doesn’t handle like a big car. Even though it’s 19 feet and 10 inches long – a figure that’s ingrained on my brain, having had to load it into so many trucks – it manoeuvres very easily, as if you were driving a small saloon car.”
For more than two decades, Jim has been the only person on earth authorised by the terms of insurance to drive Lennon’s most famous car, now housed at a museum in British Columbia. “I make sure it’s driven and serviced every six months,” he says. “There was one time when the museum went nearly two years without moving it. The carburettors had seized shut and it took about half an hour to do a 10-second U-turn to put the car into the basement. Ever since then we’ve made sure we load it into a truck and drive it for an hour every six months.”
For a hardline left-winger and “working-class hero” who urged us to “imagine no possessions”, John Lennon certainly had no problem with owning, or being seen in, Rolls-Royce cars. In the last 15 years of his life, he had at least two Phantom Vs, both manufactured in Crewe in 1965.
According to most of his biographers, by 1965 John Lennon was bored with the life of being the world’s biggest rock star. Where his songwriting partner Paul McCartney was living in a Marylebone townhouse, hanging out in Swinging London and lapping up the countercultural world of concerts, theatres and alternative bookshops, Lennon was stuck in a mock-Tudor mansion in the stockbroker belt of suburban Surrey. Barely out of his teens, and apparently trapped in a loveless marriage, he would call his old school friends over to play board games or race Scalextric cars.
He also enjoyed driving around in real cars at this stage of life. Just hours after passing his driving test in 1965, Lennon bought a bright blue Ferrari 330GT coupe (registration number DUL 4C). Later that same year, he added a dark blue 1965 Mercedes-Benz 230SL convertible (registration number GGP 196C). A 1966 black Mini Cooper S (registration LGF 696D, with tinted windows and black bumpers) soon followed, which – like all four of the Beatles’ Minis – had been reworked in the Rolls-Royce style by Harold Radford’s South Kensington coachbuilders.
Shortly before splitting up with his first wife, Cynthia, he purchased a Prussian Blue Rivolta Fidia S4 Corvette at the 1967 Earls Court Motor Show, writing out a cheque for £8,000 on the spot (it was delivered to him in January 1968). Not long before he left England, Lennon bought a 1970 Mercedes-Benz 600 Pullman Limousine (purchased that year), which he gave to George Harrison when he moved to New York, and a black 1956 Austin Princess limousine hearse (registration number GNH 240), which appeared in the video for “Imagine”.
After moving to New York – a place where he didn’t really need to drive – John and Yoko got around on bicycles, but would often use a 1972 Chrysler Station Wagon to drive to their estate in Long Island. His last new car was a 1979 3-litre Mercedes-Benz 300TD Diesel wagon – which is now in the Sarasota Car Museum in Florida, alongside Lennon’s 1965 Merc and a 1956 Bentley S1 that the Beatles’ boutique Apple Corps bought from John Crittle of Dandie Fashions. Fabulously painted in psychedelic colours, the Beatles’ Bentley was also used by the likes of Jimi Hendrix, Brian Jones and Roger Daltrey.
Lennon drove most of these cars himself, although he was a notoriously bad driver: too myopic to read traffic signs, too vague to follow the simplest route. Another of his purchases in England was a white Austin Maxi with a 1,485 cc engine, which he crashed on holiday in the Highlands of Scotland in July 1969 while visiting his aunt. John, Yoko, Yoko’s son Kyoto and John’s son Julian were all injured, requiring stitches and several days in hospital. The wrecked Maxi was towed (by trusty chauffeur Les Anthony) back to John and Yoko’s home in Tittenhurst Park, near Ascot, where it was placed on a backyard plinth to remind them of their mortality – and, possibly, of Lennon’s lack of basic road-sense.
The Phantom bug
It made more sense for Lennon to be chauffeur-driven, and the Rolls-Royce seemed to be the ideal vehicle for him. He appears to have caught the Rolls-Royce bug in early 1965, while shooting the film Help! in Twickenham – the opening scene shows all four band members being dropped off in their adjacent terraced houses in an early 1960s Phantom V limousine, coachbuilt by Park Ward. A month after filming this scene, Lennon bought his own Phantom V, registration number FJB 111C, a limousine issued in the sombre shade of Valentines Black. The vehicle – chassis number 5VD73, with bodywork number V341, coachbuilt by Mulliner Park Ward – was purchased from R S Mead in Maidenhead and delivered to Lennon’s Surrey home in June 1965.
“There are no modifications to the engine,” says Jim. Lennon did, however, specify a set of very dark (one-way vision Triplex Deeplight) windows for the rear compartment – the first of their kind to be fitted to a motor car. Additional extras included a portable television, a hi-fi set, a cocktail cabinet, a writing table, a set of seven fitted suitcases and a fridge in the luggage compartment. The car’s television and audio systems were to be continuously upgraded during Lennon’s use of the car, never to his full satisfaction, it would seem.
“There’s a central console built into the division, with a TV, an AM/FM radio, a 45 rpm record player and one of those old 8-track cartridge players,” adds Jim. “I tried playing one of my old Beatles 8-tracks when I first used the car, but it got chewed up! The driver’s seats are fitted in black leather, the rear in black Bedford cloth. There’s a little wear to the cloth and a few cigarette burns but it’s in good condition. A little later he got the back seat converted so that it pulls down into a Pullman-style bed – I’ve tried sleeping on it and it’s not terribly comfortable, certainly not if you were nearly six foot, as John was.”
When the Beatles picked up their MBEs in October 1965, they were ferried to Buckingham Palace in FJB 111C, driven by Lennon’s chauffeur Les Anthony. The following year, in the autumn of 1966, Les drove Lennon to Almeria, Andalusia, in the Phantom V, where Lennon was starring in the movie How I Won The War. By this time, Lennon had installed the fold-down bed in the back and fitted a set of external speakers to the car, from which he would often play novelty records (including the “Colonel Bogey March”, farmyard sound effects and Peter Sellers sketches). The external speakers were also connected to a microphone with which he could make his own broadcasts at shattering volume. Inhabitants of Almeria nicknamed the car “El Funebre” (The Hearse).
A unique paint job
“Apparently the hot, dry weather and very sandy conditions in the south of Spain weren’t good for the paintwork,” says Jim. “By the time they’d driven back to England, the car was in need of a touch of repainting.” But instead of repainting the car black, Lennon had other ideas. Beatles biographer Hunter Davies reports that Lennon wanted to conflate high and low culture – to set the aristocratic Rolls-Royce brand against something radically different – and Lennon had become fascinated by Gypsy iconography.
In April 1967, he celebrated his son Julian’s fourth birthday by buying him a wooden show-wagon, gaily painted like a Gypsy caravan, with the Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band insignia on the rear. He contacted a number of coachbuilders about repainting his Rolls-Royce in a similar style, and they diligently started to explore Gypsy designs. Hooper Motors Services’ Managing Director L A Blake even wrote to the Gypsy Lore Society for more information about authentic caravan patterns – D E Yates from the University of Liverpool Library recommended Appleby Fair in Westmorland and the Folk Museums in Cardiff and York. Eventually, coachbuilder J P Fallon was commissioned and a design emerged, painted by local artist Steve Weaver for the princely sum of £290 (an application to patent the artwork was sent in June 1967).
“People describe it as psychedelic, but it’s actually a very authentic Gypsy style, the kind you see on caravans and canal boats,” says Jim. The design is often credited to one Marijke Koger from a Dutch hippy collective called The Fool, who had designed much of the merchandise at the Beatles’ Apple Store in London. As well as designing the psychedelic patterns on George Harrison’s Mini Cooper, Koger claims that she suggested the Gypsy art idea to Lennon while redecorating his piano in 1967.
An icon of the age
The car quickly became a symbol of Swinging London – a mix of aristocratic decadence and Gypsy abandon. It was the only one of Lennon’s car collection to be shipped across the Atlantic when he relocated to New York in 1972, although he rarely used it, keeping it garaged in the basement of the Dakota Building where he lived. He would occasionally lend it out to visiting friends: The Rolling Stones, the Moody Blues, Sonny & Cher and Bob Dylan are all known to have travelled around New York in it. Guitarist Jeff Beck remembers sitting next to Bob Dylan in the Phantom V before guesting with the Stones at Madison Square Gardens in 1972. “It was like being royalty,” he says. “I was going to be on stage with the biggest rock band in the world, sitting next to Dylan, in the most famous car in the world!”
By 1977, Lennon faced a sizeable tax bill and decided to sell the car. Several private sales fell through, so he donated it to the Smithsonian Institution (a series of museums owned by the US Government) in exchange for a $225,000 tax credit. Between October 1978 and January 1979, the car was put on public display at the Cooper-Hewitt Museum (just across Central Park from Lennon’s Upper West Side apartment) and then returned to storage at Silver Hill, Maryland (apparently the museum could not get insurance coverage for public viewing on a full-time basis).
After taking the car to various motor museums, Cooper-Hewitt auctioned it to raise funds in June 1985. Sotheby’s in New York was expecting around $300,000 but it ended up fetching more than ten times that, with Jim Pattison – the Canadian businessman behind Ripley’s Believe It Or Not – buying it for $2,299,000. Pattison, a one-time used-car dealer, displayed it at his flagship South Carolina museum as “the world’s most expensive used car”, but removed it in 1986 when a Bugatti Royale sold for $6.5 million. Pattison then donated the car to his home province of British Columbia, Canada and, since 1993, it has been in the Royal British Columbia Museum in Victoria, BC, under Jim’s care.
“It’s spent most of its life in museums or in storage,” he says. “When the car came over from England it had about 30,000 miles on the clock. More than 40 years later, it’s barely up to 32,000. And, at the BC Museum, it’s only on show during the winter months, where we keep it near the entrance, roped off. In the summer, the museum is so busy there’s nowhere to keep the car, so it’s put into storage. In fact, more people see it when it goes out on tour to other museums, like when it went to Pointe-à-Callière in Montreal recently.”
Lennon’s other Phantoms
Around the same time that he customised FJB 111C, Lennon bought his second Phantom V – this time a second-hand model. Its chassis number, 5VD63, means that it was built only five models before Lennon’s first Rolls-Royce. The car’s bodywork number was 20076 and its registration number was EUC 100C. It became a fixture around London in the late 1960s, a slightly less conspicuous presence than FJB 111C.
“The main difference is that it’s in white,” says Jim, “but the only structural difference to the bodywork is on the B-post – the dividing post between the front and rear seats – where EUC 100C has a light.” The car’s original owner was Wing Commander Patrick Barthropp – a wartime Spitfire pilot turned chauffeur – who had a fleet of Rolls-Royce that he used to rent out. EUC 100C was used in the 1966 film Georgy Girl before being purchased by Lennon. When he moved to the USA, Lennon gave the car to his manager Allen Klein, the notorious businessman who took over the Beatles affairs after Brian Epstein’s death.
A third Phantom V (chassis number 5LVD15) – allegedly owned by Lennon – is more of a mystery. It showed up around a decade ago at the car museum of millionaire Stephen Tebo in Boulder, Colorado, who purchased it from one Wallace C Yost. The Tebo Museum has been accused by many of trying to pass this car off as one of the Phantoms that Lennon owned in England (it’s even been resprayed white from its original Sable Brown, and refurbished in white on the inside, presumably to resemble EUC 100C) but the fact that it’s a US-style left-hand drive vehicle means that it clearly can’t possibly be either of them. Like Lennon’s two Phantom Vs, however, it can trace its lineage back to Mulliner Park Ward. It was one of a small number of UK-built left-hand-drives and was delivered in June 1964 to Ben Bodne, owner of the Algonquin Hotel in Manhattan. Yoko has confirmed that she bought the car in March 1980 (although there are those that dispute this date) as an 11th anniversary present for John, only nine months before he was shot dead in Manhattan.
“There are a couple of other copies going around,” says Jim. “There was an incredibly detailed copy of the Gypsy design with a DBV 341B number plate that was produced in England [for the 2010 television movie Lennon Naked starring Christopher Eccleston]. The paintwork is incredibly accurate, but the difference is that it’s a Silver Cloud III LWB [long wheel base], not a Phantom V! And it has ‘Lennon’ inserted into the pattern on the boot. But, to the untrained eye, it looks pretty similar. And then there was this company called TrueScales Miniatures who manufactured these amazing 1:43 models, like six-inch-long toy cars, really beautiful pieces. I contacted them to try and help sell them in North America, and wanted to check if they’ve got permission from Steve Weaver’s family, who still own the copyright to those designs – I’ve not heard back from them since.”
Fifty years after it was built, a car that was once seen as a symbol of rebellion has now been embraced by the establishment. “In 2004, I took the car over to England for the Goodwood Festival of Speed,” says Jim. “What’s amazing is that Rolls-Royce wanted it to be on its stand to celebrate its 100th anniversary. And to think that there were those who were outraged by John Lennon’s design in the 1960s! How times have changed.”
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