My Car Quest

October 23, 2018

The Actress And The Wraith: 1956 Rolls Royce Silver Wraith

by Wallace Wyss –

Now there’s celebrity cars, and some people like owning them because at a concours you can drop a line like “Oh, this was the Queen’s…” or “General so-and-so used this as his command car,” yadda yadda.

I have no doubt this car was once sat in, and even frolicked in, by a major female movie star. No less than Jane Fonda who used the car as a prop while starring in an obscure French movie opposite one time French movie heart-throb Alain Delon.

Alain Delon and Jane Fonda

But I liked the car even before she had anything to do with it, when it was commissioned by an eccentric London based Armenian who was the epitome of an English businessman, one Nubar Gulbenkian.

Rolls-Royce’s first post-war model, the Silver Wraith debuted in late 1946 and though it was built on a chassis similar to that of the Silver Dawn and MkVI Bentley, it was grander with a 7” longer wheelbase at a total of 10’ 7”.

The Dawn was whacked out in steel by a regular car body builder but the Wraith was the premium model, intended for traditional coachbuilt bodies, those wrought out of hand hammered aluminum.

The engine was a six, 4,257cc, of cast-iron, with aluminum cylinder head featuring overhead inlet and side exhaust valves. The gearbox was a four-speed manual gearbox at first but then an automatic came along, for export models only at first and then available worldwide.

1956 Rolls Royce Silver Wraith

A longer-wheelbase (11’ 1”) version was introduced as the short-wheelbase ’Wraith ceased in 1952. It’s rare enough to collect (My “magic number” is any production number close to 1000 units) with a total production of 1,144. The car continued right up to the introduction of the Phantom V in 1959, by which time 639 Wraiths had rolled down the line.

1956 Rolls Royce Silver Wraith

I think I missed my chance to buy one back in the ‘60s when I was invited over a mansion in Grosse Pointe, Michigan and shown one for $3,000. I noticed the garage where it was, a home located on the water was huge, and asked who owned it and they said “The Dodge Brothers.” Oh.

1956 Rolls Royce Silver Wraith

NUBAR’S BUBBLE TOP BABY

At any rate, somehow in the Sixties I became aware of this flamboyant multi-millionaire, Nubar Gulbenkian over in London. Not only did he dress to the nines every day, with ascot ties, a flower in his lapel, a vest with a watch and watch chain, a silver topped cane, spats, etc. he was educated at Harrow and Cambridge.

That won him respect on Fleet Street but more, so one suspects, it was the fact he was heir to a Middle Eastern oil fortune which took roughly 5% off the top of BP’s oil imports. He came out of the late 1800s, part of what once was the Ottoman Empire.

One of my favorite Gulbenkian quotes is “the best number for a dinner party is two, myself and a damn good waiter.”

1956 Rolls Royce Silver Wraith

Another is: his declaration that his custom-built London taxicab, “could turn on a sixpence, whatever that is.”

Though before the war he liked fast sports cars, after the war, befitting his senior status, he chose Rolls Royces and commissioned one after the other. One of his first coachbuilts, from the house of Hooper, looked rather like an armored car.

Rolls-Royce reportedly was not amused.

But they didn’t prevent him from buying more Rolls and he commissioned two more from Hooper, a four-door cabriolet and a sedanca de ville, the latter featuring full sage-green lizard-skin trim.

THE BUBBLE TOP CAR

But Gulbenkian’s most famous Roller is the car shown here, one he had built by Hooper for cruising the Cote d’ Azur. It was a left-driver, chassis number LELW74 – which had four-door coachwork, which the auction company described as a saloon but I would say it was a four door convertible, thought he top was not removable. But it was see through with a transparent Perspex roof which had an electrically operated fabric inner blind to keep the interior cool.

So he had a top that insured that everybody would know it was him coming.

He also eschewed wood even though Rolls has some of the greatest wood going. He insisted parts normally done in wood be trimmed in leather. He also had a speedometer fitted in the rear passenger compartment so he could see if his chauffeur was “giving it enough stick” (a horseman’s term). And ticked off the boxes for air conditioning, electric windows and a television set, although the latter is long gone.

After Gulbenkian sold the car it appeared in the 1964 motion picture, Les Félins (released in the USA as Joy House and the UK as The Love Cage) which starred Jane Fonda and Alain Delon.

The car was sold on in 1968, on this occasion to René Gourdon, owner of La Belle Étoile dance hall in Nice, France. Now this chap owned a nightclub and he was chauffeured around a bit before parking the car in the basement. Not in a garage but, you read it right, a basement. To which there was no garage door.

Before that he had repainted it the most screaming yellow as if being chauffeured about in a Rolls with a transparent roof wasn’t enough to attract attention. (Maybe there are so many delectable sights to distract the eye on the Riviera, you have to go extra lengths!)

Flash forward 15 years and a London Rolls dealer’s French rep happens by the night club, sees the car over in a basement corner serving as a place to have cocktails, and manages to purchase it. Once he bought it, he was handed a sledgehammer and told it was all right to smash down the wall to extract it, which he dutifully did.

1956 Rolls Royce Silver Wraith

Tapes of Les Félins were reviewed and the decision made to restore the Wraith to its former glory, forgetting its more flamboyant yellow period. Finished in 2007 by Frank Dale & Stepsons, the re-do included a full re-trim and repaint to the original specification (two tone, dark blue and silver grey), re-conditioned chrome and a full mechanical review.

Once the car was restored, it ceased to be so controversial, and is now merely eyebrow raising.

Now as far celebrity ownership, I wouldn’t mind having a car owned by ol’ Nubar, a man who, by all accounts, lived life to its fullest. I would hope to emulate him, though without that weekly check from BP, it would be impossible. I can just see, being at a concours like Pebble, some chap coming up and telling me about seeing Nubar glide by in the car.

1956 Rolls Royce Silver Wraith

But it’s just as likely someone will remember Jane Fonda’s connection. I happened to be in the employ of Uncle Sam briefly during that time she was pictured worldwide, in Hanoi, sitting at the same anti-aircraft gun being used at the time to shoot down Americans. She was so anti-war that she enlisted on the wrong side!

So regardless of her earlier and subsequent thespian accomplishments (including a current hit film), that one promotional effort of hers still sticks in my craw.

When I last saw an ad for the Roller, it was offered at well over 200,000 pounds sterling and I think it’s well worth it, in that it’s a one off. What puts me off, though, is that damn Jane connection…..

Let us know what you think in the Comments.

Wallace Wyss

Wallace Wyss

 
 
 
THE AUTHOR: Wallace Wyss, wearing his fine art hat, will be featuring his oil portraits on canvas of postwar classics at Concorso Italiano in August. A list of available works can be obtained by texting your e-mail address to 213 344 6496.

 
 
 
 
 

 

 

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Summary
The Actress And The Wraith: 1956 Rolls Royce Silver Wraith
Article Name
The Actress And The Wraith: 1956 Rolls Royce Silver Wraith
Description
This Rolls Royce appeared in the 1964 motion picture, Les Félins (released in the USA as Joy House and the UK as The Love Cage) which starred Jane Fonda and Alain Delon.
Author

Comments

  1. ~ Barbarella bashing begins in …3…2…1…
    Perhaps a Nam Vet would like to have a shot at it.
    Myself I’d like to own it for other reasons. Interesting car and history.

  2. Should you find yourself in Lisbon make your way to the Gulbenkian Museum which houses 6,440 objects gifted from Calouste Gulbenkian (1,000 on display). Mr. 5% as he was known having 5% of BP and Royal Dutch Shell and at one
    time 100% of the Iraqi Oil concession. He initially was to give the collection to the U.K., however, they declared him
    a public enemy during WWII, rescinded after the war, he then considered the USA but while the U.S. pondered the donation and where to put it the collection was on it’s way to Portugal.
    His motto was only the best would do–since picked up by Mercedes. Life magazine in 1950 stated “Never in Modern History has one man owned so much” Anyway every room is a different era of Art and each room is fantastic–not to be missed in Lisbon.

  3. wallace wyss says:

    I will put that museum on my list of destinations. I wonder if there’s a biography of him? I left out that, before the war, when he had some grand car built, chauffer driven, he had a separate speedometer put in the back so he could monitor if his chauffeur was giving the steeds enough stick.

  4. I have mixed feelings about the design. However, the front end alone makes me think that one of my favorite customizers, the late George Barris, would have approved.

  5. OHHHH MYYYY GOOOOOD. WHAT A BEAUTIFUL PIECE OF ART.

  6. Books on Gulbenkian

    Mr, Five Percent: the many lives of Calouste Gulbenkian, the world’s richest man–Johnathon Coalin

    Mr. Five Per Cent , the biography of Calouste Gulbenkian–Ralph Hewins

    Amazon is out of the latter –not sure if the former is in the the amazon loop.

    I forgot to mention he also owned 5% of Total Petroleum of France.

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