- The Washington Times - Friday, December 29, 2000

Charles Rolls has the distinction of being the first British fatality in a plane crash. He died in July 1910 just as his his fledgling Rolls-Royce automobile firm was becoming successful.
His partner, Henry Royce soldiered on, taking the company to world-class heights. The decade of the 1930s began on a high note when Mr. Royce became Sir Henry.
Everything began to slide from that point on with the worldwide Great Depression taking its toll, even on sales of Rolls-Royce motor cars. Mr. Royce died in 1933 and the Phantom II and 20/25 Rolls-Royce models were becoming dated.
By mid-decade, with the harshest effects of the economy wearing off, it was time for a new model. Luxury-car customers by the mid-1930s were no longer content with six-cylinder cars, so Rolls-Royce heeded the call with a new 7.3-liter V-12 engine, which came in a new car, the Phantom III.
The new engine featured hydraulic valve lifters and produced 165 horsepower. The V-12 was an expensive and complicated technical nightmare and, if recommended maintenance was not followed to the letter, troublesome.
When properly maintained the big engine was delightful. It was mounted into the new Phantom III chassis with extra room provided by moving the radiator forward ahead of the front axle. The car rode beautifully thanks to an independent front suspension.
Rolls-Royce manufactured 710 Phantom III automobiles from 1935 to 1939. One of those Phantom IIIs was fitted with a gorgeous aluminum-over-steel frame sport saloon body by the coach builder Barker.
It was designed for an owner who wanted to drive instead of being chauffeured.
Because so few Phantom III cars were manufactured the history of virtually every one is well-documented.
In the spring of 1998 Dr. James Sprague of Washington learned that the Pennsylvania owner of a 1937 Phantom III was placing the car on the market.
"I knew the car and its story," Dr. Sprague said. He was definitely interested even though he concedes the engine with its 24 spark plugs is a "service nightmare." To counter those woes he said, "It has a lot of little touches that are charming."
He purchased the car and promptly had it trucked to Massachusetts for mechanical work.
After the engine hood was unlocked the dual-ignition system that keeps all 12 cylinders firing in order was determined to need attention as did the Stromberg dual-downdraft carburetor. The original hydraulic lifters were converted to solid lifters. After the engine was once more purring like a Rolls-Royce engine should, it quietly generated 180 horsepower.
Even so it's doubtful that the 6,500-pound Phantom III supported by 7.00x18-inch tires mounted on a 142-inch wheelbase can reach the 110 maximum reading on the speedometer.
In pre-airconditioning days motorists depended on excellent ventilation. Rolls-Royce, of course, provided the best. In addition to the cowl ventilator, the windshield not only tilts open slightly, it can be raised so as not to impede the air flow at all. Additionally, a sunroof can be opened. "The sunroof rattles," Dr. Sprague said, "but it doesn't leak."
The sunroof has a drain on each side to funnel moisture to the rain gutters. "You're in big trouble if they're clogged," Dr. Sprague cautions.
Cosmetically the handsome Rolls-Royce was in good condition. The oyster-gray-over-shell-gray finish is complemented by the lush interior lined with leather, carpet and woodwork of a quality to which modern cars can only aspire.
All four doors are hinged at the rear, each one supported by three exposed stainless steel hinges.
The paint on the metal running boards is protected when passengers are stepping in or out by the six longitudinal rubber ribs.
After it was restored to mechanical health, the Phantom III left Massachusetts on a truck on its way to Michigan where it won several trophies at prestigious antique automobile shows.
Finally, the Phantom III was trucked home to the owner. Since he has owned the car it has traveled far more miles on the back of a truck than it has been driven under its own power. Dr. Sprague says that is about to change.
The independent front suspension is a major engineering breakthrough making the big car easier to handle. Likewise, the enormous weight of the car can be stopped compliments of the power-assisted brakes.
With all these advantages, he reports, "It is an excellent touring car. It goes down the road nicely."
Behind the three-spoke steering wheel the driver has to contend with three hand controls at the hub: throttle, ignition and ride control. Additionally, the dual trumpet horns can be adjusted to sound soft or loud.
All of the Phantom IIIs had three small doors on each side of the long engine hood. To accentuate the length the designers lined three dozen fake louvers along each side of the hood. Three on the first door followed by seven more, then three more on the next door and so on until the end of the hood was reached. At that point six more louvers continued on the cowl, giving the illusion of great length.
Dr. Sprague's Phantom III is equipped with a Bijur self-lubricating system whereby all lubrication points receive a shot of grease with the activation of a foot pedal by the driver.
Four separate jacks are permanently built into the cars. Any corner of the car can be raised in case of a flat tire or all four tires can be raised if the car is going to be put in storage.
From the 14 thermostatically controlled louvers ahead of the radiator to the trunk with a spare trunk platform for an external trunk, the Phantom III is exquisite. Yet the big car can be turned in a 48-foot circle.
The steering wheel turns only three times lock to lock. "Those are three very heavy turns," Dr. Sprague said.
The pediatric ophthalmologist has yet to take his Phantom III on a house call. "It's a holiday car," he explains. It ventures out only when the weather is good.
The gasoline tank has a capacity of 40 U.S. gallons. The honest answer to the ridiculous question of mileage is "About 10 mpg on the highway," Dr. Sprague responds.

Copyright © 2019 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

The Washington Times Comment Policy

The Washington Times welcomes your comments on Spot.im, our third-party provider. Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide