19 April 2016

All you need is love… and a Rolls-Royce

It’s a car so valuable that it can no longer be driven on public roads. That’s because its first owner was famed singer and songwriter John Lennon. After the Beatle earned his driver’s license at age 25, he purchased this Limousine six weeks after his very first car, a blue 1965 Ferrari 330 GT, arrived.

But Lennon’s musical talents didn’t leave much room for driving skills, so more often than not, the Rolls was chauffeured. On October 26, 1965, the Fab Four floated down the road to Buckingham Palace to receive their MBE medals from Her Royal Highness, the Queen of England. Soon after, however, John Lennon’s creativity overwhelmed him, and he began personalizing the already ultra-exclusive limo to suit his taste.

Only a few months after taking delivery of the luxurious, 19-foot long, three-ton Rolls-Royce Phantom V, bodied by Mulliner Park Ward and painted a solemn but classy Valentines Black, the rear seat was converted into a double bed, the windows were tinted and a custom sound system was installed. A Sony television, telephone and portable refrigerator were also added. It is said that Lennon had the car painted matte black, including the chrome radiator and trim, but that didn’t last long: soon his colorful personality would shine through.

An old gypsy caravan (camper) that Lennon had purchased for his garden was the inspiration for the familiar whirlwind of bright Romany-inspired flourishes that now adorn the Rolls-Royce. It was painted from artist Steve Weaver’s pattern of scroll and flowers by the gypsies who originally designed the caravan, and it was delivered to Lennon on May 25, 1967 — the bill was approximately $3,250 USD.

In England, Rolls-Royces were devotedly admired as one of the many symbols of British prestige (in addition to being the upper class’s carriage of choice), and Lennon’s newly painted car drew some negative attention: The most memorable anecdote is the result of an old woman attacking the car in downtown London using her umbrella and yelling; "You swine, you swine! How dare you do this to a Rolls-Royce?!"

Despite the incident, it was the Beatles’ primary transportation throughout their heyday from 1966 to 1969. After the car was shipped to the United States in 1970, when John and Yoko crossed the pond, it continued serving rock n’ roll as a rental for other stars such as The Rolling Stones, Moody Blues and Bob Dylan — if only this Rolls could talk.

However, by this time, the car was seldom used — aside from the occasional rock star rentals — and it entered storage in New York City. When Lennon ran afoul of the IRS in late-1977, he donated the Rolls to the Cooper-Hewitt Museum at the Smithsonian Institute for a $225,000 tax credit. There it remained on display until 1979, when it was once again returned to storage. The museum, unable to afford insurance for full-time public viewing, auctioned the car through Sotheby’s on June 29, 1985, expecting up to $300,000 from the sale.

Everyone’s jaw dropped when the auction ended: Jim Pattison, of Ripley International, Inc., purchased the relic for $2,299,000 for exhibition at the Ripley’s Believe It or Not Museum with a new South Carolina license plate “LENNON”.

Pattison eventually loaned the Phantom to Expo 86 for display in Vancouver, B.C. In 1987, he permanently gifted the car to the Government of British Columbia, and from there it was displayed in the Transportation Museum of British Columbia at Cloverdale until 1993, when it was transferred to the Royal British Columbia Museum in Victoria, B.C. where it is secured in a climate-controlled storage facility and displayed occasionally for fund-raising purposes.

Since then, minor restoration work has kept the kaleidoscope-like hues of ultramarine blues, chrome yellow, titanium white, toluidine red and rich green of the gypsy flourishes intact.

It’s a car that inspires nostalgia, has seen much of the world, been in the presence of legends and indeed become a legend itself. Merely seeing it undoubtedly takes one back to the 1960s and provides a peek into John Lennon’s mind.

“Baby, you can drive my car,
Yes I'm gonna be a star,
Baby, you can drive my car,
And maybe I love you...
Beep beep'm beep beep yeah!”

7 Reader Comments

  • 1
    West K Arizona April 20, 2016 at 22:46
    As an owner of the same year and model it is good to see this car still providing enjoyment for the public. Although not psychedelic I enjoy sharing my car with the public and watching the smiles it beings to many. Thanks for insuring it, Hagerty.
  • 2
    Mario da Rocha Ardsley, New York April 20, 2016 at 23:11
    Regarding This John Lennon's Rolls Royce Phantom V, before Sotheby's auction was for sale in New York times newspaper classifieds for $100k, i did had the chance to buy it, but Victor from Nyack foreign car shop which was it's mechanic persuaded me not to buy it, cause the paint job! My loss
  • 3
    Daniel Sanlon Boca Raton Florida April 21, 2016 at 13:22
    Lennon's Limo driver lived across the street of my birth house in Queens NY. He kept the car just parked in the street. I have some great photos of my grandparents with the car. One discrepancy with the article, the date stamped on my families slides say May 1968.
  • 4
    Paul Jordan Oshawa, ON Canada April 21, 2016 at 09:10
    I had a personal attachment to this very car. I have written about it and saw it on display at the Sarasota Fla Classic Car Museum just a month ago or so. Could I send you my article and my personal photos from the early and later 70's of the Beatle's Bentley?
  • 5
    Steven Rosenblatt New York, NY April 21, 2016 at 10:10
    Kudos to Ms. Hurlin for an excellent piece -- heretofore, likely the definitive read on that amazing artifact. I saw the Rolls in Vancouver in 1986 and can confirm that merely being in its psychedelic presence conjures strains of "Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite!"
  • 6
    Steve Lowen Scottsdale, Arizona April 21, 2016 at 10:10
    The automobile as an art form is not a new phenomena. The iconic cars of the 30's, and really almost every era represented the culture of that period.
  • 7
    Glenn Barron Vancouver, BC April 29, 2016 at 11:05
    I remember seeing this car at the BC Transportation Museum in Cloverdale back in the 80's. It was a crazy paint job...definitely funky! I also remember a 8mm video tape was discovered under the seats while the car was being detailed at the museum. One local radio station reported Yoko Ono flew in specifically to view the material on the tapes. There was a crowd gathered at the museum trying to catch a glimpse of Yoko. Don't recall specifically what was on the tapes but it brought a good deal of publicity to the town of Cloverdale back then!

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