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I spotted it instantly. Towering above an otherwise unremarkable cluster of Rolls-Royces was a bespoke car from the ’70s I had only seen in books and, first of all, in my Top Trumps Supercars card game: the Frua Phantom VI.
The year was 2006, the event my first visit to the Concorso d’Eleganza Villa d’Este. Seeing the Frua Phantom in the metal made the event.
A vast two-door drophead coupé worthy of its own postcode, it would be easy to dismiss this magnificent car, with its Fiat 130 Coupé headlights flanking that huge radiator, as an homage to Lady Penelope and FAB 1 – but there is a lot more to it than that.
If we ignore the Sultan of Brunei’s various modified Bentley Turbos and Silver Spirits (and a much uglier four-door Frua Phantom that the coachbuilder failed to finish before his death in 1983), it’s safe to say that this car brought the era of the properly coachbuilt owner-driver Rolls-Royce to an end when it was signed off in December 1973.
All other Phantom VIs were limousines built usually for heads of state, but Pietro Frua, the Turin stylist and coachbuilder, was commissioned to fashion this two-door, four-seat convertible on the same vast (12ft) wheelbase.
With those proportions it could have ended up looking like a five-star open-topped coach, but he succeeded in making a giant convertible that only looked truly huge when people were sat inside it: it makes full-sized adults look like children behind the wheel.
The Frua Phantom’s first owner – indeed, the man who commissioned the car – was a Swiss diplomat called Simon van Kempen.
He wanted a glamorous vehicle to impress his colleagues from rival embassies in Monte-Carlo and to use as everyday transport.
Mercedes-Benz wouldn’t build him a special 600 and Rolls-Royce could not supply anything outside its normal catalogue, but it would sell him a Phantom VI left-hand-drive chassis.
So a Phantom VI rolling frame was dispatched via the Rolls-Royce agent in Geneva, in November 1971, at a price of £6265.
From here on the job became a nightmare.
Pietro Frua was keen to use as many genuine Rolls parts as possible, but he couldn’t speak English and there was nobody at Crewe who could speak Italian, so getting the right fittings for the body – in an age long before email or even proper faxes – was a long-winded trial.
Occasionally, foreign parts, like Mercedes door locks, had to be used to save time.
Van Kempen decided he didn’t like the way the front bumper slashed through the grille on Frua’s wooden styling buck, so modifying this set the job back, too.
At one stage the frustrated Swiss customer threatened to cancel his order, but he must have been glad he didn’t when the car was finally delivered at the end of 1973, after making its public debut at the Frankfurt motor show.
Interesting highlights in a stellar specification included dual heaters for those nippy Swiss winter mornings and special stowage bays for the tools under the centre-hinged bonnet.
Inside it wasn’t much bigger than, say, a Corniche, but the massive seats were a special design and the silver steering wheel boss had the owner’s initials etched into it.
Powered by the familiar 6.3-litre V8, it might have been perhaps the biggest two-door convertible built in post-war times, but it was said to be surprisingly wieldy to drive.
From here it might have disappeared into some dusty collection like so many one-offs, but van Kempen, true to his word, really did use his car, clocking up more than 300,000km in business and pleasure use.
It’s tempting to think half that mileage was spent looking for a parking space…
Images: Bonhams (two-door)/David Bush for RM Sotheby’s (four-door)
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