This multi-cylindered chariot of the gods set new standards of refinement and engineering excellence in a world where the firm’s leadership in luxury-car making was no longer taken wholly for granted.
Yet for others it was an overbred car, made too complicated for its own good in the pursuit of excellence at any cost.
Those sceptics might point to the early reliability problems and its demanding servicing needs; the fact that sales were always slow (715 cars in four years, maybe 200 a year); or that the bodies it wore were not always as elegant as those fitted to the more classically proportioned Phantom II.
Phantom IIIs were produced in chassis series A to D, latterly with four-port cylinder heads, solid tappets and single valve springs – modifications that are said to have boosted power from 165bhp to 180bhp in the overdrive-equipped D-series cars.
Difficulties with new technology – such as zero-lash tappets (causing premature camshaft wear), leaky oil coolers and overheating – perhaps made Rolls-Royce shy of innovation in subsequent post-war models, but these problems were usually the result of poor maintenance rather than bad design.
Not until the Silver Shadow some 30 years later would the firm build a car as complex as the Phantom III.
Based around the architecture of two 25/30 engines on a common crankshaft, the mighty 60° wet-liner V12 used 24 spark plugs, plus twin coils and distributors – both with ‘test’ positions for tracing faults.
The lubrication system employed three filters that metered the oil at different pressures depending on the environment: 25psi at the crank, 10psi for the valvegear, and 1.75psi for timing gears and auxiliary drives.
The chassis, all-new and much stiffer than before with deep side members and a boxed cruciform, had built-in hydraulic jacks, one-shot lubrication and rear damping that varied according to road speed, and it could be adjusted remotely by the driver.
The rear axle had an anti-roll bar, and its leaf springs were ground to fit perfectly together with galleries to take oil from the one-shot lubrication system.
The Phantom III was certainly the car that made Rolls-Royce realise concessions to commercial realities had to be made in subsequent ‘rationalised’ models.
Even at £1900 for the chassis (about the price of six houses in 1935), with another £700-1000 to find for a body, the Phantom III couldn’t turn a profit.
This was not only because it shared almost nothing with the smaller-horsepower 25/30, but also because almost every part of the car was made in-house, even down to its shock absorbers and most of the electrical system.
As the last car to be created at the instigation of Sir Henry Royce (who didn’t live to see it produced), and the first to break emphatically with the traditions established by the Ghost, the deeply ingrained sophistication of the Phantom III was really a reaction – perhaps an overreaction – to the disquieting excellence of a growing number of eight-, 12- and even 16-cylinder American luxury vehicles that were less expensive, faster and sometimes even quieter than a Phantom II with its mere six cylinders.
The mission of the Phantom III – known experimentally as the Spectre – was to be a lighter, faster, more refined and generally easier-to-handle car than the Phantom II, on a slightly shorter 11ft 10in wheelbase.
It succeeded in all of these requirements.
As launched at Olympia in 1935, the III was 8% lighter than the earlier Phantom, but with 12% more power.
The choice of engine layout fell on the V12 as a natural compromise between eight and 16 cylinders that would be lighter for the same 7.3-litre capacity as the then-current ‘six’, in part because its reciprocating parts would be smaller.
The firm’s famous successes with the Kestrel, Buzzard and R-type Schneider Trophy aero engines gave Rolls-Royce’s team a deep understanding of the layout.
Thanks to the alloy crankcase, heads and block, they were also able to mount it further forward over the front wheels which, for the first time on a Rolls-Royce, were independently suspended by means of a General Motors-inspired, semi-trailing double-wishbone design, with both the spring and damper enclosed in an oil-filled canister.
The engine was beautifully presented in stove-enamelled black and was probably the quietest power unit yet devised for a motor vehicle, thanks in part to those zero-lash tappets and independently timed banks of cylinders, with one side set up to fire infinitesimally ahead of the other.
The throttling effects of massive exhaust back-pressure and a single downdraught carburettor (replacing the four-carb set-up on the prototypes) also played their part in a design focused on silence, longevity and an ability to hold its tune rather than outright urge.
It was not Rolls-Royce’s intention to provide alarming levels of performance, but the Phantom III probably enjoyed a margin of superiority over the average British family saloon that would not be approached by its successors.
Top speed was up to 100mph depending on the body (even a Park Ward limousine could top 90mph), with a 73mph third, and it could pull in top gear from 3mph.
Tellingly, the Phantom III accelerated faster from 20-40mph in top gear than it did from 30-50mph, and it managed 10 miles to the gallon no matter how you drove it, drinking from a giant 33-gallon tank with twin pumps.
Although likely to be chauffeur-driven, it was also intended to be a car owners might choose to drive themselves occasionally – especially given that they would have paid the exchequer 15 shillings for each of its 50.7 Treasury-rated horsepower.
Once behind the wheel they would enjoy a reasonably handy 48ft turning circle in a car where silent synchromesh gears and massive low-down torque made light of an all-up weight approaching three tons.
There was no standard Phantom III body: Park Ward, Mulliner, Barker, Hooper and all the other great coachbuilding names clothed this chassis either in very small batches or as one-offs.
There were sports saloons, sedancas, cabriolets and limousines of the sports, touring and Pullman varieties, but all on the same wheelbase, and certainly not all of the Phantom IIIs were as handsome as this 1937 Gurney Nutting Touring Limousine.
One of three to this design by the firm’s then 24-year-old chief designer John Blatchley, it is an essay in understated elegance that disguises its bulk superbly: from the commanding gaze of its Lucas P100 lights, through to the elegant sweep of its twin side-mount-equipped front wings, its presence verges on the animate.
Signed off by Derby in May 1937, having been ordered through HR Owen, chassis 3 CP 56 was dispatched to Fulham-based Gurney Nutting at the beginning of June and sold new to one Lt Colonel Ronald Sharp of Angus, Scotland.
By the early ’90s it had found its way to Virginia, USA, lost its V12 engine in favour of a post-war B80 (they fit, and come much cheaper than a V12 rebuild) and was generally tired.
Enter, in 1995, Rodney Timpson, who embarked on a nine-year, £190,000 body-off restoration with Bob Peterson.
There was a family link: Rodney’s wife, actress Penelope Keith, is the great-niece of J Gurney Nutting, whose firm would have been at the height of its fame when this Phantom III was built.
With the restoration completed by 2003, Rodney contacted Blatchley and showed him the car; there is a letter in its history file from the former Rolls-Royce chief stylist, expressing his delight at seeing one of his first designs so beautifully brought back to life.
Having recently emerged from long-term hibernation (and been subjected to a £22,000 recommissioning by specialist P&A Wood), chassis 3-CP-56 is a good place to begin an education in a breed of Rolls-Royce – perhaps the ultimate Rolls-Royce – whose mystique has captivated me for decades.
The Phantom III lives up to the myth straight away: with the right-hand side of its bonnet open in the P&A Wood workshop, it is almost impossible to tell if the gleaming black V12 is running, so soft and even is its idle.
Working on it might not be such a joy, but at least Rolls-Royce supplied a special spanner for removing the inner spark plugs, and you could drain the oil by means of a tap rather than scrabbling about underneath with a sump plug.
Open the rear-hinged driver’s door and you notice the gated right-hand gearchange and, beside it, perhaps the tiniest handbrake ever fitted to a motor vehicle.
Sliding on to the smooth blue leather you take in the view along the bonnet, tapering into the near distance between massive headlights: the classic radiator, with its thermostatic shutters, is topped by a kneeling version of the Spirit of Ecstasy.
You are surrounded by walnut veneers, but the door cards and furniture are restrained in design.
A modest instrument display is dominated by a 110mph speedometer and flanked by much smaller gauges for amps, fuel/oil pressure and water temperature.
Less familiar are the six chrome pull-out knobs for map and instrument lighting, and an independent switch for a reversing light.
A small lever marked ‘start’ and ‘run’ amounts to a choke, but it feels undignified to call it that.
A three-position switch offers the option of running on the left- or right-hand fuel pump, or both, and the left/right toggle in the centre of the dash operates trafficators that pop out of the centre pillars and which go largely unnoticed by modern motorists.
Twin horns mounted under the headlights have ‘high’ and ‘low’ settings.
The idea of a touring limousine was that owners could use their driver for formal duties – enjoying the rear compartment as a private space behind the wind-up glass division – or put the Phantom to use as a more ‘social’ conveyance and drive themselves.
With the division wound out of sight, it becomes a grand but reasonably intimate saloon, in which the front-seat accommodation is not entirely subordinate to the back-seat lounging room.
Rear occupants relax on soft, warm West of England cloth, feet supported on twin rests and privacy assured by deep C-pillars with uplit Art Deco companion mirrors built-in.
Some Phantom IIIs had electric windows and even powered rear blinds, but the only toys on this example are a radio built into the division and twin writing desks.
Those original owners who left the driving to the hired help missed out on something special: a car as effortless to drive as the technology of 80-odd years ago could make it.
You sit ‘on’ rather than ‘in’ the Phantom III, impressed by its smooth, relatively high-geared steering (three turns from lock to lock) and the way the massive sidewalls of the 18in tyres fail to acknowledge most of the realities of the road surface below.
The acceleration is fluent and majestic, a seamless waft of luxurious aspiration that motors you forward on a silky thread.
The Phantom’s natural brisk trot means that you never hold up modern traffic but keep station with it.
It is far from agile – the swift accumulation of understeer when you first try to pour three tons into a meaningful turn with a good sight line hastily curbs your B-road ambitions – but neither does the Phantom III roll all that much for something quite so tall and so heavy.
That the workings of the potent, well-balanced brakes – massive drums boosted by the usual gearbox-driven servo – hardly crossed my mind is remarkable in a car approaching its 90th birthday.
The silent, handily placed gearchange has a buttery feel as it clicks home in its four-fingered gate.
It is engineered to feed back the sort of well-damped delicacy of movement that permeates all the Phantom’s controls, yet they do so with a sense of robustness that tells you nothing is going to break.
First gear seems largely redundant and third is optional; you could probably have out-accelerated almost anything encountered on pre-war roads just using second and top.
This was the sort of flexibility buyers demanded in a time before automatic transmissions.
It is a telling commentary on the Phantom III that the survival rate is 90%, although the huge cost of rebuilding the engine (a £1500 invoice even in the mid-’60s) has always made enthusiasts understandably cautious of the model’s complexity.
At five years in the making, even the parents of this magnificent statement of engineering prowess seemed to question the wisdom of its conception.
Mindful of the famous three-year Rolls-Royce guarantee, they were perhaps quietly relieved when WW2 brought chassis production to an end, although they were still being bodied in 1941 and the last car was not sold until 1947.
This Phantom III has found a new home and will hopefully see some regular use; not using a Phantom III is probably the most expensive way of owning one, with so many complex systems requiring regular exercise.
The Best Car in the World? If you had the money to buy it – and the resources to maintain it – and needed a car in which to travel long distances as quietly, roomily and speedily as the prevailing technology allowed some 80 years ago, then I can’t think of anything better.
Images: Max Edleston
Thanks to: P&A Wood
Rolls-Royce Phantom III
- Sold/number built 1936-’39/710
- Construction steel box-section chassis, custom bodywork
- Engine all-alloy, ohv, 7338cc V12, single twin-choke Stromberg carburettor
- Max power 165-180bhp @ 3500rpm
- Max torque n/a
- Transmission four-speed manual, RWD
- Suspension: front independent, by wishbones, coil springs rear live axle, semi-elliptic leaf springs, anti-roll bar; hydraulic dampers f/r
- Steering worm and sector
- Brakes drums, with servo
- Length 17ft 7in (5359mm)
- Width 6ft 5in (1958mm)
- Height n/a
- Wheelbase 11ft 10in (3607mm)
- Weight 6100lb (2770kg)
- Mpg 8
- 0-60mph 16.8 secs
- Top speed 92mph
- Price new £2600
- Price now £85-200,000*
*Prices correct at date of original publication
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