Car Restoration Projects
Hoolywood High Roller – Rolls Royce Phantom I
Peter Limon is a classic car restorer and collector and he’s not fussed about which side of the Atlantic Ocean – Uncle Sam’s or Britannia’s – he chooses the time capsule to nurture. As it happens, this masterpiece of British automotive aristocracy was handcrafted on both sides of the Atlantic.
When Jim Gibson caught up with the then 54-year-old he’d owned this 1927 Rolls-Royce Phantom1 for 27 years (half his life). According to Peter his lucky number is 27.
During those 27 years of ownership he has had only to service it regularly, replace one front wheel bearing and make some repairs to the engine.
It is impossible to know how many miles the old girl has travelled, as the odometer has only four numerals and they must have obviously rolled back to zero many times throughout its 82 years on the road.
The body was repainted the original colour in 1990 and Peter said he has removed the cylinder head a couple of times to de-coke it and regrind the valves. When the camshaft showed signs of wear on the lobes he sent it to England to have it ground, as the contours on the lobes are concave where the roller followers run and he couldn’t find a machinist to reface this profile here.
As part of the service routine there are 90 oil points to lubricate and no grease nipples. Peter said: “At each oil point you have to remove a small cap, screw-on a tailor-made oilcan and start pumping.
“This is no five-minute job, as the process has to be repeated another 89 times.”
The levers at the bottom of the steering box come from the hand controls in the centre of the steering wheel and the rods control the various functions of the engine.
The 7668cc capacity OHV engine produces 100 burly draft horses, via six 140mm-long-stroke pistons sliding in 108mm bores. Peter demonstrated just how much torque the engine has, by selecting top gear in the four-speed gearbox and then letting the clutch out for lift off. On level ground the big beast just idled its way down the road, slowly picking up speed.
The gated four-speed gearshift is near the driver’s door and is shifted with the driver’s right hand.
The gearbox is non-synchromesh ‘crash’ box, in automotive vernacular. When shifting up in ratios the driver must double-clutch to match the engine speed with tail shaft revolutions, in order to smoothly mesh the straight cut gears and on a downshift the throttle must be blipped in between the double-clutch movement, to synchronise the gear revolutions and make a clean shift.
It has an aluminium crankcase, two-piece cast-iron cylinder block and a one-piece cylinder head, with two spark plugs per cylinder – one being fired by a magneto for initial ignition of the mixture in the combustion chamber and the second plug fired from a conventional coil/distributor combo, adding a secondary explosion, giving greater force to thrust the piston down the hole.
It has an aluminium crankcase, two-piece cast-iron cylinder block and a one-piece cylinder head, with two spark plugs per cylinder.
The clutch, gearbox and rear axle assembly have never given one ounce of trouble. The gearbox is remote from the engine and the driveline is the torque-tube type, with a flexible coupling at the front and is then connected straight onto the differential.
Semi-elliptical leaf springs suspend the front, while cantilever leaf springs are used to cushion the rear. It has four-wheel servo-assisted, very large diameter, finned drum brakes.
From Ghost to Phantom
Note the RR etching in the Phantom’s parking light glass.
The Phantom1 was Rolls-Royce’s replacement for the original Silver Ghost. Like the famed Ghost, the Phantom was constructed both in the United Kingdom and United States, with the US model trailing the UK by one year on introduction.
Differences between the US and UK models included available wheelbases – both were specified with the same 143 ½ inch (3645 mm) base length, but the UK also had a long-wheelbase model that was 150 ½ inch (3823 mm). Other differences included the transmission, with UK models using a four-speed and US models having a three-speed manual transmission, both with a single dry-plate clutch.
The UK models were built in the Rolls-Royce Derby factory, while US Phantoms were built in Springfield, Massachusetts.
The Phantom1 was produced from 1925 to 1931, but, after the Depression hit and annual volume halved to 100, production ceased. However, some cars were assembled from available parts up until 1933. Total production was 1241 at the Springfield plant and 2212 at the Derby plant.
Peter’s car had its long wheelbase, 150 ½ inch chassis, number 18LF, shipped from Southampton, arriving in New York on 14th May 1927. It was then trucked to coach-builders Brewster & Co in Long Island, New York, where artisans crafted the striking, bespoke Salamanca DeVille body.
Hollywood movie producer Joseph Schenck ordered the Phantom new for his silent-movie actress wife Norma Talmadge and its cost was US$25,000. Henry’s T Model Ford cost a mere US$290 at the time.
While the left-hand-drive US chassis produced in Springfield plant at Massachusetts would have been less expensive, the prestige of owning a right-hand-drive model from the Rolls-Royce factory in the UK far outweighed the cost, for those who could afford the kudos.
As part of the opulent life of these movie moguls, this High Roller was garaged at Norma Talmadge’s mansion on Hollywood Boulevard.
There are two additional seats in the passenger’s compartment that fold down and face rearwards.
It has been a ‘star’ in movies: with the legendary Joan Crawford in Shock Treatment; Bikini Beach Party with Annette Funicello and Robin and the Seven Hoods with Dean Martin and Frank Sinatra. It has also been in two Australian movies: one many years ago staring Gwen Plum and more recently in a big-budget blockbuster.
The controls in the centre of the steering wheel allow for manual adjustment of the ignition timing and carburettor mixture and idle speed.
Peter’s car is possibly the most celebrated Rolls-Royce movie prop of all time.
While still residing in the US it was later owned by car dealer Dennis Mitosinka and part of its life was spent sitting in a museum in Orange County, California.
In 1979 Mitosinka offered it for sale at an auction in California. Australian Craig Robson was keen to own the car, so he attended the auction and placed the winning bid. The Phantom1, chassis number 18LF, was then shipped to Sydney where it has been for the last 30 years.
Robson owned a wedding-hire-car business and Peter worked for him, driving the Phantom. In 1982 Peter bought the car and continued as contractor to Robson, later on buying the wedding car business before eventually retiring.
Peter has owned six Phantoms with different body styles over the years and still owns a couple of later model Rollers, including the featured Phantom.
His car collection included Minis, Studebakers, Mustangs and a T-Model Ford. At one time, when he owned the wedding car business, he had possibly the largest number of Studebaker straight-eights owned by any one person in the world.
His love affair with cars began at an early age, when he and a mate dismantled a few cars and sold the parts. Peter then went on to import US car parts.
As an apprentice electrician he was lucky enough to get a good general grounding through an apprenticeship scheme, learning welding, fitting and machining, and many other facets of mechanical work.
Peter was good at skilled practical work and able to turn his hand to many mechanical jobs. Evidence of this is the professional manner in which he has performed many and varied tasks when restoring the dozens of cars he has owned, even down to panel beating and spray painting.
Dennis Mitosinka contacted Peter a couple of times over the years, wanting to buy the old Phantom back, but Peter is quite attached to the old girl after so many years of their working together and has declined Mitosinka’s offers.
The crew at Historic Vehicles reckons this majestic piece of automotive history would force the purchaser to scribble quite a lot of numbers on a cheque, if Peter ever decides to sell the ‘Hollywood High Roller’.
We used Craigieburn Resort on the NSW Southern Highlands, as a backdrop for our photography. Many car clubs use it as a venue.
About the original owner
Norma Talmadge was born on May 26, 1893 in Jersey City, New Jersey and became one of the greatest stars of the silent-movie era. She began her film work as a teenager in 1910, at the Vitagraph Studios in Flatbush near Brooklyn in New York, just a streetcar ride from her home.
In 1916 she met and married movie producer Joseph M Schenck, and together they formed the Norma Talmadge Film Corporation; one of the most lucrative partnerships in film history. Talmadge became one of the top box-office attractions for the rest of the silent era, evolving from a spunky teenager into one of the finest dramatic actresses of the silent screen.
One of the wealthiest women in Hollywood, she retired after her two talkies proved disappointing at the box-office, possibly as a result of her rather strong Bronx accent. She died on Christmas Eve, 1957, aged 64.
Rolls-Royce Phantom I
Engine: 7668cc in-line six-cylinder overhead valve
Bore & Stroke: 108mm x 139.7mm
Transmission: Four-speed manual
Chassis: Pressed steel channel
Suspension: Non-independent with semi-elliptic leaf springs front and cantilever rear
Brakes: Servo assisted drums all round
Bodywork: Springfield factory, Massachusetts, USA
Wheelbase: 150½ inches (3822mm)
Production: 2269 Derby factory, England and 1243 Springfield factory, USA.
The ‘Spirit of Ecstasy’, often known as the flying lady, designed by Charles Robinson Sykes, has adorned the radiators of Rolls-Royce motorcars since 1911.The RR logo changed from red to black after the death of Henry Royce in 1933.