Some cars just possess a certain form that has presence. It’s a tough quality to explain with words, so we were quite happy that, of all the cars Jay Leno gets to take for a spin this week, he chooses a Rolls-Royce Phantom II. The model embodies automotive presence, and this vintage has all the right touches that make it timeless. Like the masked character with which it shares a name, this Phantom has played a part in pop-culture history and has remained popular for decades.
The early 1930s were not a great time to be peddling ultra-high-end cars. Multiple manufacturers charted a course upmarket when the US stock market sank. This meant that the top of the market was crowded with cars aimed at the relatively few buyers who had pockets deep enough to consider purchasing a car that cost as much as a dozen average-priced homes. One brand that had no trouble finding customers was Rolls-Royce. This Phantom II is a prime example of the cars that the old Hollywood elite were buying in the Depression years and even paying to rent and use in films – to the tune of $250 per day. In the 1930s.
The body of this particular Phantom was built by Brewster in a town-car configuration. In this arrangement, the driver sits up front behind a windscreen and side glass more befitting a speedboat than a car, while the passengers enjoy the luxury of a fully enclosed cabin. Compared to modern luxury cars, the small vanity mirrors and clock are comical, but this car was majestic enough to attract the attention of the highest-paid actress of the 1930s, Constance Bennett. She bought the car in 1936 and was regularly driven around town in it until, as the rumour goes, her husband lost the car in a poker game in 1949.
And what a thing to lose. The Phantom might only have 120 horsepower from its 7.7-litre inline-six, but the power is delivered smoothly and linearly – exactly what you’d want for a car that weighs in at nearly 3200kg. Did we mention it doesn’t even have room for luggage? Out on the road, Leno points out that the weight of the Rolls is apparent as soon as you begin to turn a corner.
We can’t decide if it’s the camera angle or if the car really is at 5/4ths scale: Both Jay and the vice president from the Nethercutt Collection, which owns the car, look as though they are attempting to drive a sitting room. A really nice sitting room.
The car was restored in the 1980s by J.B. Nethercutt and debuted at the 1992 Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance, where it was awarded best in show. It’s a car with a level of history that exempts it from typical road usage and it spends most of its time in hiding. The fact that Leno takes it for a spin out on the highway, therefore, is something truly special and cool. We wish could have seen it in person, but we’ll settle for the video this time.