One car compliment you can bet hasn't been heard many times over the past century is, "It looks great, as shiny as a new penny."
At least if it was delivered by somebody who meant it literally.
For those whose penchant for polishing goes well beyond a quick squirt of the latest magic labour-eliminating elixir and a quick rubdown with an old rag on a Sunday morning, there have been any number of aluminum-bodied cars built over the years on which they can exercise their enthusiasm. But if the need to polish borders on both mania and masochism, surely nothing can beat a car panelled in pure copper.
The intensity levels of both required to keep a copper-bodied car looking new-penny-bright – green verdigris may look fine on roofs, but not on your hood – understandably means very few have been built. But surely one of the most elegant when buffed up to a coppery gleam is the 1930 Rolls-Royce Phantom II Roadster recently sold at RM Auctions Monaco sale for just more than $200,000. Or about half what a 1936 Canadian "dot cent" went for at a recent rare coin auction, an interesting juxtaposition of relative values.
The copper-bodied Phantom II is reputed to be the only Rolls-Royce ever bodied in this unusual choice of metal. And the only other copper cars I've found from the classic era are an even more dramatic Chitty-Chitty-Bang-Bang-like confection (now in the National Automotive Museum in Reno) created on a 1921 Rolls-Royce Silver Ghost chassis by the same British coachbuilder who re-bodied the 1930 Phantom II. And a homemade hand-beaten copper Dodge built by a New Zealander in 1921 and on exhibit in that country's Southward Museum (I've seen it and it's remarkable). More recent is the one-off 1965 Kirkham Shelby Cobra built in the U.S.
Back in the coachbuilders' heyday (that lasted up to the Second World War), high-end marques such as Rolls-Royce often supplied customers with just an engine, frame and running gear. This was turned over to the coachbuilder of their choice who designed and constructed a body of steel, aluminum, wood or even wicker or fabric.
Copper, although easy to work, wasn't much in demand, although it was used for some fittings and trim pieces. Today, the only copper in cars is in the wiring, possible the radiator or in trace form as part of the chemical pre-treatment of bodies.
Coachbuilders Dick Brockman & Company – which operated from the early 1920s to late 1930s in Reading, England – however, were obviously willing to indulge at least two customers' tastes for something a little different.
As was possibly the case with the 1921 Rolls, the 1930 Phantom II arrived at Brockman's works as a second-hand car. The right-hand-drive Phantom II chassis had been delivered to Rolls-Royce's recommended coachbuilders Barker & Company early in 1930 where it was fitted with a Pullman Limousine deVille body with silver plated fittings and radiator shutters and equipped for comfortable "continental" touring.
Its subsequent owner – perhaps it was a hand-me-down to some bright young Etonian who hadn't yet acquired his thick upper crust – obviously had something different in mind when he, or perhaps she, commissioned Brockmans to build the sporty open two-door bodywork the car has now worn for more than 80 years.
The Phantom II, introduced for 1929, was the first Rolls-Royce to break away from its staid Edwardian era roots.
At the end of the First World War, Rolls was still selling a single model the 40/50, but added the smaller and less expensive model 20 in 1922 – which came complete with Barker bodies – to reach a more egalitarian range of clients. A program to modernize the 40/50 resulted in little more than a redesigned engine and front brakes for the New Phantom introduced in 1925. The older model sedately motored on after acquiring the Silver Ghost name as homage to the legendary 1907 model.
The Phantom II that followed was powered by an enlarged to 7,668c c inline six with overhead-valve cylinder head and the four-speed gearbox now bolted directly to the engine. This was slung in an all-new chassis, with a standard 3,800 mm wheelbase. It was lower, had an improved suspension that delivered better handling, and came with four-wheel servo-assisted brakes. A centralized lubrication system was fitted that oiled the literally hundreds of parts which previously had to be lubricated individually every few hundred miles. In the copper roadster's case, this would have left its owner a little more time to keep up with what had to be an endless polishing regimen.
At Henry Royce's insistence, a short-wheelbase and more stiffly sprung Phantom II special was created with Barker close-coupled four-seater lightweight bodywork painted in a light saxe blue with a pearlescent lacquer finish created by grinding up herring scales. This Continental model was somewhat reluctantly added to the catalogue and some 280 were sold, adding to the total of 1,680 (approximately) Phantom IIs built.
The Phantom II would be the last of the classic six-cylinder cars to be created completely under the supervision of Royce, the survivor of the original partnership, with Charles Rolls, that created the company 1906.
Information on the early life-and-times of the Phantom II Roadster is scarce but it does seem the car has gone through a number of owners over the years, and has been included in a number of well-known collections. It also appears that it's one of those cars that has been driven and enjoyed by its owners rather than been parked behind velvet cords.
Its most recent road trip was the drive from Northern Ireland's James Black Restorations Ltd. to Monte Carlo, where it found its latest owner, whom we wish many fond hours of driving – and polishing.