On the trail of Sikorski’s Rolls-Royce Phantom III

We take a trip through the archives of the Rolls-Royce Enthusiasts’ Club on the trail of a very special machine, once owned by the Polish war hero General Sikorski

England has always embraced secrecy. The Secret Intelligence Service derives from the Secret Service Bureau, founded in 1909, and all the British secret institutions are shrouded in a sort of romantic mystique.

The British also hate to throw anything away – which is why many secret World War Two files are periodically reclassified, so that nobody can learn what they contain for decades to come. This, and the fact that Britain remained un-invaded during the war, means there are archives in this country that could bring an historian to his knees.

One such archive is located in Paulerspury, a small village in Northamptonshire. Tucked away from main roads, accessible by narrow lanes running between fields and rows of trees, it’s very quiet and has the air of a place that could serve as a backdrop to the opening paragraphs of a John Le Carré novel.

The reason I’ve chosen to venture hither is that right there, at a place called Hunt House, is the seat of the Rolls-Royce Enthusiasts’ Club, a venerable organisation that not only creates fabulous events for its members, but also takes care of a truly exceptional archive. It houses the production records of all Rolls-Royce cars made from 1904 onwards.

This includes chassis cards that really are cards, filled out in period handwriting. It also holds experimental and test records, photographs, books, and documents from most coachbuilders who clothed Rolls-Royce and Bentley chassis over time.

To become a Rolls-Royce Enthusiasts’ Club member, one doesn’t have to possess an appropriate vehicle – but if one does, the archive holds all the factory papers for over 100,000 individual cars, so it is the right place to look for a model’s provenance or to prove its originality. The fees are modest, and the archive itself is captivating.

But the journey has to begin elsewhere. I’ve chosen to drive a modern Rolls-Royce from the marque’s factory to the Club’s HQ. En route I’m planning to put the current car to the test, to find out how its grand-touring capabilities stack up against those of its forebears.

In 1911 Rolls-Royce completed the famous London to Edinburgh run in top gear only, proving that on long routes it had no equal. I’m curious whether that statement remains pertinent over a century later, in modern-day traffic between the South Coast and Northamptonshire.

Arriving at the Rolls-Royce manufacturing plant is curious in itself: hidden away in the West Sussex countryside, within walking distance of the Goodwood Motor Circuit, it’s so perfectly blended into the green surroundings that one might be tempted to use it as a film location, playing the part of some top-secret Government agency.

The discreet signs dispel the illusion, and soon I’m in possession of a heavy key, which weighs down my pocket and stays there. The Dawn, which I am borrowing, is by definition a vehicle for people who do not mind being noticed or indeed stared at.

When the sun shines suddenly on the pearlescent paintwork it becomes clear that this car would look perfectly at home on the Promenade des Anglais, on the main drag in Dubai or in the heart of Texas on a summer day. Here and now it appears almost too clean for the muddy lanes it will have to brave on its way north.

I set off, enjoying the silky hum of the Dawn’s turbocharged V12 and the gearchange, which is nigh-on imperceptible at part throttle. The steering at first seems too light, but it isn’t – and it offers lots of precision. As for the car’s sheer weight, it’s apparent only when I’m tempted to make a rash, violent course change.

The stability system keeps me out of trouble and smoothes out the result of any erroneous use of the tiller, but this automobile is at its best when piloted like a race car in the wet: very smoothly, with precise, fluid inputs and perfect weight-transfer management. Driven in this manner, the huge Rolls can surprise other road users by the pace it can maintain over a twisty road.

The outstanding sound system provides the ideal soundtrack while I’m cutting across the Downs. The otherworldly air of serenity that the Dawn imparts is mainly due to the torsional stiffness of the roofless body. This gives the suspension a great foundation to work on, and is the chief reason why the car is so eerily quiet.

Have you ever noticed how in some automobiles you feel comfortable in the seat even before you adjust it, but in others you keep fiddling with the controls for weeks yet something always feels wrong? Here, I’m sure, somebody understood the human anatomy, meaning the magnificent seat feels right immediately, and perfect after adjustment.

When needed, the Dawn can sprint from 0-60mph in less than five seconds, and it does so with a lot of dignity. Its top speed is governed to 155mph (not that this parameter would be needed on the M40...).

What is most impressive, however, is the 570bhp engine’s responsiveness at low throttle openings, which is what you really need in modern, slowish traffic. Also, the transmission’s sixth-sense ability to sometimes stay in gear on overrun in order to exercise a modicum of engine braking.

Most of the time the motor’s turbocharged character is hard to detect, and that’s a good thing. Rolls-Royce Motor Cars frowns at the use of the word ‘Sport’ with regard to its vehicles, so there are no shiny gearshift paddles on the steering wheel.

Neither are there any fancy ECU ‘configuration’ menus – but yes, this car can be hustled cross-country should the need arise, and its occupants may still arrive unruffled at their destination. This is a sterling effort from something that has a gross maximum weight rating of a tad over three tons.

Once off the main drag, and heading towards the RREC’s headquarters, the roads become so narrow that a timid driver might consider stopping the car and continuing on foot. The surface is also heavily potholed, so progress is slow and careful. The Dawn has so much suspension travel and such efficient damping that even a road which was last maintained in 1969 or thereabouts poses no challenge to the ride comfort.

Passing parked cars is difficult, and finding my destination requires old-fashioned intuition as the navigation system cannot seem to find the Club’s exact location. Before I start to despair I spot Hunt House, which I recognise from photographs on the Club’s website. Once safely parked, I enter the building and meet Sharron and Amii, the two intrepid archivists who have spent a lot of time looking for the files I’d earlier requested.

You see, in my native Poland, Rolls-Royces were not terribly common before World War Two. Some sources quote the number of cars at 15. Józef Pilsudski – the Supreme Leader of the country between 1918, when it regained independence after 123 years, and his death in 1935 – used a Phantom II with a body by Barker or Kellner.

It was later used by General Smigly-Rydz, the Supreme Commander of the Polish army, and nobody knows what happened to it after the Germans and Soviets attacked Poland in September 1939. Perhaps it survives and will be found someday.

But I came here to search for the build records of another car – a Phantom III with a Vanvooren body. Originally associated with Wladyslaw Sikorski, this has been displayed publicly by Sir Anthony Bamford since 2015, when it appeared in stunning condition at the Concorso d’Eleganza Villa d’Este (above).

It’s now resplendent in a deep burgundy red, complete with a plaque showing general’s stars, plus the correct fender flags bearing the pre-war Polish national eagle. Up to now, trying to find out the car’s history has been somewhat difficult.

Sikorski, a hero of the 1920 war of defence against the Soviet invasion of Poland, fell out of favour with the country’s ruling elite in 1926 and did not get a command until 1939. He devoted his time to writing books – including one that predicted a future return to manoeuvre warfare – and to teaching at France’s L'École Supérieure de Guerre, spending more time in Paris than in Warsaw.

It is difficult to fathom why he chose to order a Rolls-Royce via an intermediary (a Polish commercial mission to France) rather than in his own name, and how he could actually afford one...

Perhaps he had a source of income that he didn’t want to disclose in Poland? But then why order a Phantom III Sports Cabriolet by Vanvooren? That’s hardly a way to stay invisible. Perhaps the truth will emerge at some point, as all we have now is speculation.

The person who placed the order is one Mr S Czarnecki, of 30 Rue Clairant, Paris, on behalf of the Society for Industry and Raw Materials Trade in Warsaw. Curiouser and curiouser. By ordering the car for Sikorski, was this company paying him for some sort of services rendered, or was it just a convenient front?

The chassis order at Rolls-Royce bears the number 3.CM.81, and was made on October 20, 1937. The rolling chassis was then transported to Vanvooren in France aboard the ship SS Plover, and the accessories ordered with it are described as ‘usual’. It had a speedometer in miles and kilometres, a fuel gauge in litres and gallons, Dunlop wire wheels and tyres, and an Exide battery. It was destined for ‘France, Poland, Continent’.

One interesting item on the chassis card is the ‘louvred bonnet’ option; the angle of 11 degrees of each louvre is described, as well as the aluminium mouldings... It may be deduced from the paperwork that the body was completed in 1938, but then the history of the car becomes muddled.

Did Sikorski keep it in France until the war? We know that just prior to September’s German and Soviet invasion he was seen to be driven around in a BMW – driven, because he never got a licence. He evacuated to France via Romania like so many members of the Polish armed forces, but it’s not known whether the car went with him – or even if it had been in Poland at all.

Then Sikorski joined the Polish Government in exile in France, became its first Prime Minister, and also the Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces, and began to form the Polish army.

The task was never completed, although Polish aviation and land forces fought gallantly to cover the French retreat. The army was again evacuated, this time to the British Isles, and Sikorski, still held in high regard by the Allies, commenced recreating a Polish army on British soil.

The car was with him at this point, when the Polish army camps were established in Scotland, and the current owner’s livery reflects that. As an aside, Sikorski was granted membership of the Royal Automobile Club, as a courtesy.

He didn’t manage to convince the Allies that the Soviet Union had been an aggressor, but despite that, he tried to normalise relations with Moscow, as many millions of Poles had become caught in the aftermath of the Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact, and were imprisoned or simply stranded and persecuted in the USSR.

He was making headway, and suddenly – when the Germans discovered the mass graves at Katyn, where at Stalin’s orders (now found and made public) 20,000 Polish army officers had been executed – talks broke down.

Just before Sikorski was able to convince the American public that this had indeed happened, he died in a B-24 Liberator crash at Gibraltar, an accident that was never fully explained. Poland lost most of the clout that Sikorski was able to wield with the Allies, and this led in 1944 to them acknowledging the puppet Communist Government and cease to support the fully legitimate Polish Government in exile. Sad times.

Not only do I feel this dark red Phantom III bore witness to most of those moments; the yellowed pasteboard I’m now touching seems a means of telepathically moving through time and feeling the actual people who ordered the car, rode in it, drove it. The unexpected depth of emotion comes as a surprise.

I move on to the next sets of files that Sharron and Amii have prepared for me. These are less emotional, but no less interesting. Digging into the magnificent RREC archive is a bit like archaeology; you may have some idea of what you can find, but you’re never sure. For instance, it’s known that the Shah of Persia, later Iran, owned a number of Rolls-Royces.

One of them stands out, as it was a singularly original one-off: a Drophead Coupé built in 1951 by HJ Mulliner on a Phantom IV chassis. The ordering party is described on the sheet as ‘His Imperial Majesty the Shahinshah of Iran, Tehran’. Heady stuff. ‘Speedometer in kms. Colonial springing. English wiring. White-sided tyres.’

But more interesting is an inspection form, filled out by an engineer who later travelled to the Iranian Embassy in Rome to check on the car’s condition. The Brit definitely wasn’t one for mincing his words: ‘Body. In poor condition, generally knocked about. This car is very badly maintained, and has considerable minor damage to the body and bumper bars.’

With disdain, the engineer added that the ‘Embassy has been in the habit of employing casual drivers for two or three hours’. Not the right way to treat a coachbuilt Rolls, then.

More digging in the archive brings to light the build sheet for the last Phantom V ever built, which went to Switzerland, as well as the fantastic ‘Chinese Eye’ convertible that starred in the famous Michelangelo Antonioni film Blowup.

This place is full of treasure, and I will certainly be back to do more research. The inspection forms themselves constitute amusing prose that makes it easier to understand the meticulous manner in which those engineers and technicians performed their duties long ago.

All chassis measurements were recorded with unflinching accuracy, and the care with which everything was done is evident. No other manufacturer until the 1960s was able to replicate Rolls-Royce quality, simply because no one else invested so many man-hours in bringing each car to perfection.

Is it different today? Yes and no. Due to emissions and safety legislation, and to the fact that cars are rarely built on a separate chassis, old-style coachbuilding is all but gone. However, any interaction with a new Rolls, especially spending many long hours driving it across the UK, proves that the old spirit of perfection is still very much alive.

Leaving the RREC, I encounter a blocked road due to some holes dug by a water company. I have to travel via a series of muddy detours and gravel tracks that were not really staked out with huge Rolls-Royces in mind. Passing cars going in the opposite direction is extremely difficult, as the roadside ditch full of sticky mud would trouble a Land Rover.

Taking care not to touch any car or tree branch, I slowly make my way out of the maze of narrow rural lanes, happy not to bring the car to the condition described as ‘generally knocked about’ by the unhappy engineer sent to fix the Shah’s car. The automatic headlights swiftly reshape the beam so as not to blind oncoming traffic while keeping the road ahead very well lit, and finally I reach a major trunk road.

At last I can finally exhale with relief. Few owners would demand this much of their Dawn convertibles – perhaps they’d buy the new Cullinan SUV for such roads – but it’s reassuring that the car can handle this kind of challenge.

Searching the archive has made me realise that Rolls-Royces are not anonymous conveyances, built only to transport people from one place to another in comfort and safety. Each of them, now as then, is a separate being with its own separate history. Thanks to my trip north, I have touched some of that history. I am hooked for life.

Images courtesy of Graeme Franklin and Patrycja Frankowska

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