The cliché "beauty is in the eye of the beholder" is often applied to elegance. In the context of old cars, what one personally defends as elegant is usually the one you own. That approach may be driven by the fact that most of us cannot either afford or find exactly the car one would really have liked (I am clearly thinking of Pre-War cars here - the choice of style is more limited after 1965, but it does mean that there are more cars of the same style about). However, one has to admit that there may be one or two other cars more elegant than your own.
Elegance and taste are difficult characteristics - they are personal and subjective, and often based on the opinion of fashion leaders and the style of your own age. When I was at that age when boys are first fascinated by cars, I was fortunate that many Pre-War cars were still on the roads because Post-War production was very limited. My early impression of elegant cars was based on what was seen every day. That doesn't mean that my taste then is what it is now - I remember going to a Motor Show, possibly in 1950, and being impressed by the Austin "Atlantic" and the Standard "Vanguard" (the latter described by Hugh Casson as "a meringue on wheels").
Interestingly, in the Rolls-Royce context, the late Lawrence Dalton provided no preface to his book "Those Elegant Rolls-Royce", and in none of his following books continuing the theme did he attempt to define "elegance". In the late 1920s and 1930s, the Concours dElgance held at fashionable resorts in Europe was not just for the car, as a fashionably dressed lady was an essential part of the ensemble. Although most often the lady's clothes might be chosen to match the car colour, there is evidence that some ladies changed their car colours to match the dress they wore at the event. Since the growth of the old-car movement, Concours have been Concours de Condition, although the R-R.E.C. does judge Elegance separately at the Annual Rally using a team of ladies to choose the short list. Even the Pebble Beach, Louis Vuitton, and Goodwood events tend to be condition orientated, although many of the cars entered may not run all that well I guess "Style et Luxe" doesnt include how well they go.
My reason for writing this note is partly to expose my prejudices, and partly because when I look at the field of cars at the Annual Rally, I am often disappointed by the choice of "Most Elegant" for the parade. I sometimes wonder if colour scheme is a greater influence on the choice than line.
Certain body styles seem to appear regularly in the Elegance parade: Gurney Nutting sedanca drop-head coups of the mid 1930s feature, as do "R" and "S" type Continentals by H. J. Mulliner. For post Second World War cars, it was difficult for the coachbuilders to achieve a better result than the standard-bodied cars, especially with the talents of Ivan Evernden and John Blatchley in their designs. This article exposes my prejudices for Pre WWII cars. A later one will explore whether I feel that the Elegance continued afterward, and might reveal what were my preferences at the age of fourteen.
Is there a formula for elegance of line in a car? This is quite difficult, bearing in mind the structural differences between, say, an Edwardian Silver Ghost and a Silver Shadow, and makes harder the task of judging the overall winner of the Elegance trophy at the Annual. I have my own feeling around a sort of formula that I like, which may emerge later.
A bit of history may be appropriate here. Through the Twentieth Century there have been many developments in automotive design, and also influences on style. In the early days, the car looked like a horseless carriage where the carriage part could appear identical to the design for a horse-drawn one, but the integration with the mechanical horse was rapidly developed. Even so, in 1897, the Worshipful Company of Coachbuilders and Harness Makers was quoted in "Autocar" as saying "and we do not see why people should expect something entirely different in the way of a carriage when it is propelled by a motor than when it is drawn by a horse."
Once the classic car layout had been set: a front-mounted honeycomb radiator just ahead of the engine, with clutch and gearbox connected to the rear wheels via a propeller shaft, crown wheel and pinion and differential, it was then a matter of continuous development driven by the needs for improved performance, ride, handling, comfort, economy, mass production, or beating odd taxation rules. The more radical designs were often in "light cars" where power limitations made traditional body design impracticable, or where a designer was able to treat the vehicle as a whole: the Lanchester was an example of the latter, but eventually it too had to bow to the then conventional layout. Large cars with a conservative clientele tended to hold to the horseless carriage body styles longer.
Style or "styling" tended to follow, although Rolls-Royce established a regular liaison with coachbuilders quite early on, usually to persuade them to avoid unsound or too heavy construction. There must have been some reverse influence, for example the integration of the line of the bonnet and scuttle with the body, which occurred in two stages, one around 1910, the other around 1931 (generally the bonnet was an R-R supplied item on pre WWII cars). Also coachbuilders will have commented on how other makers chassis designs might have integrated with the bodies better. Not all coachbuilders had stylists: John Blatchley Chief Styling Engineer at Rolls-Royce from 1950 to 1969 commented that when he joined Rolls-Royce, Park Ward had no stylist as such.
Although not influencing R-R cars' bodies, the streamline style that developed in France in the 1930s first featured on R-R built cars in the Paulin designed Embiricos Bentley and the Bentley "Corniche" influenced post WWII designs. The prime design consequence affecting R-R cars was the integration of all components, such as mudguards, radiator and lamps, into the body. Even so, this was unusual on coachbuilt Silver Wraiths immediately after WWII, even if adopted on the Silver Dawn..
WWII had frozen body development in Europe while it continued in the US, so immediate post WWII coachwork was either a development of the pre WWII designs, or derived from some US styles. However, the move to integrate the mudguards and to widen the passenger compartment within the same overall width was a challenge to the coachbuilders, even though the R-R chassis was considerably wider and stronger than the pre WWII designs. The consequence was often a loss of accessibility to the engine compartment, and thicker doors without more width inside the car 1950s R-Rs were not designed for modern supermarket car parks. More recently, integral construction on the frequently mentioned "platform" together with crash test requirements have severely limited the range of styles available - making it even more essential to get it right first time.
Whether the Modernist view of form following function came into play as a contributor to elegance is a matter for discussion: we tend to be products of our age, so my view may be different from that of my seniors or my juniors. External influences, such as streamlining, speed-boat, aeroplane and rocket design features, certainly showed, if often more from childrens toy or Hollywood science fiction designs than reality boys toys becoming mens. There probably is the basis of a book somewhere on the subject of the influences on bodywork designs from other things, as well as how designers copied those of others.
For anyone interested in more on the history of coachbuilding, the late George Olivers book of that name, published by Cassell in 1962 is a useful guide. It also helps one through the labyrinth of names for different body types.
Now for my own prejudiced opinion, with some examples. In the earliest bodies on Rolls-Royce cars, while many were impressive or elaborate, the ensemble was not what I would call elegant because the integration of the horseless part with the carriage part was incomplete: the large overhanging bulkhead behind the bonnet caused a visual discontinuity. The then popular "Roi des Belges" style of tourer was very similar to a limousine with the top cut off, and the stepped increase in body height as one moved to the rear interrupted the flow further. Lack of elegance of line was compensated by elaborate and good proportion in details such as mouldings and fine lining.
Some bodies of horseless carriage style: top left is Claude Johnson's second wife "Mrs Wigs" with the "Pill-Box": a 40/50 hp Brougham de ville 10LW; top right, a slightly later Hooper single landaulette 76NE, which George Oliver viewed as being one of the best-looking motor-cars ever made, in which he found it difficult to object to the obvious traditional coach-builder's influences - I tend to feel it looks like what in modern cars is a "ringing" job, as the back and front do not appear to be the same car. Bottom left is a weird coup with seat for a servant, and on its right, a much later car in the same vein: a Phantom II Hooper state limousine landaulette for the Emperor of Abyssinia 6XJ.
With cars like the "London-Edinburgh" (the one at the left is chassis 1958 by Holmes of Derby in the style of the L-E car), and later the "Alpine Eagle" (the car on the right is 17RB, by Portholme Coach Works, sold to Capt. Milburn by James Radley and a sister car to the one in which Radley won that year's Austrian Alpine Trial), the line from the radiator to the back of the body became more continuous. To my eye, the London-Edinburgh style was more elegant because the line from the radiator, along the bonnet hinge and scuttle, and along the body top was more pronounced than in the Alpine Eagle, but the latter's higher body sides gave better passenger protection. The balance between practicality and elegance is a hard task - one has to suffer to be beautiful...
This stage, just before the First World War, when a smooth line could be drawn from the bonnet side hinge along the scuttle and the body top rail (or lower edge of the waist moulding on a closed car) was the point where I believe truly elegant cars appeared. Although some designs aligned the bonnet centre hinge, scuttle top, and tops of the body waist moulding, this alone was insufficient for my idea of elegance. It was helped further if the line of the bottom of the bonnet (at the top of the chassis in cars of the 1920s) continued along the bottom of the body, giving a relatively narrow continuous strip of colour between the two. The line would be parallel with the straight running board, separated by a smooth valance concealing the chassis sides and brackets. The mudguards were fuller than Pre WWI designs, to control dirt better, but were still light in appearance. Totally parallel body sides would however look boring, so generally they would rise slightly around the body rear, and features like mudguards broke up the monotony too.
Here are three cars which fulfil my idea of true elegance of line: on the left is a Hooper New Phantom tourer 21YC, with its smaller relative on a 1927 20 hp GHJ8. As is inevitable, the longer bonnet of the larger car improves the line, but its windscreen and high-mounted folded hood are less stylish. The Barker "Prince of Wales" cabriolet de ville on the right is also a New Phantom, in which the line drops slightly aft of the rear door to allow for the folding of the roof. The fixed head version would almost certainly have maintained the straight line.
I mentioned earlier the influence from boats and aeroplanes - just before WWI a number of cars were made with "skiff" style touring bodies, some even clinker built like a boat, and this continued through the 1920s, often with ventilators like a boat's, and running boards like seaplane floats.
The left-hand car is a Barker design on a New Phantom, one of several made in the mid 1920s. That at the centre is one of Ivan Evernden's "Sports Phantoms" - chassis 15EX with body by Hooper. This car was severely damaged during testing in France, returned to Derby and rebuilt as a standard car fitted with a Barker tourer body. It was later fitted with a limousine body, and still exists, shown on the right at Harewood in 2000, but suffering from some later "modernisations" to the body.
At the end of the 1920s, the doors were extended lower to meet the running boards, and the latter began to be swept into the rear of the front mudguards, tending to make the lower parts of the car heavier looking, and destroying the continuity of the lower line. The change from the New Phantom with cantilever rear springs and need for lubrication access to the Phantom II with semi-elliptic rear springs and one-shot lubrication made this possible. Certain makers, notably Barker, continued to achieve the shallow body side look, by incorporating the earlier shape in the longer doors.
Left is a 1929 Barker Phantom II Saloon 1WJ, a very similar body to one fitted to the experimental Phantom II 24EX, but without the black finished lamps of the latter. The lower edge of the doors is no longer parallel to the running board, but mirrors the rising roof line; there is a still a valance below. The centre car is a 1930 Barker sedanca de ville 187GY without valances below the doors, but with the doors shaped to maintain the earlier line. It also has the running board as an extension of the mudguard. It is very similar in appearance to the car in the Concours d'Elegance shown on the right of the heading of this article. The right-hand car is a similar body of 1932 on 79JS,during the R-R.E.C. Vichy Tour of 1970, with a slightly more abrupt transition at the rear of the running board, which probably gives more room for passengers' feet on alighting.
The development of mudguard design is interesting: I feel that the flared mudguards as fitted to 26EX, Everndens design for the prototype Continental Phantom II, are some of the most elegant on a car, but were found in tests to give more drag than the domed type. The integration of the front mudguard with the running board also added rigidity to the body structure as well, so some style changes in bodies were driven by practical needs for good performance and refinement. 26EX is my personal most elegant pre WWII R-R style, and one reason for this article is that it was not chosen as most elegant in its class a few years ago when it was at Althorp newly restored. I must check what was selected sometime...
Three pictures of the classic Phantom II Continental: on the extreme left is Ivan Evernden's sketch of the design, with next to it 26EX with Barker close-coupled sports saloon body at the Concours at Biarritz; on the right is Hooper's version of the same design - a little more smoothed off than Barker's, chassis 11JS.
A Hooper sports saloon on a 1933 PII Continental 30PY, two-toned in grey and dark maroon. This car was built for Hooper's Managing Director, and had a number of experimental features in the body, such as alloy door pillars. One can see how the Evernden design is being gradually made more rounded as time goes on.
The left-hand picture is a 1929 or 1930 boat style body by Hooper, the second body on New Phantom 7RC, with its line a little spoilt by the side mounted spare wheel. Centre is the Continental style applied to a 1932 Barker Phantom II tourer 135GY, but still with short doors. Only the high mounting of the hood detracts from the effect. The rear spare wheel mounting was designed to give the best weight distribution when only the front seats were occupied. The right-hand car is a 1934 all-weather cabriolet by Thrupp & Maberly 188PY, more imposing than elegant, built for the Rajkot State, and showing the fuller mudguards introduced gradually in the 1930s to conceal the front axle once one-shot lubrication had eliminated the need for easy oil-gun access. Unfortunately it does not achieve a flush line for the hood when folded.
My personal prejudiced view is that body styles went downhill from this point on, with coachbuilders facing the challenge of fully-enveloping mudguards, integration of the luggage trunk into the body, and the introduction of independent front suspension, among other features. An effect of the depression in the 1930s was for cars to be less ostentatious: two-tone styles, which were virtually the norm in the 1920s, were replaced by single colours, often relieved by chrome mouldings, or by swaging of the panels: the "Knife-edge" style was common in the late Thirties. Often the line of the body moulding would drop or split to frame the boot, or could finish on the rear quarter: this was both because developments in construction techniques meant that there was no need for the moulding to disguise the join in the panels, and because the general lowering of the car gave a very narrow and mean-looking gap between the top of the rear mudguard and the waist-line. This narrow gap would be acceptable in a single colour, but was not good in a two-tone (a common mistake of modern owners purchasing black or dark cars of this period has been to two-tone inappropriately).
A group of early 1930s bodies: the extreme left of these is a Hooper Phantom II sports saloon 114MS in a style very similar to a car shown on Thrupp and Maberly's stand at the 1931 Motor Show. Customers very commonly would ask a coachbuilder to make a car like another coachbuilder's work, either for loyalty or cost reasons. Notice the fuller mudguards, if still well cut back at the front, and the shorter look achieved with the spare wheels side-mounted - rear mounting made access to the boot more difficult. The centre car is a classic 20/25 hp "D-back" 4-light saloon by Hooper GLG67 with rear luggage grid for a removable trunk. Note the even greater fullness in the front mudguards. The right-hand car is Park Ward's special touring saloon, a 1933 20/25 hp GBA39. The luggage boot is well integrated into the body line, and the reverse curvature at the door bottoms makes it less slab-sided.
Three Phantom III bodies: the Hooper sedanca de ville 3BT173 on the left has even fuller mudguards than a PII because the independent front suspension does not need leaf spring dumb-irons; a swaging line adds interest. It also has a shorter bonnet than the Phantom II, which makes the body appear larger even without the heavier rear quarters which accommodate more of the boot load space. Just visible in this picture is the dropping lower line of the moulding over the rear mudguard although the upper edge holds the line around the rear. In this case effectively the whole of the rear of the body is framed by the upper and lower swage lines. The centre car is 3CP200 of 1938, also a Hooper sedanca (it incorporates a Hooper patent arrangement for the stowage of the front compartment roof: the section over the passenger compartment lifts up to allow the whole front section to slide back out of sight). The dropping moulding line finishes on the rear quarter so that the panelling around the boot is uncluttered. It has spats over the rear wheels, often fitted in the time from 1935 to 1955: inconvenient for tyre changing, though, and a major corrosion issue if the coachbuilder had used brass fittings on aluminium. The aluminium trims on the mudguard edges, and the two-tone treatment is unusual. The right-hand car is a Barker sports saloon with division 3AZ43 built for HRH Duke of Kent. The spare wheel was mounted on the boot like a PII Continental, but it does not quite achieve the stylish effect, possibly because the depth of the body sides over-emphasises the high waisted look. Even with the shorter bonnet of a PIII, the low roof line must have made forward visibility rather poor.
The car on the left is a Hooper 25/30 hp saloon GLP4 where the highlighting of the moulding and the roof in a contrasting colour does nothing for the appearance, especially as there are other swage lines going in different directions as well. The centre car is a 1935 Phantom II 56UK with Barker limousine body, showing the swept tail style popular at this time. Luggage space was rather small, and all such cars had a facility for mounting an extra trunk on the boot lid. Here, the dropping waist-line is effective, and blends well with the matching rear mudguard. Around this time a few cars were two-toned with the colour contrast above and below the upper moulding edge. It is likely that an original two-tone scheme for this car would have had the wheel discs in the darker shade of paint, although Freestone & Webb and Windovers did occasionally do light shade discs. The right-hand Phantom III Hooper sedanca 3BU68 with frameless rear quarter lights also has the dropping waist-line, and is an example where chrome had been introduced to give contrast on a single dark coloured car. It also shows the feature of spats over the rear wheels. The colour scheme of the left hand car does at least lighten the rear quarter by breaking it up, which the plain treatment of the other two cars fails to do.
I mentioned that the Gurney Nutting sedanca drophead coup regularly appears in Elegance parades: on the left is a 1934 20/25 hp GYD 26 (when Gerald King owned it). I personally have difficulty with the conflict between the dropping moulding line and the horizontal lower edge of the window frame, while I accept that the dropping line is necessary to allow for the hood folding. Visually, the right-hand car, which is a 1932 Thrupp and Maberly 2 door saloon (according to the coachbuilder, but a fixed head coup to anyone else) on Phantom II 72JS, has a line that appeals to me more. Both cars treat the boot as a separate item, and its integration into bodies was a challenge at this time. One does have to remember that many owners making long journeys at this period would send their main luggage either ahead by train, or in another vehicle with a servant.
The last set of cars shows something of a loss of direction at the end of the 1930s: the 25/30 hp on the left, by Freestone & Webb GZR7, is harking back to the earlier Brougham style, as shown by the cane panels and opera lamps, but there is no inter-relationship of the different lines and shapes. The Hooper Wraith WRB30 at centre is a better attempt, but would look better with a longer bonnet, and the right-hand Wraith WHC49, also Gurney Nutting, does a better job than the car on the extreme left because the swage line outlining the body panel follows the front wing and running board line, but is very heavy at the rear quarter.
24 G VI, one of the prototype Wraiths fitted with a Park Ward saloon body. An excellent style for all-round visibility, but the forward radiator, short bonnet and long body fail to appear elegant to my eye.
You may judge that my preference is for a car with a huge bonnet and very small passenger compartment: however, Rolls-Royce recognised that ride was important and needed to place the paying passengers in the best position, which was midway between the front and rear axles. Independent front suspension, which in itself gave the potential for a better ride, also permitted moving the engine and the passenger compartment forward (my brother's view is that later Rolls-Royce cars did not have the quality of ride that the London-Edinburgh car had had until the time that the Phantom III was introduced: the addition of heavy front wheel brakes and the need to keep a beam front axle supported on leaf springs under control destroyed the ride and handling). This didn't improve the looks, though.
My thanks to Andre Blaize as usual for his additions to missing chassis numbers. The elegance of post WWII cars, possibly with a lead-in on the Derby Bentley of the 1930s, awaits a future article.
Colin W. Hughes & Rolls-Royce Enthusiasts' Club 2005