1951 Rolls-Royce “Catherine”, Courtesy Blue Moon Studios

Author’s Note: Bear with me, a moment. This post is not just for our prospective clients and fellow vendors in the wedding and special event industry. It’s also for our fellow car fanatics.  It’s unusual to write a full-length article for a blog, but this occasion warrants one.  While I will endeavor not to delve too deeply into the realm of automotive history, I am a historian by education — so you might say it’s an occupational hazard. -J.C.

I once met a gentleman in the chemical industry, whose job title I found simple, and profound: “Continuous Improvement Director”.

At first glance, I had to chuckle. But as I walked away, I thought,  You know, this must be a forward-thinking company. They’ve hired a guy, and are paying him a substantial full-time salary, who is tasked with nothing more than looking at the way they do things — and coming up with ways to make it better. I began to wonder, how we might implement the same goal-oriented philosophy in our own business.

Since beginning to provide antique cars for special events in December 1998, we have steadily added to our offerings. What began with one car (our 1965 Plymouth Sport Fury, “Christina”), followed by our 1929 Hudson, “Eleanor”, is now a fleet of twelve. There are also a handful of others awaiting – and in various stages of – restoration. Since 2007, we’ve even offered two different classic Rolls-Royces. But we were always looking to improve. Among several others, in May, 2008, we added our 1959 Jaguar “Caroline”, now Alabama’s most requested classic wedding car. In the summer of 2011, through a partnership with a close friend and fellow car collector, we added two cars based near Huntsville: 1934 Chevrolet “Betsy” and 1961 Cadillac Convertible “Big Red”. We brought Vintage Americana to the fleet in October 2011 with our solid black 1952 Buick, “Jack”, followed by America’s Finest, Quietest, Most Expensive Luxury Car in early 2012 — our Persian White 1964 Imperial LeBaron, “Elle”.

All of these are popular cars themselves, and are instrumental in our desire to offer many different makes, shapes, styles, and colors. We hope to offer “something for everyone” in our classic car fleet – not just white cars, black cars, or English cars – but cars of all sorts, to make memories with.

But since 2007, there has been an ongoing search… for the elusive ideal Rolls-Royce.

What…?

Well, it’s like this: There are Rolls-Royces, and there are… Rolls-Royces. There are lots of good ones, nice ones. But there are also a few really great ones. A little history: Before the Second World War, Rolls-Royce didn’t build cars, as we know them. They built chassis. All of the bodies, or “coachwork”, were made by several specialized coachbuilders — most of whom were in England. When buying a Rolls-Royce, a client would first choose what chassis they wanted to purchase – which would determine the size of the vehicle, and what types of bodies could be fitted to it – then would select a particular coachbuilder, and from that coachbuilder, a particular body style and features. The bodies were constructed of aluminum, hand formed over an Ash wood framework — after all, they came out of the carriage tradition, and many of the coachbuilders had started out building carriages!

RR Silver Dawn / Bentley Mk VI

Left: Rolls-Royce Silver Dawn, source: exoticrentals.biz. Right: Bentley Mark VI with Rolls-Royce Silver Cloud behind, source: conceptcarz.com.

Rolls-Royce did not offer a complete car until returning from the War in 1946 — and then, it was on the cheaper Bentley Mark VI (above right, foreground). This was a successful idea, and just a couple of years later, a decision was made to graft a traditional Rolls-Royce grille onto the Bentley model, in order to offer a less-expensive “standard body” Rolls-Royce, as well. This was called the Silver Dawn (above left), and eventually, it became the Silver Cloud (above right, background).

True to their roots, Rolls-Royce also continued to offer their premium model, which was a continuation of the esteemed heritage from their beginning in 1904. This was called the Silver Wraith. Just like the prewar cars, a body was not offered by Rolls — they were all “coachbuilt”. The list of unique features available was incredible.  Many (including ours) were delivered with full cocktail cabinets, and at least one had a built-in shaving kit.  But sadly, unparalleled quality and bespoke features demand a price, and the post-war British economy was weak. Few buyers anymore could afford a car which cost as much as a nice home — and for about half the price, they settled for the cheaper, smaller, Bentleys, Silver Dawns, and Silver Clouds instead. After all, they were nice — just not as nice. For that reason, only 1,783 Silver Wraiths were ever built, from 1946 until 1959 — when the premium coachbuilt Rolls-Royce, a tradition that had lasted over 50 years, died forever.

Silver Wraiths are prized by collectors, many of whom consider them to be the last great thing. In fact, it can be argued that after 1959, all Rolls-Royces (with the exception of the rare Phantom V and VIs, normally reserved for nobility) – Silver Clouds, Shadows, Spirits, Spurs, and Seraphs – come from the standard-body Bentley lineage, and aren’t “Proper Rolls-Royces”.  After all, Silver Wraiths were the last Rolls-Royce where a customer could specify a truly unique car, with his own desires brought to fruition in an automobile all his own.  Moreover, the Silver Wraith was a more modern car than its pre-war predecessors, having incorporated many improvements developed just before – and during – the War, and is thus more usable and drivable in modern traffic. In a way, it is the “perfect middle” of the Rolls-Royce lineage: Old enough to be unique and interesting, but new enough to be driven safely and regularly.  We set out on a search.

Both are Silver Wraiths, but quite different.  Left: frankdale.com.  Right: conceptcarz.com.

Both are Silver Wraiths, but quite different. Left: frankdale.com. Right: conceptcarz.com.

Our search was tough. Of the 1,783 Silver Wraiths built, a large percentage remain. But because of the assortment of different Coachbuilders and body styles, most of the ones you’ll run across don’t even look like siblings. Body styles range from wild to boring, and from beautiful to utilitarian. No two cars are exactly alike. With plenty of restoration experience on hand, we were willing to accept a wide range of conditions, but we had to have something to start with!  After watching the market for five years, looking at dozens of cars for sale, and seriously considering no less than four — we awoke (literally) in May to find “The One”, for sale online, in Nashville, Tennessee.

When you’re a Rolls-Royce junkie, you have books — and one of them is likely to be the definitive book on postwar Coachbuilt Rolls-Royces:  Lawrence Dalton’s Rolls-Royce: The Elegance Continues.  Most of the cars built are listed in “the book”, by chassis number.  A few of the exemplary ones are even photographed.  We opened the book to take a look…

Rolls-Royce Silver Wraith "Catherine" in "Rolls-Royce: The ELegance Continues"

“Catherine” in “Rolls-Royce: The Elegance Continues” by Lawrence Dalton (Dalton, 1971)

And on page 50, there she was.  A phone call was made to set up a visit.

Upon arriving in Nashville, what we found was Silver Wraith chassis number ALW42, a long-wheelbase version with a Touring Limousine body by coachbuilder Freestone and Webb.  She had been ordered new at famed retailer H.R. Owen Ltd. in London, by chemical magnate F.E.F. Blythe of William Blythe & Co., Ltd. — a concern which is still around, and quite successful today.  She was the first of only eleven built of her body style, which would make her the rarest car for hire in the state.  Even for a Silver Wraith, her list of bespoke features is quite impressive:  A rear sunroof with clear glass, a power-operated clear glass division window between the driver and passenger compartments, power windows (rare even for a Rolls, in this period), a cocktail cabinet and picnic trays, dual radios (one up front for the chauffeur, another in the rear armrest for the owner), owner’s lighting and heater controls, jump seats for up to seven passengers, Lucas long-range fog lamps, flashing directional indicators (a big deal, then!), and the list goes on.  We found that she was in phenomenal condition, much nicer than any other Rolls or Bentley that had been for hire in Alabama — and had been excellently maintained by J.D.’s British Cars in Nashville.

We learned that in 1965, she was purchased by David Stockwell, Esq., a noted collector of Rolls-Royce and Bentley automobiles, refurbished by Rolls-Royce specialists Paddon Brothers of London, and shipped to Stockwell’s home in Delaware.  In the early 1970s she made her way to Tennessee and the Hairston family, where she participated in numerous Rolls-Royce Owners Club tours and rallies — and in fact, led a tour from Chattanooga to Charleston and back in the early 1980s.  Later on, she was owned by Charlie Chase of the Crook and Chase Radio Show, and for a time, was even displayed in a museum.

"Catherine" on Rolls-Royce's 90th Anniversary poster

“Catherine” on Rolls-Royce’s 90th Anniversary poster

In 1994, for Rolls-Royce’s 90th Anniversary, a poster was created, including one exemplary car from each generation up to that point.  Of all the Silver Wraiths that could be chosen, “Catherine” was the one included.

In the past 60 years, she has seen a lot of sights, on two continents.  She’s whizzed through the streets of London, with titled nobility in the back and her roof lamp aglow.  She’s plodded down dirt roads in Tennessee.  She’s been admired at car shows and in a museum.  Now she has come to live in Birmingham, amongst a few English sisters and American cousins at Coats Classic Cars.  She’s not ready for retirement — no.  She’s ready to make more memories.  We hope you’ll let her make one, for you.

"Catherine" at the University of Montevallo - Courtesy Blue Moon Studios

“Catherine” at the University of Montevallo – Courtesy Blue Moon Studios