Jack Rich's 1939/47 Rolls-Royce Phantom III "Vutotal" Cabriolet by Labourdette is so visually stunning, so over-the-top aerodynamically tear-drop shaped, so unlike anything that Rolls-Royce might ever consider manufacturing that, legend has it, Rolls-Royce attempted to buy it back from its original owner so the car could be destroyed.
But it didn't and it wasn't, and since 2005 the JWR Automobile Museum in Pottsville, Pennsylvania, has been the home of this flamboyant creation.
But the car hasn't just been parked away in Pottsville; it's been touring various and prestigious concours d'elegance, from Pebble Beach to this coming weekend's event at Connecticut's Fairfield Hunt Club.
"People with 'proper' motor cars think, 'oh, my, what did they do?' " says Mark Lizewskie, curator of Rich's collection. "It's a very polarizing car. You really love it or you really hate it."
But love it or hate it, you can't take your eyes off it.
"This year at the Fairfield concours we have an entire class called 'Styled by the Wind'," said Miles Morris, consultant director to the seventh annual Fairfield concours. Morris is a former senior vice-president at Christie's.
Not only is the car the centerpiece of Rich's collection of more than 75 vehicles, but it has been the pre-show publicity generator for the Fairfield concours, which will feature some 230 vehicles spanning "the 100 years of the automobile."
Morris said the cars (and some motorcycles) spanning that century will be parked chronologically at the concours, where they will be joined by vehicles in several special classes, including those, like the Rolls, that have been sculpted by the wind. Other special categories include the 100th anniversary of Bugatti, 75 years of Aston Martin, cars styled by American designer Howard "Dutch" Darrin - including perhaps the first public gathering of every year of Darrin-designed Packards - cars that have raced at Le Mans (including four overall winners), hot rods, customs, Porsches, and barn finds.
This year, for the first time, the concours includes a classic car auction, conducted by Bonhams.
While the Fairfield event may be overshadowed by the tradition of the older concours held each spring at Greenwich, "Greenwich was way back in June," Morris notes, adding that "we have more space," and typically, and impressively, have drawn some 7000 people to the one-day event.
"We're carving out our own niche," Morris said.
So did Louis Ritter, the New York City furrier who liked flamboyant vehicles and who commissioned the design of the unique Rolls.
Henry Royce had begun the design of a new V12 engine but died in 1933 before it had been produced. The new V12-powered Phantom III Rolls was launched in 1934 and featured independent front suspension, a first for the automaker. The chassis also had hydraulically adjustable shock absorbers and an on-board jacking system.
Chassis 3DL120 was delivered to British coachbuilder Hooper in 1938 and outfitted with a sedanca de ville body that Rolls-Royce showed at the 1939 Brussels, Amsterdam and Geneva motor shows, as well as at the New York World's Fair. After the fair, the car was purchased by Oscar Greenwald of Milwaukee. He died two years later and his widow sold the car to New York furrier-turned-hotel owner Louis Ritter, who at one time owned the south end of Key Biscayne, Florida, and was married to actress Carroll Baker.
Ritter had the Hooper body removed and sent the chassis to Henri Labourdette in Paris, who created the aerodynamic open bodywork - at a cost of $44,000! Labourdette's work included an example of Joseph Vigroux' "Vutotal" (frameless) windshield. Instead of chrome, the car was trimmed in gold-plating and brass, which were inlaid into the bodywork.
The car was finished in 1947, Ritter hosted a huge party for its New York unveiling, and then sold it a year later to a plastic surgeon.
Subsequent owners included a drug dealer who went to prison in Cuba, a man who lost it as part of a divorce settlement, a candy company scion, and several classic car collectors.
The current owner is one of those collectors. According to Lizewskie, John Rich, who prefers to be called "Jack," grew up watching "Andy Hardy" movies in which the guy with the cool car got the pretty girl. When Rich's son was injured playing high school football and was in need of something to take his mind off the games he was missing, Rich bought a pair of Model A Fords for his son to restore. A car collection was born.
Lizewskie said the car was barely able to move under its own power when he found it for Rich. Lizewskie had gone to the West Coast to see another possible acquisition, saw the Rolls and the other car was forgotten.
"It was in a really garish red color with beige interior [the car had been repainted a few times during its lifetime] and it didn't do the car justice," Lizewskie said. "I showed him [Rich] some possible color schemes and it really changed the whole appearance of the car."
Lizewskie said original black and white photos of the car show a single, perhaps dark charcoal color, "but the lines of the car are such that it really needs a two tone to accentuate the highlights."
Rich and Lizewskie entered the car at Pebble Beach in 2006, but mechanical problems during the pre-concours road tour caused a "failed to proceed" and the car didn't reach the fabled lawn. They took the car back to Pennsylvania, did a complete mechanical restoration and were back at Pebble in 2007.
This year, the car has been to Meadow Brook and will be at Fairfield, Glenmoor and Hershey.
"Typically, I may only show the car twice a year, but this year quite a few top-notch shows asked for the car," Lizewskie said.
Lizewskie said he does worry about "over exposure," but just look at this car, isn't it all about over exposure!
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