John Lennon's Phantom V: The Story of the Psychedelic Beatle-Mobile
As the late icon's famed Rolls-Royce returns to public view, we look back at how it served both as a safe haven and a souped-up plaything
By Jordan Runtagh
July 27 2017
Read the complete history of John Lennon's Rolls-Royce Phantom V, his souped-up psychedelic ride. Keystone-France/Getty Images
"You swine! How dare you do that to a Rolls-Royce!" So screamed an outraged Englishwoman as John Lennon's Phantom V cruised past on London's posh Piccadilly promenade in the summer of 1967. The ornately decorated limousine, sprayed an electric yellow and bedecked with colorful floral tendrils, Romany scrolls and zodiac symbols like a hallucinatory gypsy caravan, so offended her sensibilities that she briefly attacked it with an umbrella – or at least that's the way Lennon always told the story.
Much as the length of the Beatles' mop-tops had done, Lennon's choice to express himself through his automobile triggered a generational clash, enraging those who felt the tripped-out paintjob had subverted a British icon. "I can imagine this lady felt, 'How dare you?! This is one of those things you cannot do!'" Giles Taylor, design director for Rolls-Royce, tells Rolling Stone. "It's like putting graffiti on Buckingham Palace. You're getting close to the nerve of British elegance, British politeness and good British manners."
In the 50 years since it outraged the Establishment, Lennon's Rolls-Royce Phantom V is now embraced as a masterpiece of design and a jewel of the Swinging Sixties. After nearly four decades spent in North America, where it was housed in a number of museums, the one of a kind vehicle is making its grand English homecoming as part of Rolls-Royce's new exhibition, "The Great Eight Phantoms." Between July 29th and August 2nd, Phantoms owned by the likes of Queen Elizabeth II and Fred Astaire will be on display at Bonhams flagship saleroom and galleries in London to celebrate the launch of the Phantom VIII, the latest incarnation of the 92-year-old model.
Despite the illustrious company, the wild car once owned by a guy from Liverpool has arguably earned the most attention. "It's pure art," Taylor says of the ride, since nicknamed the "Psychedelic Rolls" for obvious reasons. "John Lennon chose an automotive piece as his canvas, using all the symbols of wealth and other messages that go along with the Rolls-Royces of that period. He was certainly getting fed up with conforming at that time. It was a classic artistic statement." In a fitting nod to Lennon's individuality, the Phantom VIII will come equipped with a full-length glass dashboard, allowing owners to customize their ride with art of their choice. "We've opened a door to allow the license to 'subvert,' which goes back to where Lennon went originally. It's a license to express yourselves."
Lennon bought his first Rolls-Royce, a secondhand two-toned maroon-and-black limo, in July 1964 to shuttle him to London from Kenwood, his newly purchased estate in the rural Surrey village of Weybridge. But that December he decided to upgrade this comparatively modest car for a coach that matched his fab status, and submitted an order for the most exclusive (read: expensive) Rolls-Royce model. "Rumor has it that John had wanted to one-up his manager, Brian Epstein," says Dr. Lorne Hammond, the curator of Human History at the Royal British Columbia Museum in Canada, where the car has permanently resided since 1993. "On a return in 1964, the Beatles were picked up by Brian at the airport in a new Bentley, material proof of their success. John's choice of a Phantom V showed the people back home in Liverpool, all of London, and the world, that he had made it. He bought 'the best car in the world' with every factory option and extras. The delicious humor of one-upping his manager would have also have appealed."
Commissioned from R.S. Mead Ltd., a retailer based in nearby Maidenhead, the custom-made Phantom V would take six months to complete. Its chassis was manufactured at the Rolls-Royce factory in Crewe, Cheshire, and in late January 1965 work began on the bespoke limousine carriage at Mulliner Park Ward in Willesden, Northwest London. For all of the paperwork accumulated during the car's construction, the total price of the vehicle is not recorded. An educated guess from historian Steve Clifford, who profiled the car in an extensive 1999 article for Beatleology magazine, put the figure at around 11,000 pounds (nearly $240,000 in today's value). However, with publicity at a premium and Lennon being one of the most famous people on the planet, odds are good that he received some sort of Beatle discount.
Ironic considering the significant expenditure, Lennon was unable to drive when he first ordered the Phantom V. He wouldn't pass his "L-test" until February 15th, 1965 at age 24, becoming the last Beatle to do so. "I'd never bothered because I wasn't very interested in driving, but when the others passed I thought I'd better do it or I'd get left," he said at the time. That same day the Beatles began work on a new song, "Ticket to Ride," a prophetic title considering the number of citations Lennon eventually racked up during his road hours. By all accounts – including his own – he was a horrendous driver, far too myopic to read signs, too distracted to recall routes, and too impractical to troubleshoot even the simplest mechanical issue.
An untold number of fenders were spared when he employed the services of a six-foot-four Welsh guardsman named Les Anthony, whose large frame made him an effective bodyguard as well as driver. On permanent call for 36 pounds a week, Anthony doffed a braided chauffer's cap whenever "Mr. Lennon" rang. It was likely he who was on hand to receive the finished Phantom V on June 3rd, 1965, at R.S. Mead. Bearing the REGISTRATION plates "FJB 111C," the enormous vehicle measured an astonishing 19 feet, 10 inches long, and six feet, seven inches wide. Tipping the scales at nearly three metric tons, it didn't roll so much as glide down the blacktop. Not yet emblazoned with the distinctive Romany paintjob, the exterior was finished in a somber "Valentine Black" shade. "John's Rolls was all black – even the wheels," Anthony later told author Phillip Norman. "The only bit of chrome on it was the radiator. He told me he'd wanted that to be black as well, but the Rolls people wouldn't do it."
Among the Phantom V's more traditional amenities were the 6.23-litre V8 engine, black leather upholstery, cocktail cabinet with fine wood trim, writing table, reading lamps, a seven-piece his-and-hers black-hide luggage set, and a Perdio portable television. Slightly more novel was the refrigeration system contained in the trunk of the car, perfect for chilling champagne or, more often, cola for Scotch and Cokes. The most unusual feature was the one-way passenger windows made of darkened Triplex Deeplight glass. Lennon's Phantom V was among the first automobiles in England to be outfitted with tinted windows, shielding riders from any unwanted gawking. More valuable than privacy, for Lennon it created the effect of a mobile discothèque that never closed. "People think they've got black windows to hide. It's partly that, but it's also for when you're coming home late," he admitted in 1965. "If it's daylight when you're coming in, it's still dark inside the car – you just shut all the windows and you're still in the club."
In those early morning hours, while being ferried home from hotspots like the Ad Lib Club or the Scotch of St. James, Lennon surely took pleasure knowing that he was riding in the same car owned by his hero, Elvis Presley. But the King of Rock was far from the only royal who favored the Phantom V. Queen Elizabeth II and the Queen Mother both used the model as their official state vehicles, occasionally leading to some disappointing mix-ups with mistaken Beatle fans. Perhaps it provided a conversation starter when the Beatles took Lennon's Phantom to Buckingham Palace on October 26th, 1965, to collect their MBE honors from Her Majesty.
In December 1965, a simple maintenance checkup spiraled into a major overhaul as Lennon submitted a seven-page list of alterations to be carried out at a cost of more than 1900 pounds. The splurge transformed the deluxe ride into an Austin Powers–like shag-wagon, beginning with a modified backseat that converted into a double bed – with oversized ashtrays added to the armrests. On-demand music was available from a state of the art Philips Auto-Mignon AG2101 "floating" record player, boasting an ingenious suspension system that prevented the needle from jumping when the car was in use. A Philips tape player was also added in a specially built cabinet, as well as a Sterno Radio Telephone assigned with the number WEYBRIDGE 46676. "The telephone packs and batteries were so large in those days that they took up almost the entire boot," recalled Lennon's housekeeper, Dot Jarlett. "John also had the hooter changed so that when you honked, it played 'Lilli Marlene.'"
The television set was upgraded to a more modern Sony TV 9-306 UB, but the reception was poor and it rarely worked. Instead, Lennon derived much of his entertainment from the "loud hailer" public address system. Speakers mounted in the front wheel wells allowed occupants to communicate with the world outside via microphone. "You could ask people to cross the road a bit faster which scared the daylights out of them," Beatles associate Tony King told author Mick Brown. The car's stereo could also be switched to these outdoor speakers, and Lennon enjoyed blasting sound-effect recordings of trains and jet engines to confuse bystanders.
Lennon's bandmates often got in on the vehicular mischief. "After recording sessions, at two or three in the morning, we'd be careening through the villages on the way to Weybridge, shouting 'wey-hey' and driving much too fast," Paul McCartney remembered during the Beatles' Anthology documentary. "George would perhaps be in his Ferrari – he was quite a fast driver – and John and I would be following in his big Rolls-Royce. John had a mic in the Rolls with a loudspeaker outside and he'd be shouting to George in the front: 'It is foolish to resist, it is foolish to resist! Pull over!' It was insane. All the lights would go on in the houses as we went past – it must have freaked everybody out."
No one was safe, not even members of their rock star coterie. "I remember being in Hyde Park, coming back from John's house in his big chauffeur-driven Rolls-Royce. ... We were driving through the park, and ahead of us was Brian [Jones'] Austin Princess," McCartney told biographer Barry Miles. "We could see his big floppy hat and blond hair and we could see him nervously smoking a ciggie in the back of the car. So John got on the mic and said, 'Pull over now! Brian Jones! You are under arrest! Pull over now!' Brian jumped up. 'Fucking hell!' He really thought he had been busted. He was shitting himself! Then he saw it was us. And we were going, 'Fuck off!' giving V-signs [the British equivalent of flipping the middle finger] out of the car window."
Lennon ramped up use of the car in 1966, piling on nearly 20,000 miles by the end of the year. When his first solo acting turn in director Richard Lester's How I Won the War required him to shoot on location in Spain for six weeks that autumn, he had Anthony make the 1,400-mile drive south to meet him with the Phantom V. "We were in Almería, which was very sandy, and the local kids would write 'el Beatle' on the car," Anthony remembered. The large black saloon was a conspicuous prescience in the provincial town, and soon earned the nickname "El Funebre" ("The Hearse") from the locals.
The filmmaking process – to say nothing of the 6 a.m. call times – quickly proved tedious and unfulfilling for Lennon, and the Rolls served as a comfortable cocoon that he, according to McCartney, "virtually lived in. It had blacked-out windows so it was perfect. John didn't come out of it – he just used to talk to the people outside through the microphone: 'Get away from the car! Get away!'" To stave off boredom between takes, he would while away the hours in the backseat, smoking marijuana that had been smuggled into the country inside boxes of candy, and tinkering with lyrics for a melancholic new song provisionally called "It's Not Too Bad." After a lengthy process of finessing, the composition took its final, better known title: "Strawberry Fields Forever."
The groundbreaking Beatles single would be the silver lining for what proved to be an overall disappointing trip. Lennon lost interest in becoming a movie star, Anthony detested the bugs and heat, and the primitive roads badly damaged the Phantom V's undercarriage and exhaust system. Mechanical repairs were made in short order, but the southern-Spanish sand and dust had all but ruined the car's elegant matte black finishing. With a new paintjob required, and Lennon's creativity unleashed by the fruitful sessions for Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, he began to consider something a little more colorful.
Exactly how Lennon decided on the lurid Romany floral/zodiac hybrid is subject to some debate. Anthony recalls Ringo Starr planting the seed of the idea during a drive in early 1967. "We were passing the fairground one day and they were admiring the fairground decorations and gypsy caravans. Ringo said why not have the Rolls painted the same way. John thought it was a great idea." However, others say the idea was suggested by Marijke Koger of the Dutch design collective the Fool – who would also paint Lennon's piano that summer – after Lennon commissioned a refurbished 1874 gypsy caravan as a present for his young son, Julian. Either way, the chance to indulge his eccentric taste, while simultaneously delivering a massive "V-sign" to the staid British high society, proved too tempting to resist.
Doubtful that Rolls-Royce themselves would ever submit to such a drastic makeover of one of their prized vehicles, Lennon paid a visit to private coach makers J.P. Fallon Ltd. in Chertsey on April 8th, 1967, to discuss the design. After spraying the body of the car yellow, local artist Steve Weaver was tasked with painting the red, orange, green and blue art nouveau swirls, floral side panels and Lennon's astrological symbol, Libra, on the roof. On May 24th, Weaver submitted an invoice for 290 pounds, and the following day the car was ready for pickup. Predictably, the unveiling of the way-out Rolls drew the world's press. "The first time I drove it, I was followed by hordes of photographers and Pathé news," said Anthony.
Reactions were mixed, depending on which side of the generation gap you happened to stand. The Daily Mail reported that the "shrieking yellow" vehicle elicited jeers from the assembled crowd, and the July 1967 issue of Beatles Book Monthly claimed that a local traffic official feared the loud colors would be a dangerous distraction to drivers on the road. And, of course, there was the angry elderly woman who took an umbrella to the car as it cruised down Piccadilly. "Naturally, John was delighted and repeated the story everywhere he went," friend Tony Bramwell wrote in his 2006 memoir, Magical Mystery Tours: My Life with the Beatles.
Predictably, Lennon and his compatriots adored the new and improved car. Delivered days before the Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band was issued, its official maiden voyage took place on May 28th, leading a fleet of friends to Epstein's new country home for a combined album release party and housewarming. Lennon somehow managed to cram in the back with eight others: his wife Cynthia, George Harrison and his wife Pattie, Koger and fellow Fools Simon Posthuma and Josje Leeger, as well as Derek Taylor – the Beatles' former (and future) press officer who had just flown in from Los Angeles for the event – and his wife Joan. All but the visiting Taylors were decked out in colorful silk and satin garb adorned with flowers, bells, scarves and amulets. Led by balloon bouquets tied to sign posts to guide the way, the friends sipped LSD-laced tea and played Procol Harum's gentle psychedelic lullaby "A Whiter Shade of Pale" endlessly on the record player.
"John and friends floated in on his gaudy yellow Rolls, through bucolic country lanes adrift with clouds of May blossoms, as if in a magic pumpkin on the way to the ball," Bramwell writes of the idyllic scene. It was a harbinger of the season, kicking off the semi-mythical Summer of Love. "The party had a soft, dreamlike quality to it," wrote Beatle confidant Peter Brown in his book, The Love You Make. "The prophets were here, the masters were in control, there was good food and liquor and friends. 'A Whiter Shade of Pale,' interspersed with Sgt. Pepper, played all afternoon and into the evening."
It couldn't last. The magic summer came to an abrupt end on August 27th, when Epstein was found dead of an accidental barbiturate and alcohol overdose in his London home. The times changed as the weather grew colder. That autumn the Beatles rallied together to film their directorial debut, Magical Mystery Tour, which proved to be only slightly less miserable for Lennon than his experience filming How I Won the War a year earlier. The Phantom can be seen in various production stills for the film, which are among the last known images of the car in active Beatle duty.
From 1968 onward, an additional Phantom V, with the license plate EUC 100, became Lennon's primary ride. The all-white model seemed to signal a sea change in Lennon's life, drifting away from psychedelic whimsy and towards conceptual minimalism – due at least in part to his blossoming relationship with artist Yoko Ono. The kaleidoscopic collage of the Sgt. Pepper cover was replaced with the stark White Album sleeve, the vibrant kaftans replaced with immaculate white suits, and Kenwood was replaced with the imposing white Georgian country house, Tittenhurst Park.
The precise whereabouts of the flower-power Phantom remain sketchy for the remainder of the Sixties, but Steve Clifford theorizes that it was shipped to the United States in early 1968 for Lennon to use during New York meetings for Apple Corps, the Beatles' new record label established in the power vacuum following Epstein's death. Whatever the case, he joined the car in September 1971, leaving his native England for what would prove to be the last time. Though it made an appearance at Lennon's 31st birthday celebration in Syracuse, New York – attended by fellow guests George Harrison and Ringo Starr – the Phantom V was mostly put to use being loaned out to other musicians. Bob Dylan, the Moody Blues and even members of the Rolling Stones all reportedly got a lift throughout the early Seventies.
The Rolls-Royce Phantom V in the present day. Kim Bellavance
The Rolls had been confined to storage by December 1977 when Lennon, apparently facing difficulties from the IRS, decided to donate it to the Cooper-Hewitt Museum at the Smithsonian Institute in exchange for a $250,000 tax credit. It served as a highlight of the "Ornament in the 20th Century" exhibit, held from October 1978, to January 1979. Lennon was greatly amused by the spectacle, and particularly by the souvenir postcards depicting with his old car available for purchase in the gift shop. He couldn't resist sending one to his Uncle Norman just before the show closed.
The yellow Phantom V took on a new significance in the wake of Lennon's murder on December 8th, 1980, transforming the automobile into a vivid relic of one of the 20th century's most unique figures. When the Cooper-Hewitt chose to put the car up for auction at Sotheby's on June 29th, 1985, it sold for $2,299,000 – nearly 10 times the estimated amount. The buyer was Jim Pattison, a Canadian business magnate and billionaire, who beat out a St. Louis–area Rolls-Royce dealership for the honor of securing what had become the most expensive car in history.
Pattison also owned the Ripley's Believe it or Not museum franchise, and for a time the Phantom V was on display at the South Carolina branch. It was loaned to the Expo '86 World's Fair in Vancouver (also chaired by Pattison), before being presented as a gift to the Canadian government and displayed at British Columbia's Historic Transportation Center in 1987. Following the institution's closure in 1993, it was installed in its longtime permanent home at the Royal B.C. Museum.
Too large to fit in the museum's regular collection, the vehicle spends the majority of the time in storage. The Sony television, Phillips tape player, and spare tire have mysteriously vanished over the years, and the sound system is no longer functional, but it still offers a smooth ride. Every six months a representative from Bristol Motors takes the car on a brief spin to keep everything in working order, bringing the total mileage to just under 35,000 miles. "The biggest challenge with this artifact is preserving the unique paint on the exterior of the car," says conservation manager Kasey Lee. "It did not bond well with the metal and original factory paint. We keep the car operational only so that we can move it from storage to display when required. The vehicle is incredibly heavy, and since the paint is fragile, it is difficult to push without damaging the paint."
According to Dr. Hammond, Lennon's car has been appraised at $5.2 million, but its true worth is impossible to calculate. "With a work of art like this, one only knows when it goes to auction. Given the increased stature of John Lennon and collectability of all things associated with him and the Beatles, we can only assume that in the future it's value will only grow. However, its value as a piece of cultural history has become priceless."