Main Index

Detailed information

Each Model ever built

Coachbuilders, Special Cars...



Rolls-Royce Phantom VI 1971/73, #PRX4705
Frua Drophead Coupé, Disegno No. 869
(later addition Disegno No. 870)

There exists but one Drop Head Coupé on the basis of a Rolls-Royce Phantom VI. The unique body has been sculpted by the Italian designer Pietro Frua and was built by his coachbuilding company in Borgo St. Pietro - Moncalieri situated in Northern Italy. This creation on a chassis of the top model from Rolls-Royce's hierarchy had been ordered in 1971 by H.E. Consul Simon van Kempen who resided in Switzerland.

Original Drawing by Pietro Frua

For Rolls-Royce it was most welcome that an important client from the Continent thus showed confidence in the company's future because this happened just after the well known struggle of 1971 when the company had found itself in a position to call in a receiver. One of the receiver's first decisions had been to separate the solvent and profitable motor car production from the aero-engine production which had caused bancruptcy due to almost devastatingly high losses

It cannot be denied though that during the course of the necessary re-structuring of Rolls-Royce Motors unpleasant friction on more than one occasion occured, especially when new ideas forced to modernize methods which had been established decades ago. All in all alterations were not too revolutionary and didn't result in concentrating all business activities at the Crewe based company. A separate division with its own equipment and staff remained with a rather high degree of independence at Hythe Road in London. It was just that division, which was responsible for a significant share of the manufacturing of parts for the Rolls-Royce Phantom VI. Hence only a close view can answer many questions the most important of which is why it took until 1973 before the complete automobile was finished as chassis cum engine had been delivered in 1971? The date when Rolls-Royce filled the guarantee documents with the chassis-card details was 10th December 1973.

Phantom VIWell, nowadays not only the three-year period of the guarantee has passed but more than a quarter of century. Until very recently the magnificent Rolls-Royce Phantom VI Drop Head Coupé remained with its first owner Consul S. van Kempen und fulfilled every task with that legendary perfection, which is expected from "the best car in the world". But looking back indicates that the development was rather difficult due to variety of problems having built up a severe barrier before the successful final result was achieved. It started as soon as with an alteration in the chassis-card details, when the chassis-number PRX4704 as noted with a type writer was corrected by a handwritten note into PRX4705; similarly the key-number was changed from L/MRP.1021 into 1022. The change as regards the chassis-number however was not obeyed strictly. When on 24th November 1971 the chassis was despatched to Switzerland, the carrier R. & J. Park Ltd. was instructed by Rolls-Royce with their letter No. 14588 to arrange the transport of a left hand drive Rolls-Royce Phantom VI with the chassis-number PRX4704. - If the customs' controls at the various borders, which had to be passed, had done their job correctly, the difference between the good's specification and the documents' declaration would no doubt have caused an ugly surprise. This might have been even worsened by the fact that during that era many years ago more than but one single border between the EEC and Switzerland had to be passed. EFTA did exist then and problems were rather common when goods crossed borders between EFTA- and EEC-countries. In the case of this Rolls-Royce Phantom VI further problem had resulted from the fact that the value of chassis and additional equipment was declared with an amount of 6.265 £, which exactly was not the sum of the enclosed bills which stated 5.836 £ for the chassis plus transport and 492 £ for additional equipment. The sum wouldn't even then have been correct, if Customs and Excise regulations had been adhered to (these demanded to declare the good's value plus the transport costs in one sum) and the 570 £ for transport would have been added. Unfortunately the company had simply forgotten to list them...

The motor car was delivered to Switzerland because it had been purchased from the Garage de'l Athenee in Geneve and this company had the task to assist Pietro Frua during the whole period when the body was erected. Pietro Frua enjoyed a very fine reputation as one of Europe's leading designers and was widely acclaimed for creations for BORGWARD and GLAS in Germany to name but a few. For a rather long time he had been responsible for the styling of the Swiss coachbuilding company GHIA-AIGLE too. With his own independent coachbuilding company established near Torino in Northern Italy he had a well-equipped basis to construct complete new body in close conjunction with his client. In this case the customer had decided to mount onto the massive frame of the R-R Phantom VI a 2-Door-Cabriolet to the styling by Frua which was listed as Disegno No. 869. The original drawings still do exist and show that the wheel arches were intended to take up the general line of the rear wing's edge. The basic styling became subject to a few peculiar alterations however and new drawing was listed with number Disegno No. 870. All the documents in Rolls-Royce's correspondence are referring to drawing Disegno No. 870.

Phantom VI Frua Drophead Coupe

A Rolls-Royce Phantom VI was exactly the right basis for a unique body hand-built by craftsmen who had been trained traditionally because this motor car was the last example of a concept which had been common practice until the early post-war period: a chassis with engine was offered and the customer choose a coachbuilder and ordered a body and an interior which was individually styled in accordance to the personal taste of the client and the intended use of the motor car. This method of one-off production was quite different from the already usual mass-production and caused almost prohibitive expensive labour costs.

In fact a detailed study of the complete Rolls-Royce Phantom VI series shows that Consul S. van Kempen's desire to have a unique body built by Pietro Frua was absolutely unusual. From the total number of 374 Rolls-Royce Phantom VI, all but very few received bodies designed by Rolls-Royce's coachbuilding division Mulliner Park Ward. 355 were bodied as limousines, only two of these without the obligatory division; some with massive armour plating. Eleven Landaulettes were created whose basic lines were identical to that of the limousines. The adaptations only went so far as was necessary for the Landaulette hood. There were a further four Phantom VI motor cars delivered as chassis cum engine which were to be bodied as hearses. That's all - with the exception of 2 chassis, which received bodies to designs from Pietro Frua. One of these however was only finished more than 20 years after delivery and indeed after Phantom  VI production had come to an end in 1991. Pietro Frua had died years ago and sadly didn't see this 4-Door-Cabriolet's final realisation in 1993.

Considering these circumstances there is little reason to complain about a period of 2 years having been needed to built the 2-Door-Cabriolet on #PRX4705. The work could have been finished in less time if there hadn't been a lot of problems which resulted in delays. A basic shortcoming was the fact that Rolls-Royce's staff didn't have a member capable of speaking the Italian language well enough to communicate with the coachbuilder. Furthermore neither P. Frua nor his employees were fluent in English. The language barrier was a severe one and more and more it became clear that the staff at the Garage de'l Athenee in Geneva had to assist with interpretation and translation. In Geneva they provided to check as much details as possible via telex with Rolls-Royce (note: it was the dark age before quick fax-messages were transmitted via satellite). When Pietro Frua showed up for visits in Geneve he was briefed appropriately. More a gesture of goodwill than measurable help was that complete chapters from the parts-list in the German language were xeroxed and the photocopies send to the Italian designer ; Signore Frua's knowledge of the German language was more or less on a par with his knowledge of the English language.


Another obstacle for the employees of the coachbuilder on the Continent was that the Phantom VI's dimensions were measured in inches. The Italians were driven to despair because they had to alter each and every dimension into the metric system they were familiar with (just a hint is that Rolls-Royce in all publications had given an incorrect figure as regards the Phantom VI wheelbase, one inch = 25,4 mm too short exactly!). When the specialists from Frua asked for parts from Rolls-Royce they sometimes faced difficulty because delivered was exactly what had been ordered. For example windscreen wiper, wiper arm and windscreen wiper motor were despatched to order - but of course a pair of windscreen wipers was needed and it left a gap when the parcel did contain one windscreen wiper and one wiper arm only on delivery. And this is but one example because P. Frua had had the intention to use as much as possible genuine Rolls-Royce products as regards parts and sub-units. Hence he ordered floor panels and inner sills for the coachwork as well as a multitude of electric components and various lock-mechanisms. Several problems were solved by P. Frua when he simply collected as much spare parts as he thought to be necessary directly from the shelves at the Garage de'l Athenee advising the Swiss dealer to arrange for a list of parts which were used or returned.

The work progressed slowly at a snails pace; the reasons were obvious. And then a new serious difficulty was to be dealt with, and most carefully too because it was the client who insisted on a significant modification. The original design and even the wooden body former which had been produced in P. Frua's workshop showed the imposing radiator shell, as to be found on any Phantom VI, almost divided by the bumper running through in front of the radiator. Frua thus had intended to accentuate the horizontal lines and the styling corresponded to that of the mighty rectangular headlamps as well as to that of the chromeframes on fog-lamps and air-intakes. At this stage when an adaptation was possible though time-consuming the installation of the front bumper didn't meet the client's approval. He expressed his desire to have the radiator shell unobstructed and re-positioned lower too because he felt that a more tapered bonnet would offer better visibility. This incurred a new design of the front wings too. Pietro Frua reacted immediately: the front bumper was divided and each half ended in an overrider at the flanks of the radiator. The radiator was repositioned distinctly lower, bonnet and front wings were modified accordingly. The enormous dimensions of the Phantom VI however resulted in considerable front and rear overhang of the body - and the radiator having been repositioned lower had drastically diminished ground clearance. As the customer's wish was of vital importance for the coachbuilder the whole body was lifted to some extent and thus ground-clearance was brought to an appropriate level. Thus one problem had been solved only to cause another really awkward one! Now there was a most definitive lack of harmony because the wheel-arches and the wheels were now out of proportion and there was gap! Frua mastered this by suggesting to conceal the gap by adding a chrometrim. The alternative would have been to modify the complete wooden body former in an extremely time-consuming expensive process with the added risk to destroy the overall harmony.

As regards choice of material as well as in any details Frua's creation captivates with thoroughness, which during their high time had been a hallmark of the highest ranking English coachbuilders. Not before his client had studied a lifesize drawing showing the front seats' styling (the drawing is measuring about 150 x 180 cm!) and instructed P. Frua to continue the seats were built with utmost care and trimmed with specially selected leather of finest quality. The same material was used for rear seats and door trim. As the motor car definitely was to be an owner-driven one Frua of course provided a steering wheel with a hand-stitched leathertrim. The horn's button was engraved with the owner's initials. The air-conditioning unit as provided by the factory was laid out for chauffeur-driven motor car and allowed to be set for driver's and passengers' compartments separately. A remarkably detailed correspondence do bare significance of Frua's ambition to modify this unit appropriately for the use of an owner whose main interest was to drive himself. And to the amazement of the manufacturer he insisted on receiving a second heater unit which he installed to ensure that the cabriolet even under the conditions of cold winters in Switzerland would not lack sufficient heating.


Details 1For aesthetical reasons Frua had seen to have the entwined R-R logos at the car's tail right and left side and in addition he had specified a unique matrix to be made which allowed to press an R-R logo of correct size into the trim rails which ran along the car's flanks. The luggage compartment was covered with leather-edged carpets of light colour; the same were used for the floor inside the car. Even those areas which are not to be inspected at a quick glance do bear significance of the Italian coachbuilder's philosophy that only the very best was acceptable. The tools for example were not stowed somewhere in the luggage compartment - Frua had the idea to place them accurately in neat compartments both sides of the engine under the bonnet. The bonnet is divided one actually, each half to be opened from the side (the R-R Silver Shadow being built at the same time sported a front-hinged one-piece bonnet). Details 2But Frua's strive for perfection and extreme care in conjunction with the problems caused by the manufacturer's attitude to discuss all aspects of even minor details and worsened by the slow provision of vital and less vital parts resulted in the car's completion being delayed again and again. In the end an alarm-telex was received by Rolls-Royce from their Swiss dealer stating that the delay had grown to such an extent that the cancellation of the whole contract was now expected as a serious possibility. And this poor situation had become a reality despite the attempts to avoid further problems by ordering from outside sources. Door locks and sidelight operating mechanisms for example had been bought from Mercedes-Benz and were installed in Italy. Following visit of Pietro Frua in England Mulliner Park Ward at Hythe Road and Rolls-Royce in Crewe were still occupied by exchanging memos...
Top of page The engine of the R-R Phantom VI bodied by Frua offered "adequate" power and worked in perfect harmony with the four-speed automatic gearbox to General Motors' Hydramatic design (note: the complete range of the other models at that time were fitted with a three-speed automatic gearbox). The car's ride is most comfortable and the roadholding, especially when cornering, is remarkably fine. Though a stabiliser for the rear axle was found to be superflous the car behaves absolutely impeccable even by today's standards; the rating of the rear shock absorbers can be selected via a solenoid operated by a switch on the steering column.

Detail 3A period of almost two years since the delivery of the chassis had passed when the Rolls-Royce Phantom VI with Cabriolet-body by Frua was ready for final inspection by Rolls-Royce Motors Ltd. As usual the company had made it point, that the finished product was subject to a detailed check prior to their permission to be licensed as a Rolls-Royce motor car for road traffic. Only a satisfying result of this control led to the guarantee documents to be handed over, stating a three year guarantee by the manufacturer. This final inspection gave no reason for any complain. It took place on 5th September 1973 at a mileage which was listed as 314 miles, though the speedometer was a kilometre-calibrated one. But Rolls-Royce had learned a few facts in the meantime and instructed their inspection team correctly to arrange the tests with Frua in Moncalieri near Torino - whereas on the first documents from 1971 the chap at Rolls-Royce had given in that he was not particularly familiar with Northern Italy's geography by mentioning in a note the chassis would be despatched to "Frua (Milan) Italy".

A famous idiom coined by F. Henry Royce was "The quality remains, long after the price has been forgotten!" As regards his cooperation with Rolls-Royce Frua presumably would not have denied that in this case the idiom might be altered slightly into "The quality remains, long after the trouble has been forgotten!"

(Photos courtesy of Christie's, b/w photo: S. van Kempen; detail photos: D. Lichtenstein)


(©) Copyright 1997-2013 K.-J. Roßfeldt / Information on this site is for viewing and personal information only. Information and photos are protected by copyright. Any unauthorized use or reproduction of material from this site without written permission is strictly prohibited. Infringement of copyright will rise to both civil law remedies and criminal penalties.
Comments and support to: archives webmaster          Url: