The Aintree Phantom
How I came to own what was likely the first safety car in Formula 1
Above: The gargantuan Rolls-Royce Phantom I, chassis 84FH, was converted in 1940 for the RAF into a shooting brake to carry spares and personnel quickly to stricken aircraft. It could seat nine and carry two propellers on the roof.
It is always a pleasure when good friends call to talk about their latest findings. This time though there was a more serious tone at the other end.
‘Michael, I think I have a problem. Maybe you can help?’
After a brief pause, he continued: ‘I own a Rolls-Royce Phantom I and it seems to have disappeared somewhere in France. I don‘t know where it is. I only have a name of the person I trusted the car to. Could you please ask around and find it for me? You know France very well. If you could possibly bring it back somehow that would be great. What do you think?’
I was surprised by this unusual offer and wondered why, of all cars, would a Rolls-Royce Phantom I be taken to France and then just disappear? A Ferrari would be more understandable. But an early Phantom?
‘Maybe Phantomas took it away’, I responded, quietly pleased with my clever reference to Fantômas, a popular French crime fiction character. But there was no room for humour in this conversation. A Rolls-Royce was missing – this was serious stuff.
The story itself was complicated. Someone had taken a lot of money from my friend for an engine rebuild. After promising to complete the work within three months, he took the car and then disappeared. Two years passed by without so much as a word from the man. He’d left no address and no phone number either, just a name and the hint of a location somewhere around Poitiers near to the Loire Valley in France. He was rumoured to own a small restoration workshop in a chateau there. The rest was a mystery.
After some hesitation I said, ‘Okay I’ll do it’. I needed a summer vacation anyway so I asked for photos and all the paperwork of the Phantom.
Above: 84FH started life as a limousine by Knibbs & Son of Manchester. Converted into a shooting brake during the war, it was found in 1949 by the Tophams.
The 1928 Rolls-Royce Phantom I, chassis 84FH, turned out to be a one-of-a-kind Shooting Brake or ‘Woody Estate’ of some serious proportion. A three-ton Rolls-Royce would not have been easily trailered around. How did the Phantom get to France in the first place, I wondered?
The chassis cards told me the car was originally built as a limousine demonstrator by coachbuilders W.H. Knibbs & Sons Ltd of Manchester. The car’s first proud owner was the Rt Hon G. Fryer, who purchased it on 7 July, 1928. Apparently, he kept it until at least 1939. That was all the history I had at that point.
The following day was spent on the phone. I first spoke to the RREC, the Rolls-Royce and Bentley Enthusiasts' Club to find out who was currently rebuilding P1 engines in France. It helped that I was secretary of the RREC’s German Section in those days (about 20 years ago).
Calling up parts dealers and suppliers, I tried to find out if any of them had recently had any orders for pistons, bearings or any other items required for an Phantom I engine rebuild, but drew a blank.
I decided there was nothing to do but head off to France. My plan was simply to talk to people in the classic car industry. Fortunately, the name I’d been given rang a bell with several collector friends and I was put onto some leads.
Out of personal interest I began to research the history of the Phantom Woody and, with the help of the formidable RREC archive, I uncovered a lot of interesting details. Slowly but surely I became drawn to the beauty of the huge car in the photos and the seemingly extraordinary quality of its mahogany woodwork.
Peter Baines, the late RREC General Secretary and editor, filled me in on the car’s war and post-war history. Peter’s knowledge of Rolls-Royce history knew no bounds; certainly the greatest expert on the subject I have ever known. He is very much missed in the club today.
According to the RREC archives, 84FH was listed in 1953 as belonging to Mirabel Topham of Paddock Lodge, Aintree. From as early as the 1840s, the Topham family, as the lease-holders, had very strong ties to the famous Aintree Racecourse and, in 1949, purchased it outright from Hugh Molyneux, the 7th Earl of Sefton. Upon the death of Edward Topham in 1932, his son Arthur took over the reins. By all accounts, Arthur’s lifestyle was simply not suited to running Topham Ltd, which is where his wife Mirabel entered the frame.
A grand lady and a hardcore entrepreneur, Mirabel joined the board in 1934. Taking charge soon after the purchase of Aintree, she built a new fence and hurdles track – The Mildmay Course – within the established Grand National Racecourse. The new course opened in 1953, the same year as the motor racing circuit, which was another of her fabulous ideas.
Above: Mirabel Topham was in charge of the world’s greatest horse race – the Grand National steeplechase, as well as the most important motor racing circuit in the UK.
The Aintree Motor Racing Circuit quickly gained a reputation as one of the best in the UK, hosting the British Grand Prix on five occasions (1955, ’57, ’69, ’71 & ’72) with the 1957 event gaining the additional title of Grand Prix d’Europe. Stirling Moss won his first grand prix there in 1955 while Jim Clark won the 1962 event.
Therefore, Mrs. Topham was in charge of two horse racing tracks, the world‘s greatest steeplechase event (the Grand National), and the most important motor racing circuit in the UK.
Her most beloved car was her Phantom, 84FH. She was seldom seen without it. A quote in the Joan Rimmer book about Mirabel Topham, titled Aintree’s Queen Bee, says: ‘Much to the delight of her young friends, a large lady in a flowing gown and gorgeous hat would emerge with a beaming smile from her huge Rolls-Royce with arms full of presents’.
Above: The Phantom is mentioned in Aintree’s Queen Bee, Joan Rimmer’s book about Mirabel Topham and the Grand National.
Of most interest to me was finding out that the Phantom was used during track days to officially open the track, with Mirabel Topham and VIP guests on board. Not only that, but it was regularly put to work as a sort of early ‘safety car’ – to slow a race down after an accident, or to arrange a restart if required. Apparently, the Phantom would be parked right next to the pit lane, ready for whatever task was needed during the races. I was told it was also used, covered in laurels, to drive the winners around the track after the race was finished.
It's highly likely then that Stirling Moss, Juan Manuel Fangio and Jim Clark would have been driven around the track in it at one time or another.
The Phantom was kept in the family until 1984, with James Bidwell-Topham listed in the accompanying V5 as the owner between 1978 and ’84. I found out that Mirabel, together with James and his sister Patricia, were known in horse racing circles as the Topham Trio.
‘Jim’ Bidwell related to me later in a phone call that the car’s mahogany body, by Hooper & Co, was initially built in 1940 for the RAF to carry engineers, pilots, spares and tools as fast as possible to stricken aircraft. It could seat up to nine people and carry two propellers on the roof!
Above: After the war in 1945, Aintree Race Course was a military car dump. It needed to be cleared for the first Grand National. Rolls-Royce chassis 84FH was found among the trucks in a shed.
According to Jim, the car was found in 1949 in a building near the horse race track. After the war, the Aintree track was used as a dump yard for military vehicles and was full of jeeps, trucks and other transport vehicles. The Rolls-Royce was one of them. With its typically stylish Hooper bodywork and mighty presence, it was not surprising that the Tophams would decide to make it their official Aintree car.
While cruising villages, châteaux, workshops and service stations around Poitiers I was given a hint about an elderly very eccentric English gentleman living with classic cars in a small château around the corner. That must be the one, I thought.
Arriving at the place I could just about see the Phantom sticking out of an open barn door. Someone was working on it. Approaching very carefully I greeted the man and introduced myself. Without even looking up at me, he calmly said, ‘I knew that one day someone would show up to take the car away from me!’
Above: First sight of the Phantom at the chateau near the Loire. The newly rebuilt engine had just been installed but was not yet running.
After a good cup of English tea in front of an enormous medieval fireplace he explained his side of the story to me. After a long illness, he couldn’t remember the name of the owner anymore and had lost the telephone number. He had also used all the money and was basically having a bad time. Nevertheless he kept working on the Phantom’s engine and had just finished assembling the major internal components the week before I arrived. Internally, he’d replaced everything with new original Rolls-Royce parts he had kept in store for over 50 years including specially made high-compression Brooklands pistons taken from a prototype.
He proposed to finish the assembly, get it started and fine-tuned and to drive it back all the way to Munich with me. I found the idea very interesting so, over a glass of Hennessy cognac as old as the Phantom, we shook hands in agreement. On arrival he would get a worthwhile gratification.
I agreed to stay on and finish the job with him. So out we went to the barn to fit the carburettor, the magneto and some other parts that he had stashed on the dusty shelves around the stables. It was summer at last and there was a beautiful sunshine in the Loire region. I liked the feel of it.
Above: The 1928 Phantom I engine is a magnificent piece of machinery, but is tough to readjust when freshly put together with no access to factory specifications.
After two days work, the engine started first time, all under the watchful eyes of the locals who were happy to share their many bottles of Muscadet, Saumur, Sancerre and Pouilly-Fumé – the best white wines of the region – with us. The man’s wife made crepes for the occasion. The engine banged, fumed and finally ran in its famed near-silence, but it was not exactly in tune. It was clear that a lot of fiddling and adjusting would still be required. We ended the day in laughter and much happiness courtesy of two bottles of Château Pape Clément and Château La Tour Carnet which we drank while sitting on the running boards.
The next morning, with café and croissant in hand, I suggested that we pack up all the tools and just start driving east, reasoning that we could do all the necessary adjustments as we go along on little roads while driving.
Looking at me in disbelief my new-found friend said, ‘Uhh… why not. Let’s give it a try.’
So, all agreed we set off around midday on the 1000-mile journey east towards Munich with a fuming and stuttering engine. With tools, water, oil, parts and 17 bottles of Domaine Tempier Bandol Rosé wine on board, it felt like we were going on a major expedition.
Above: We must have stopped at least 150 times on little roads along the Loire to adjust the carburettor and magneto.
We must have stopped at least 150 times on the little roads along the Loire to adjust, fettle and readjust the carburettor. Another challenge was to synchronise the complex ignition system consisting of magneto and battery ignition. The Rolls-Royce never seemed to run for much more than 20 miles without the fuel pump overheating. Extensive aluminium, from an old milk can we found near Chateauroux, was required to shield the Autovac from the heat coming off the manifold.
Above: The wiring gave us much more of a headache than the fabulous Domaine Tempier Bandol Rosé.
The magneto, carburettor, and Autovac all needed constant and careful readjustment, again and again. On top of that, dirt and loosened grit in the fuel tank regularly messed up the whole fuel system. The magneto was especially difficult to adjust because the complicated linkage was mistakenly fitted the wrong way around. It needed patience to find the correct positioning with the adjusting nuts and the linkage to be reinstalled the correct way. Fuel consumption was over 180 litres after the first 80 miles. And there were some nasty wiring issues too.
Meanwhile the owner of the Rolls-Royce got more and more nervous. He called me every day and wanted to know everything that went wrong with it. Realising it was not going to be an easy journey he started hating the car and would rather want to dispose of it than have it back in his garage.
Above: Another week of slow driving and fettling followed. The old lap counter from its time at Aintree is still visible on the dashboard.
Above: Against expectations, and in spite of its initial vices, I fell in love with the Phantom.
Another week of slow driving and fettling followed. Amazingly, and contrary to my expectations, I fell in love with the car. I felt like I could actually live with it. So, after another night sleeping on the rear seat, I had formulated an offer.
I knew it was a risk because I didn‘t know if the engine would hold together. But I felt that it was built rather well and that, if we could get all the ancillaries to work properly, it would certainly be a great car. The next day, I offered the owner part of my Rolex watch collection and the car was mine.
Above: A sense of savoir vivre set in. The Phantom ran better and better every day, pulling like a train up and down the Bourgogne.
The friendship with my new-found ally grew and we continued to make our way east along the most beautiful French landscapes, valleys and rural villages. Good local restaurants and little hotels became our temporary homes. The Phantom literally became a rolling restoration wherever we stopped, and it attracted a lot of attention from the locals. Fortunately, the more we fettled, the better it ran. When it touched 80mph on the Route National without the Autovac cutting out, we knew we’d done it. The oil and water gauges were stable, and the engine’s occasional misfire had been eliminated. The old Rolls-Royce pulled like a train up and down the hills of the Bourgogne. Only minor adjustments to the magneto were still needed, that was all. We were actually starting to enjoy the ride.
A sense of savoir vivre set in. After the 17 bottles of rosé disappeared in the summer heat we switched to a more serious case of Bourgogne Pinot Noir and celebrated the occasion with whoever came by on the parking lot.
Above: To re-tighten the cylinder head of the freshly overhauled engine, all the valve gear needed to be taken out. This was mostly completed outside in the open air.
We knew it would take a longer stop to re-tighten the cylinder head of the freshly overhauled 7.0-litre straight-six engine as the complete valve gear had to be taken out. That was done mostly in the open. After tightening the head, all the valves needed very careful readjusting – a big procedure that took another two days of concentrated effort. But working on such a glorious piece of engineering made it all somehow enjoyable. After a thorough oil change we continued our journey east. By now the engine was running butter smooth, just like a turbine.
After two and a half weeks or so we made it to Munich and with a great handshake and a hug my new-found friend and I parted company, never to see each other again. I heard that he had died soon after, which was sad, but he did have one great last road trip adventure and his engine lived on in great tune.
The mighty Rolls-Royce stayed with me for many years, never missing a beat. It was used for holidays, shopping, carrying old Indian motor bikes to festivals and on many drives around the country and in the mountains of Bavaria and Austria.
Above: We used the Phantom for holidays as well as to ferry old Indian motorbikes around to shows and festivals.
Above: Two wooden attractions: Henry Kroeze’s ‘Wall of Death’ was a welcome destination for our equipe. The old Indians were stacked in the back – easy peasy for the old RAF workhorse.
It was one of the all-time great cars. And I consider myself very lucky to have experienced it to the full. Where is it today, I wonder?