My grandfather René has always been a very open minded and active man. After the war, money was really hard to earn, that is why my grandpa decided to start a business with rental cars with chauffeur, in addition to his antiques dealing business.
In Switzerland there were plenty of rich people who were looking for that kind of rental car service. My grandpa’s best client was the son of Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany. To please his clients, René purchased some prewar cars since they were very cheap, classy and comfortable. His rental ‘fleet’ consisted of a Chrysler, a Packard and a Lancia Astura drophead by Pininfarina. The Pininfarina Lancia was particularly appreciated during the summer to make a nice ballade around Lake Geneva.
One day my grandpa’s best friend, who owned a garage business, told René that an old Rolls was for sale. In those days such a car wasn’t difficult to find and was close to worthless. René paid 400 Swiss Francs for a tasteless Phantom I limousine….
My grandpa had always been a great Rolls aficionado. To him they were the best cars ever built, a kind of British Hispano-Suiza. I have never understood his passion for the brand until I learned that in his youth, while studying English in the UK, he had been chauffeur in a Rolls owning family.
But let’s go back to our Phantom I. My grandfather began to offer the car as a taxi to his wealthy and aristocratic customers. While driving his clients from one place to the other, grandpa realized that the Rolls was, despite correct carburetor settings, a kind of gasoline addicted lady… Consuming at least 40 to 60 litres of gas every 100 kilometers plus one or two litres of motor oil!
When you take in consideration that a litre of gas then cost 40 cents a litre (something like 2 euros in today’s money) it was obvious that, unless being a philanthrope, using the Rolls as a taxi was not a good deal.
René complained about the situation to the friend who sold him the Phantom, asking him what to do. “Just turn it into a Tow truck”, was the answer. René was shocked, but his friend convinced him that the Rolls was perfectly suitable for this; it was torquey enough to pull any car and solid and easy to maintain. Furthermore, towing cars according to grandpa’s pal was a very interesting business; no long distances to drive from one to the other garage. The thirst for gas would not be a big problem anymore.
After some weeks of reflexion René accepted and they carefully dismantled the backside of the car. Having the partition replaced by a metal sheet, they proceeded by welding a kind of bracket with a winch in order to lift the broken cars. After that operation the body was preserved at home and the upholstery was stored in the kitchen, to the satisfaction of my grandmother ; )
Towing cars turned out to be a very good business and René was extremely satisfied, despite feeling a little bit ashamed for towing Beetles and other popular cars with his noble Rolls.
Everything was going fine for René until the main Rolls Royce agent for Switzerland, Mr. de Blanc, called him… Obviously, Mr. de Blanc had heard the story of this distinguished Rolls that was now used as a tow truck. The noble man was very angry and upset, claiming that this car was affecting Rolls Royce’s respectability and image. René was listening to the man without paying great attention to his words until the agent offered to buy back the car.
After some further thought my grandfather explained that the towing business was going very well and that he wasn’t willing to stop whatsoever. As he listened to grandpa’s arguments, Mr. de Blanc understood that the game would not be an easy one. Finally he had to offer 4.000 Swiss Francs and a little Fiat 1300 truck to get the Rolls returned to its upper class family.
René only accepted the deal because a couple of days before he had seen a very nice prewar Mercedes 320 cabriolet that was for sale for 1.500 Swiss Francs. He thought that the Mercedes would get along very well with his Lancia Astura.
Whenever i think of the story of the Phantom pulling Beetles, it reminds me that glory can go by very fast. In the twenties, the Rolls was a road goddess but 25 years later she became a faded old star towing popular road starlets.
Click here for Rolls garbage vans…
The Rolls Phantom as it might have looked
My grandfather René (in the middle) with Prinz Wilhelm-Viktor of Prussia, the grandson of Kaiser Wilhelm II, who enjoyed the Rolls when it was still a taxi. One of my grandfather’s best clients. This photo was taken in the 70’s.
Written by Simon Haldy