According to his first official biography, John Lennon, a child of working-class Liverpool, claimed he “always wanted to be an eccentric millionaire.” It took him 27 years to fully realize that vision, and this car, a customized 1964 Rolls-Royce Phantom V — the flagship vehicle from the world’s flagship automaker — was the evidence.
Lennon was already a global superstar in December 1964 when he ordered the 6,600-pound ultra-luxury car. But he did not yet have a driver’s license. This wasn’t an issue, because the Phantom, with its enormous rear passenger cabin, was built to be chauffeured. Lennon furthered this mission by installing a record player, an eight-track tape player, a radio phone and a fridge in the back. Painted an elegant and rich Valentine Black, like a traditional limousine, it was in this car that The Beatles visited Buckingham Palace in 1965 to receive their Member of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (MBE) medals from Queen Elizabeth II.
After being damaged slightly in 1966 during Lennon’s filming of the military satire How I Won the War, Lennon had it repaired and added even odder features, including a TV and a rear seat that converted to a bed. But it was the following year that the true eccentricity exposed itself. Just as he and his bandmates were completing the recording of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, Lennon had the car sent to famed British coach-builders JP Fallon to be customized.
The finished car was unveiled just before the radical groundbreaking Sgt. Pepper album hit stores in the summer of 1967, and its appearance seemed consistent with the record’s psychedelic look and sound. Painted in latex house paint on a yellow background, the scheme included colorful bursts and swirls inspired by Romany gypsy caravan designs, as well as the zodiac.
Lennon took the car to Buckingham Palace again in 1969, when he publicly returned his MBE to the Queen in protest over the British military’s involvement in the civil war in Nigera and support of the American war in Vietnam.
Lennon brought the car with him to the U.S., with Yoko Ono, in 1970, and continued to use it, and to loan it out to other stars including Bob Dylan and the Rolling Stones. But because of tax issues — stemming in part from the Nixon administration’s constant drive to have him deported — he donated it to the Cooper Hewitt Museum of Design for an exhibition. It was sold at auction in 1985, some years after his death, to the Canadian entrepreneur Jimmy Pattison, for $2.3 million. Pattison ran the chain of Ripley’s Believe it or Not museums and displayed it there as the World’s Most Expensive Car. He later donated it to the province of British Columbia for display.
The car returns to the U.K. this month for public display, just after the 50th anniversary of the release of Sgt. Pepper. There, it will be part of an automotive design exhibition “The Great Eight Phantoms” coordinated by Rolls-Royce and Bonham’s auction house, to celebrate the unveiling of their latest flagship, the Phantom VIII. It will join stellar examples of the unbroken series of Phantom automobiles dating back to the mid-1920s, the longest running model name in automotive history.
One would imagine that the exclusive auto company would have been horrified by Lennon’s “customization” of their car. But they seem to be celebrating it as a brand virtue.
“The beauty of the John Lennon Phantom V is that Rolls-Royce is defined by Bespoke, and when it comes to the exterior design, there are few Rolls-Royces that are more iconic than this one,” says North American Rolls spokesperson Gerry Spahn. “That’s what Bespoke is all about. It’s not what you think, or what I think. It’s what John Lennon wanted. This is what he wanted. And this is the beauty of Rolls-Royce.”