Fred Astaire’s Series I Phantom is the best part of the 1930s rolled into one motorcar

Rolls-Royce Motor Cars is one of the most recognized brands in the world – not car brands, mind you – all brands. Respect for the British luxury manufacturer transcends socio-economic status and even automotive enthusiasm. Meticulous craftsmanship and advanced engineering are the tangible qualifiers for an intangible mystique. A Rolls-Royce is simply the ultimate aspirational purchase.

This type of veneration doesn’t materialize overnight. In the case of Rolls-Royce, reverence has grown for more than 100 years. Soon after the turn of the 20th century, Rolls-Royce Limited began producing the Silver Ghost – a vehicle so sophisticated that Autocar called it the “best car in the world.” The reputation stuck, and despite production interruptions during the First World War, the luxury automaker was without equal by the time its Silver Ghost successor debuted in 1925. The Phantom would come to define premium motoring as we know it.

Seven generations later, Rolls-Royce prepares for the next installment of its flagship sedan. However, before we catch a glimpse of the Series VIII on July 27th, Rolls Royce will highlight unique Phantoms from each preceding Series. At the Peterson Automotive Museum in Los Angeles, California, Digital Trends met the first of these special Phantoms.

Elite ancestry

The Peterson Automotive Museum is home to some of the most valuable, scarce, and unique automobiles (that aren’t rotting in a barn somewhere). Collectors and automakers provide some vehicles as part of a month or yearlong exhibit. Other examples take up permanent residence within the museum’s hyper-modern architecture.

Rolls-Royce selected one of Peterson’s most prized, tenured vehicles to represent all 3,453 Series I Phantoms built between 1925 and 1929. But it’s not the museum’s exacting care that makes this particular Series I so special – it’s the car’s royal ownership story. No, this Phantom didn’t escort the Queen of England between galas and foreign policy meetings. Rather, it was the private chariot of a Broadway royal – Fred Astaire.

It’s not the museum’s exacting care that makes this particular Series I so special – it’s the car’s royal ownership story.

Fred Astaire and his sister, Adele, were the darlings of New York and London’s theatre scene in the roaring ‘20s. The duo entranced audiences on both sides of the Atlantic with incredible dancing, singing, and acting. Off stage, the Astaires caroused with celebrities and aristocrats, always while sporting the latest fashions. During this time, Fred developed an ardor for luxurious automobiles. In particular, the understated elegance of Rolls Royce Motor Cars caught his eye.

In 1925, Fred decided he would buy the new Phantom, but needed time to gather sufficient funds. When ‘Funny Face’ opened in London’s West End in November of 1928, Astaire placed his order for a 1927 Phantom single cabriolet open drive town car, coach-built by Hooper & Company. When Fred returned to New York in 1932, he brought his $22,000 Rolls-Royce Phantom to J.S. Inskip for a contemporary refresh.

The best of 1930s motoring

Leslie Kendall, curator for Rolls Royce at The Peterson, walks us through every detail of Fred Astaire’s Brewster green Phantom.

Fred Astaire's Phantom Series I
Miles Branman/Digital Trends
Miles Branman/Digital Trends

Powering each Series I is a pushrod overhead valve straight-six engine making what Rolls-Royce referred to (and still refers to) as “adequate” power. A four-speed manual transmission delivers power to the rear wheels, enabling the Phantom to hit a top speed of 80 miles per hour (one of the highest top ends of the era).

The exposed, isolated driver’s compartment – a holdover from the days of horse-drawn carriages – makes it quite clear that the vehicle’s owner won’t dare drive him or herself. Chauffeurs didn’t have it too bad, though. A comfortable leather bench seat, beautiful analog gauges, and a removable roof panel made the driving experience pleasant. “Chauffeurs also had a special relationship with their owners,” notes Kendall. “They developed a bond which was unique among hired help.”

A pair of “occasional seats” pop out from the floor, permitting guests to join Fred for a night on the town

Though Mr. Astaire couldn’t possibly mistake his bespoke creation for any other car, ‘A’ monograms on the passenger doors, front scuttle and trunk banish all doubt. Inskip’s unique exterior touches include stylized door handles, larger front fenders, and rear finned arrow turn signals. A rare Louis Vuitton trunk is perched behind the rear wheels (this is from a time when ‘trunk’ meant a physical storage case, not an integrated compartment) and is filled with clothing accessories, tennis rackets, a picnic set, walking sticks, and opera glasses.

Within the passenger compartment, plush fabric seats and cushions wear green brocade designs, matching green carpet trim and ornate door panel inserts. Scalloped wood accentuates the driver and rider cabins. A pair of “occasional seats” pop out from a fold-flat position in the floor, permitting guests to join Fred for a night on the town. Without a full cabin, however, Mr. Astaire could prop his brown suede oxfords on the adjustable footrest. A one-way speaking tube would deliver requests to the driver, but any response would have to be communicated through the sliding glass partition.

After surveying each detail of the stunning Series I Phantom, Rolls Royce offers us a chauffeured ride home. There’s no hope of convincing anyone we’re the contemporary Fred Astaire, but that doesn’t stop us from enjoy ourselves. At the conclusion of our hour-long cruise, one thing has become certain: luxury may look slightly different now, but the lavish style hasn’t changed a bit.

The story continues

Rolls-Royce has yet to announce which Phantoms will represent Series II through VII, but we hear cars from a certain British rock legend and other dignitaries are up next. Look for more about these special models between now and the Series VII’s London debut on July 27th.

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