By on February 26, 2016

Round Door Rolls, 1925 Rolls-Royce Phantom I Jonckheere Aerodynamic Coupe front 3/4, Petersen Automotive Museum, Image: © 2016 Ronnie Schreiber/The Truth About Cars

I’ve tangentially touched on the topic of this post, the famous art deco “Round Door Rolls-Royce”, before when discussing Audi advertising and some Detroit history. On my recent trip to Los Angeles to drive a McLaren 675LT (you think Jack Baruth is the only TTAC staffer who can swing the loan of a supercar?), I took the opportunity to visit the newly renovated Petersen Automotive Museum and the unusually bodied Rolls happened to be on display right where you walk into the building.

It’s a striking looking car, to say the least, and a multiple show winner undoubtedly worthy of historical note. Almost more interesting than the car, though, is the way its tale is presented and what that teaches us about the way ideas get entrenched, how a single facet of a story can obscure its context.

The first Rolls-Royce Phantom — then called the New Phantom, presently called the Phantom I — was introduced in 1925 in response to competition from European luxury marques like Hispano-Suiza and Isotta Fraschini and from premium American automakers like Packard and Pierce-Arrow. Based on the chassis of the outgoing 40/50 model, now known as the Silver Ghost, the Phantom introduced Rolls-Royce’s first overhead valve engine and four-wheel brakes (although some sources say front brakes were introduced in late production Silver Ghosts). The OHV engine was taller than the sidevalve motor. That affected styling. The bodies coachbuilt for the Phantom I had higher hoods, radiator shells and cowls.

Round Door Rolls - 1925 Rolls-Royce Phantom I Jonckheere Aerodynamic Coupe rear 3/4 - Petersen Automotive Museum © 2016 Ronnie Schreiber/The Truth About Cars

This particular 1925 Phantom I chassis, when new, was sent by the factory to London coachbuilder Hooper & Company, which gave it one of their cabriolet bodies. The buyer was a “Mrs. Hugh Dillman of Detroit,” as just about every source from The Old Motor to the Petersen museum that currently owns the car puts it. For some reason, the Phantom was never delivered to the United States. It’s thought Mrs. Dillman either didn’t like the body or simply exercised what was then called a woman’s prerogative to change her mind. Whatever the reason, she didn’t consummate the purchase and the car was instead sold to the Raja of Nanpara, who took it back to India. After passing through a series of owners, it ended up in Belgium in the early 1930s.

Jonckheere Rolls-Royce Phantom l Aerodynamic Coupe

In 1934, an as-yet-unidentified owner took the Phantom to the Jonckheere body company near Roeselare, Belgium to be rebodied. Though Henri Jonckheere built his first luxury automobile in 1902, the company had transitioned to making mostly bus and coach bodies by the 1930s. It still exists today as VDL Jonckheere.

Round Door Rolls, 1925 Rolls-Royce Phantom I Jonckheere Aerodynamic Coupe side view, Petersen Automotive Museum, Image: © 2016 Ronnie Schreiber/The Truth About Cars

It’s not known who designed it, but Jonckheere built a radically different coupe body. Some say it was inspired by the aero designs of stylists Jacque Saoutchik and Joseph Figoni — but, to my eyes, it’s not nearly as elegant and flowing as their work. The squarish Rolls-Royce grill was retained, but it was sloped back to give the tall grill a more streamlined look. It is perhaps the only classic era Rolls-Royce whose grill is not vertical. To say the least, the car is a bit controversial with traditional Rolls-Royce enthusiasts. The windshield is also steeply raked. Bullet headlights and very long and flowing fenders continue the streamlined theme, but the car is so massive it’s hard for me to call it sleek. To finish off the aero look, Jonckheere put a big tailfin down the length of the middle of the trunk lid. Such fins were popular with European coachbuilders in the 1930s and you can see them on Bugattis, Delahayes and other custom-bodied cars of the era. Designer Raymond Loewy added one to his customized 1939 Lincoln Continental.

Of course, the Rolls’ most distinctive features are its large rear-hinged round doors, which allow ingress for both front and rear passengers. Because of the odd door shape, the side windows are split vertically and open up like a scissors as they retract into the doors. Round fender skirts for the rear wheels echo the shape of the doors.

Round Door Rolls, 1925 Rolls-Royce Phantom I Jonckheere Aerodynamic Coupe rear, Petersen Automotive Museum, Image: © 2016 Ronnie Schreiber/The Truth About Cars

A fire destroyed Jonckheere’s records in the late 1930s, so it’s not known just who commissioned the custom body, nor who designed it.

The car is almost 20-feet long and finished in dark black. It’s a big, almost ominous looking vehicle that would be at home in a Batman movie, driven by the villain.

It’s not a very practical car. With ponderous weight and no power assist, the steering is difficult, particularly at low speed. The non-synchro transmission needs to be double clutched and, even though the car features Rolls-Royce’s servo-assisted mechanical brakes, the weight makes it hard to stop. The large turning radius, low ground clearance and extended rear end make maneuvering the vehicle difficult. The steeply sloping fastback roofline forces rear passengers to slouch. There is no back window to speak of, just louvers, so visibility isn’t the best. To make the most of the limited trunk space, there is a set of fitted luggage.

Round Door Rolls, 1925 Rolls-Royce Phantom I Jonckheere Aerodynamic Coupe front, Petersen Automotive Museum, Image: © 2016 Ronnie Schreiber/The Truth About Cars

However, as someone at the Petersen mentioned to me, the Jonckheere coupe was not built to be driven on actual roads, the turning circle alone makes that a chore. It was built to drive onto the show field, win ribbons, and then put back into storage. Soon after it was built, it won the Prix d’Honneur at the 1936 Cannes Concours d’Elegance. It then passed through a number of owners before it ended up in the United States in the possession of New England light bulb magnate Max Bilofsky. Despite its lack of practicality, Bilofsky was apparently chauffeured around Bar Harbor, Maine in the Rolls Royce.

1925 Rolls-Royce Phantom I Jonckheere Aerodynamic Coupe, Image: Autotitre (http://www.autotitre.com/forum/Vehicules-speciaux/Post-dedie-exclusivement-aux-miniatures-a-l-echelle-1-43-43047p120.htm)

Somehow the car survived scrap metal drives during World War II, but did end up in a New Jersey scrap yard in the early 1950s. Pioneering classic car enthusiast and entrepreneur Max Obie discovered the car, then nearly derelict, and started to fix it up. If the car wasn’t enough of a spectacle, Obie had it painted with real gold flake, made up a story that it was formerly owned by King Edward, who abdicated to become the Duke of Windsor, and put the gold “Royal Rolls” on tour, charging a fee to look at the interior.

Round Door Rolls, 1925 Rolls-Royce Phantom I Jonckheere Aerodynamic Coupe front, Petersen Automotive Museum, Image: © 2016 Ronnie Schreiber/The Truth About Cars

The car again changed hands a few times, but remained on the East Coast, eventually acquiring an off-white exterior color. At the peak of the early 1990s’ collector car bubble, a Japanese collector paid $1.5 million for it at auction. It sat in his collection, mostly forgotten, for almost a decade. The Petersen museum bought it in 2001.

The curators and restorers at the Petersen discovered that the paint wasn’t the only thing that had changed since 1935. The Petersen completed a period correct restoration. While no color photographs of the car’s exterior exist from the 1930s, the Petersen had it finished in black, deciding that color highlighted the car’s distinctive shapes best.

Considered to be one of the Petersen’s jewels, it’s one of the few cars from the museum’s own collection that were put on display after the renovation. Most of the cars now on display are loans, with the vast majority of the museum’s own cars being stored downstairs in the basement “vault.”

As the car was built to be shown, that’s exactly what the Petersen museum has been doing since the restoration. It has won the Lucius Beebe Trophy for the best Rolls-Royce at Pebble Beach and it won the People’s Choice Award at the former Meadow Brook concours, now the Concours of America at St. John’s.

Round Door Rolls, 1925 Rolls-Royce Phantom I Jonckheere Aerodynamic Coupe rear 3/4, Petersen Automotive Museum, Image: © 2016 Ronnie Schreiber/The Truth About Cars

It was appropriate that the round door Phantom was shown at Meadow Brook, which was the mansion that John Dodge built for his wife Matilda, after the success of the Dodge Brothers car company. That’s because there’s a bit of a family connection.

Remember all of those references to “Mrs. Hugh Dillman of Detroit”? When I first saw the name in connection to the Rolls-Royce, it sounded familiar to me. After all, anyone in Detroit who ordered a custom Rolls-Royce in 1925 was likely some kind of automotive royalty. However, searching on the internet just got me pages of redundant results, almost all of them repeating the same phrase verbatim: “A Mrs. Hugh Dillman of Detroit.” Finally, thumbing through Charles Hyde’s “The Dodge Brothers: The Men, the Motor Cars and the Legacy,” I was reminded who Mrs. Hugh Dillman was. Better known as the former Anna Thompson Dodge, Mrs. Dillman was the widow of Horace E. Dodge, who started the Dodge Brothers car company with his sibling John in 1914, after more than a decade of being Ford Motor Company’s primary supplier. Besides being Henry Ford’s supplier, they also held an equity stake in his company. Early on, Henry gave the Dodges a 10-percent interest in Ford Motor Company in lieu of payment for the “machines” they built for him.

Round Door Rolls Royce, New York Auto Show, 1950s, Image: StrangeOldePictures.com (http://strangeoldepictures.com/content/item/185047.html)

Both John and Horace Dodge died young, within months of each other in 1920, making their widows two of the wealthiest women in the world. Anna and Matilda, John’s widow, were left four fortunes. The Dodge brothers made $1.7 million in profits from supplying Ford. They earned another $5.4 million in dividends on their Ford stock.

1925 Rolls-Royce Phantom I, 1934 Jonckheere Round Door Aero Coupe on street, Image: Car-revs-daily.com (http://www.car-revs-daily.com/2013/12/27/1925-rolls-royce-phantom-door-aero-coupe/peterson-auto-museum-1925-rolls-royce-phantom-i-1934-jonkheere-round-door-aero-coupe-3/)

In 1916, Henry Ford was hoarding cash to build the Rouge complex and also to deprive the Dodges, by then his competitors, of capital. The Dodges sued, forcing a multi-million dollar dividend payout. When Henry finally bought out his stockholders in 1919, the Dodges got $25 million for their 10-percent share of FoMoCo. Put those numbers in an inflation calculator and they get pretty big, but those fortunes paled in comparison to the $146 million Anna and Matilda were paid for their stock in Dodge Brothers by the Dillon, Reed & Co. banking firm in 1925, the year Anna ordered her Rolls-Royce. That’s the equivalent of almost $2 billion in 2016 dollars. Since there were far fewer people with that level of wealth, those hypothetical billions actually underestimate just how wealthy the Dodge widows were.

Jonckheere Rolls-Royce Phantom l Aerodynamic Coupe, Image: Just A Car Guy/Blogspot (http://justacarguy.blogspot.ca/2011/01/before-and-after-photos-of-incredibly.html)

Even before she sold her interest in Dodge Brothers, Anna Dodge could easily afford a Rolls-Royce. She spent her summers at Rose Terrace in Grosse Pointe, the large mansion Horace had built for her on Lake St. Clair. Her winters were spent in Palm Beach, Florida. That’s where she met Hugh Dillman, the former actor (and likely gigolo) Anna married in 1926. Dillman worked as a realtor and director of the Palm Beach Society of Arts. Anna was 49 years old and Dillman was 43 when they married. They divorced in 1947.

One thing perplexes me about the story. The car is a 1925 model, yet Anna didn’t become Mrs. Hugh Dillman of Detroit (and Palm Beach) until the following year. If she ordered the car when it was new, she wouldn’t have been known then as Mrs. Dillman. Either she ordered the car some time after the chassis was built or over time the Dodge part of the story has become obscured.

Round Door Rolls Royce in New Jersey Junkyard, 1950s, Image: Nick Morozov/Flickr

The 1925 Phantom with the odd body is notable, but it’s really just a footnote in automotive history. Mrs. Dillman’s connection to Dodge Brothers, on the other hand, is undoubtedly the most significant thing about her.

Thousands of people have visited the Petersen museum every year and it’s been even more popular since it reopened after its recent redesign and renovation. Since it’s in the museum’s foyer, just about everyone who visits the facility will see the round door Rolls-Royce. If they decide to research the car, more than a few will read about Mrs. Hugh Dillman. However, they won’t know that the most interesting thing about her, at least from an automotive standpoint, isn’t the fact that she didn’t take delivery of the round-door Rolls.

Thanks to the staff at the Petersen for giving us access.

[Images: © 2016 Ronnie Schreiber/The Truth About Cars, Stility, Autotitre, StrangeOldePictures.comCar-revs-daily.comJust A Car Guy/Blogspot, Nick Morozov/Flickr]

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42 Comments on “Driving Mrs. Dillman: The Tale of the Round Door Rolls-Royce...”


  • avatar
    CoreyDL

    Art Deco brilliance. It’s stunning.

    • 0 avatar
      jhefner

      Indeed! A great example of 1930s “Streamline Moderne”; though I imagine if you tested it in the wind tunnel; it would have a pretty low Cd. But the stylist and owner were after the styling trend, and not an actual reduction in wind drag.

      It must have been a brute to drive. Thank you very much for the deep dive into the car’s history, as well as the picture collection. What an interesting story behind an interesting car.

  • avatar
    Zackman

    Explain to me what color, exactly, “dark black” is? Black is black, and black can’t get any blacker. Shinier, perhaps, but darker? Nope.

    Interesting car, I can see what the 1996 Taurus “symphony of ovals” used for inspiration!

    Gun-slit windows are nothing new, apparently.

    • 0 avatar

      I worked in a DuPont paint lab for over 20 years. There are many shades of black. The quality of just how dark a black is is called “jetness”. “Jet black” has nothing to do with turbine engines, it means a very dark black. There are shades of grey, why not shades of black?

    • 0 avatar
      JimZ

      I’ve been in Appearance Approval reviews looking to get sign-off of “black” interior trim parts. I grew to hate hearing things like “too blue to the master” “too yellow to the master.”

      • 0 avatar

        There was once a large batch of clearcoat that was too yellow for spec. While the chemists were trying to decide what to do, fix it or scrap it, one of the lab techs noticed that when he urinated into his toilet at home that had one of those automatic toilet cleaner things that turned the water slightly blue, the yellow of the urine would offset the blue tint, resulting in clear. I guess you have to get things right to avoid green, but in any case he told his chemist and they fixed the batch by tinting it back to clear.

    • 0 avatar
      SCE to AUX

      @Zackman: Hmm. Have to differ with you there on the color thing.

      In my world of plastics design, there really are shades of black, depending on the pigmentation. You can have a variety of ‘black’ colors that differ based upon the amount of red, green, etc put into them. It’s amazing how different they look when placed next to one another, but alone, they just appear to be ‘black’. The same thing is true with all the primary colors.

      Our eyes tell us one thing, but it takes specialized instrumentation to properly characterize the differences in quantifiable terms.

      Actually, you can see this by studying the color palettes at the paint store. You’ll reach a sample that is ‘black’, then be able to scan across several others that become even darker. It’s pretty amazing how distinguishing our eyes can be.

    • 0 avatar
      Xeranar

      I’m with Ronnie on this, there are definitely shades of black, you can tell them apart not just by the sheer but by what underlying colors maybe in the color. Blues, reds, even greens can sneak into a shade of black (since we see in RGB or if you’re some kind of freak you see yellow too).

      I’m taking a guess since it was bodied by Belgiums and this is clearly a strong francophile design from that period it could easily have been anywhere from a dark green to burgundy to black. I’m leaning it was probably actually burgundy but the black really shows off in our more stark contrast world.

    • 0 avatar

      Check out the “black” areas around the windows on a new Mazda. They could/should be a whole lot blacker.

    • 0 avatar
      FAHRVERGNUGEN

      Once had some black pudding so black, even the white bits were black…

  • avatar
    tonyola

    The rear views look like a 1930s Tatra. Truly an oddball car.

  • avatar
    VoGo

    Beautiful car. Reminds me a bit of the Bugatti 57SC Atlantic Coupé. Thanks for sharing, Ronnie!

  • avatar
    ExPatBrit

    Interesting story and pics, glad to see the car made it out of that Junkyard.

  • avatar
    chuckrs

    Ronnie

    Thanks for winkling out the connection to Mrs Hugh Dillman and who she was. It adds to the car’s story.

  • avatar
    SCE to AUX

    What an excellent story, and thanks for going deeper into it than most would.

    And thanks for collecting all those photos in one place.

    This car makes a statement unlike any other. Is it still in running order?

  • avatar
    Joss

    Wonderful article – truly a design orphan. Despite the beauty there must of been much to fall out of love with. So many owners on a declined order. Would have been interesting to hear from the Bilofsky chauffeur.

  • avatar
    chris724

    This kind of writing is why I come here. Thanks Ronnie!

  • avatar
    Commando

    Ron, you are the only remnant left of what used to make TTAC such great readng.

  • avatar
    Xeranar

    Always fascinating to see these little oddities survive. This car screams francohpile design though, the boattail rear, the circular doors, the fact it was designed in Belgium…

    Still, it looks gorgeous and I can imagine the car was a pain to drive but really all of those era cars were a pain to drive. Weight was the main issue with a vehicle of that size before the benefit of mostly post-war designs. Still, I bet she was fun to show off to the neighborhood to prove your fashion sense.

  • avatar
    gmcd

    Great article, fascinating history and a stunning car. As other commentators have noted it was probably a nightmare to drive unless in a straight line – thankfully traffic was a bit lighter then!

  • avatar
    shaker

    Wow – and we b*tch about the A-pillars on today’s cars…

    The has more of the design elements of a submarine than a motorcar.

    Nice bit of history about “Mrs. Dillman” as well – I wonder if she’s one of the farm girls that the Dodge Brothers picked up in their Challenger?

  • avatar
    CincyDavid

    That’s a massive SOB. The best line on the whole car may be the curve of the bottom of the radiator grille…reminds me of the shape of Alfa Romeo grilles.

    I just can’t help but think of Cruella Deville’s car in the animated 101 Dalmatians.

  • avatar
    -Nate

    I think it’s beautiful and don’t see how black could show the lines better . it certainly doesn’t in any pictures here .

    There’s another of these round door Rolls’ in a restoration shop in Monrovia , Ca. , I was allowed to look inside it and the rear seating area , isn’t .

    A nice car IMO .

    -Nate

  • avatar
    John

    The answer to the question “What has worse visibility than a 2016 Camaro?”

  • avatar

    god da** <3 Driving this car is a lifetime goal for mee


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